Cablegate: "Culture" Is No Excuse for Abuses

DE RUEHMO #2413/01 2641239
R 211239Z SEP 09



E.O. 12958: N/A


1. (SBU) Meeting with us to discuss a GOR attempt to water
down UN Human Rights Council work by introducing a resolution
on "respect for traditional values" (reftel), a member of the
MFA's Department of Human Rights and Humanitarian Cooperation
acknowledged deep flaws in Russia's protection of rights and
democratic freedoms.He also recognized the limits of the
"cultural relativism" argument used by some to denigrate the
primacy of human rights protection. He asked for patience as
Russia attempts to reform, and predicted a more fair society
for his children. Our human rights contacts also pinned
their hopes on the younger generation, while asking us to
keep up the pressure on the GOR to deliver on its rhetorical
promises. End Summary.

Playing the "cultural relativism" card

2. (SBU) On September 11, we met with Andrey Lanchikov of the
MFA's Department of Human Rights and Humanitarian Cooperation
to discuss a GOR attempt to introduce a resolution on
"respect for traditional values" into the work of the UN
Human Rights Council (reftel). By promoting this initiative,
the GOR seeks to put forth the idea that human rights, rather
than being universal, are contingent on a nation's culture.

3. (SBU) The "cultural relativism" argument is not a new one.
The UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects
fundamental rights and freedoms, such as the right to life
and freedom of expression, but it also protects individual
cultures. Under the cultural relativism argument, a member
of a culture whose practices violate human rights may argue
that anyone attempting to prevent him from carrying out these
practices is violating his cultural rights.

A choice between human rights and Russian culture?
--------------------------------------------- -----

4. (SBU) In Russia, cultural relativism provides opponents of
meaningful human rights and civil society promotion with a
convenient excuse for inaction or obstructionism. They
portray the idea of universal human rights as Western, and
incongruous with Russian culture. During the course of its
existence for over a millennium, the Russian nation has had
little or no experience with civic freedoms. The post-Soviet
euphoria was short-lived, and the past eight years have seen
a slide back to what some consider Russia's "natural state,"
in which the majority of people support a strong, autocratic
hand steering the ship of state (the Russian word for "to
govern," "rukovodit'," literally means to steer something
with one's hand).

5. (SBU) The economic reality of the past two decades has led
many Russians to associate the poverty and chaos of the 1990s
with civic freedoms, and the wealth of the Putin years with
his moves to curtail those freedoms. According to the
popular nationalist narrative, eagerly fed by GOR statements,
U.S. support for reforms in the 1990s was part of a plan to
keep Russia down, which failed when oil wealth -- and Putin's
wise policies -- brought Russia "back from its knees."
Working in this environment to promote human rights puts the
U.S. in a delicate position; those who oppose expanding civil
society use any linkage with Western countries to promote
their narrative that the U.S. is working to destabilize
Russia via a "color revolution." We frequently must maintain
a balancing act, striving to help those who work to hold
their government accountable, without making them appear to
be puppets in our employ.

Don't believe it

6. (SBU) The view that Russians do not want more freedom is
superficial, and under closer examination is not borne out.
Andrey Rikhter told us September 9 that anyone who argues
that Russian culture is not conducive to human rights and
individual freedoms has "not been paying close attention to
this country," and may even have a patronizing or
condescending view of the Russian people. According to
Rikhter, the "people power" visible in the streets of Moscow
and St. Petersburg in 1991 was not an anomaly. Even now, in
polls Russians consistently support principles such as a free
press and a multiparty system. A June Levada poll indicated
that 57 percent of Russians would prefer to see the return of
direct gubernatorial elections. More directly, a July Levada
poll showed 57 percent of Russians answering "yes" to the
question, "Does Russia need democratic freedoms?", with 67
percent of Russians aged 25-40 agreeing.

Lanchikov: Problems are "no secret," but be patient

MOSCOW 00002413 002 OF 002

--------------------------------------------- ------

7. (SBU) Even members of the GOR have acknowledged to us the
limits of the "cultural relativism" argument as an obstacle
to promotion of human rights. Lanchikov noted that the
concept of "Russian culture" is complicated, as Russia
consists of a number of different cultures, not only among
its myriad of ethnic groups (at the "rossiskiy" level), but
also within traditional Russian Orthodox groups (at the
"russkiy" level). He alluded to the American joke that if
there are two lawyers in a room, that means there are three
opinions, and he applied this idea to Russians as well.
Boris Bogdanov noted that culture need not be thought of as a
"bounded entity," fixed and unchanging; on the contrary, its
borders are "porous and fluid," and it naturally changes over
time and receives outside influences. Lanchikov admitted
that different civilizations, no matter how diverse in the
trajectory of their development, have always included respect
for human rights in some form; human rights "are not
something alien" in any culture.

8. (SBU) Lanchikov showed surprising candor in his assessment
of the current state of human rights in Russia. He said that
Russia's problems stem not from its laws, but from their de
facto enforcement, the flaws of which he called "no secret."
He said that the GOR "needs to work on this better," and he
intimated that, as a private citizen, he himself finds it
frustrating living in a society without an established rule
of law applied fairly to everybody. At the same time, he
counseled patience, saying that the GOR is working on
creating new practices and standards, as well as attempting
to stamp out corruption, but that "we can't expect it all to
change in one hour." He added that the GOR is aware of its
international obligations in this area, and noted that
average citizens also have an obligation to educate
themselves better about their rights.

Our contacts agree

9. (SBU) Perhaps ironically, Lanchikov's call for patience is
echoed among our human rights contacts. Exhorting us "not to
give up," and not to abandon rights defenders who "need your
support now more than ever," Moscow Helsinki Group's Lyudmila
Alekseyeva nonetheless told us, "Don't get discouraged when
we don't meet our shared goals overnight." Grigoriy Shvedov
agreed, advising us to develop a long-term strategy that will
gradually raise consciousness and change social norms. As
Shvedov noted, for truly meaningful systemic changes to take
place, people will need to overcome their own passivity; help
from the outside is valuable, but only up to a point.

10. (SBU) Both Lanchikov and our human rights activists
therefore prefer to take the long view. Lanchikov, while
offering his veiled complaint about living under the current
system, said, "I think my children will have a better life
than I do." We have heard this statement almost verbatim on
numerous occasions from our contacts, many of whom are
getting old and thus pinning their hopes on the younger
generation. That the July Levada poll in favor of increased
freedoms (para 7) showed a notable upward bump when applied
to younger people appears to bolster this belief.


11. (SBU) We should reject simplistic statements such as
"Russia's culture does not allow for individual rights." At
the same time, it would be equally simplistic to view the
Russian populace as teeming with eagerness to topple the
status quo. The weakness of Russia's legal institutions and
the lack of a viable watchdog on government activity are
symptomatic of an absence of fair, equal rules applicable to
everyone. For this reason, Shvedov is correct when he
suggests that a change in social norms will be an integral
part of any meaningful reform. Some liberals cling to the
hope that recent GOR statements decrying the ossified and
corrupt system of oligarchs, clans, and abuses of personal
freedoms indicate a sincere desire to implement meaningful
change. However, in the long run the "porousness and
fluidity" of Russian culture may prove a more effective
vehicle for real change, at both the top and bottom levels of

© Scoop Media

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