A panel discussion with:
Stanislav Kucher, journalist, talk show host and columnist, Snob.ru
Natella Boltyanskaya, Echo of Moscow and Novaya Gazeta; Starovoitova Fellow, Kennan Institute
Anton Ryzhov, Committee Against Torture; Starovoitova Fellow, Kennan Institute
Moderator: Nikolai Zlobin, President and Founder, Center on Global Interests
As Russia prepares for parliamentary elections this fall, the country’s domestic situation remains in flux. An economic crisis at home and tensions with the West abroad have raised the stakes for an election which the Kremlin, for the first time, wants to appear legitimate.
On March 29, the Center on Global Interests and the Kennan Institute held a discussion with three prominent Russian journalists and political activists, who shared an inside perspective on the country’s political situation, the state of the media, and the future of the opposition after the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
Stanislav Kucher noted that the first wave of Russian reformers in the 1990s failed to establish a political system based on pluralism, rule of law, and the protection of individual rights. The current elites, who came to power through the persecution and confiscation of the property of their predecessors, fear a similar fate if they embark on political reforms. At the same time, the elites understand that the system of “vertical power” created under Russian President Vladimir Putin is not sustainable in the long run. According to Kucher, the elite’s inertia to reform will lead to political and economic stagnation under Putin, with increasing power struggles among the elites as the economy continues to decline. In the worst-case scenario, this could lead to a violent replacement of the current elites, particularly if a third force—such as Russian fighters returned from Donetsk—comes to wield significant power in the country.
Natella Boltyanskaya said that despite the domination of state-run channels on Russian TV, the public has access to alternative and foreign viewpoints on the Internet and social media; the problem is that they don’t actively seek them out. A further hindrance is that access to independent news sites is blocked within Russia with increasing impunity. According to Boltyanskaya, the radio is one branch of the Russian media that has been relatively untouched by the state. She gave several reasons for this: first, the Kremlin itself relies on information that is broadcast on independent radio stations. Second, the Kremlin allows state-critical outlets like Echo of Moscow to continue to function because it needs to maintain a semblance of freedom of speech in the country. Finally, the state doesn’t consider radio to be as effective a tool as television for disseminating government propaganda. Boltyanskaya noted in conclusion that even when alternative information is available, few Russians act on it and express their opposition to state policies by attending protests or otherwise speaking out. As a result of this environment, many of Russia’s most outspoken citizens have left the country, further exacerbating the situation.
Anton Ryzhov outlined the most pressing human rights issues in Russia today. These include the unfair trial and conviction of detained Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko; the recent ruling by the Russian Constitutional Court that it could reverse the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights if the latter violate the Russian constitution (a decision meant to nullify the ECHR’s ruling in the Yukos case, according to Ryzhov); and the illegal expulsion of foreigners from the country. Perhaps the main step backwards, according to Ryzhov, is the government’s use of the “foreign agent” label that prevents domestic human rights organizations that receive money from abroad from functioning. Finally, the problem of police brutality and torture is a particular problem in Russia, because the federal authorities do not effectively investigate these cases. This is especially pronounced in the Chechen Republic, where federal investigators are simply too afraid to question local police officers. As a result, no Chechen police officers have been charged with a crime despite multiple ongoing cases of police brutality.
During the Q&A session the panelists discussed whether Russia can break its historic tradition of being a vertically controlled state, what the United States can do to help Russia reform, and how to overcome political apathy among the Russian population.
About the Speakers:
Natella Boltyanskaya is a journalist, a columnist featured in several magazines and newspapers from 1991 to the present, and has hosted numerous radio and television programs in Russia. She is the author, producer and anchorwoman of a 36-episode documentary series about the history of Soviet dissidents entitled “Parallels, People, Events.” Mrs. Boltyanskaya is a civil activist, poet, and songwriter who is passionate about civil rights. In 2014, she was awarded the Laureate prize by the Moscow Helsinki Group for contributions in the Human Rights field.
Stanislav Kucher is a Russian liberal journalist, television and radio host, and filmmaker. He is currently a columnist for the online project Snob.ru, as well as Editor-in-Chief of multimedia projects at Vokrug Sveta (“Around the World”), Russia’s oldest and largest circulation monthly magazine, and the host of the monthly talk show Krugly Stol (“Round Table”). He previously served as the chief political commentator on KommersantFM radio and as editor-in-chief of The National Geographic Traveler’s Russian edition. In 2002, he produced and filmed the documentary Russkie Grabli (“Russian Rake”), which received a number of professional awards and was screened at the Human Rights Festival in Kiev, yet was never shown on Russian TV. From 2002-2004 he was anchor and host of the late-night political commentary show “The 25th Hour,” which was suspended after a series of stories criticizing the actions of Russian special forces in Beslan. From 2012-2014 Mr. Kucher served as political adviser to Russian presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov and was one of the founders of the Civic Platform party, where he served as a committee member. He is currently a member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, a body of public figures from the NGO, media and arts communities that advises the President on the protection of human rights and civil society in Russia.
Anton Ryzhov is a Russian human rights defender. Since 2007 he has been a lawyer for the prominent Russian NGO Committee Against Torture, which monitors instances of police brutalityand provides legal assistance and medical rehabilitation to victims of torture. An expert in international law, Anton represents torture and abduction victims before the European Court of Human Rights. Since 2010 Mr. Ryzhov has spent more than 1.5 years in total performing field work in the most troubled region of Russia – the Chechen Republic. Since 2013 he has been visiting correction facilities and police stations as a member of the Public Oversight Commission, a special body created to monitor detainees’ human rights. In 2007-2013 Mr. Ryzhov was a lecturer at the Law Faculty of Nizhniy Novgorod State University. He has published more than two dozen works on various legal topics.
Nikolai Zlobin is a political analyst, historian, and president of the Center on Global Interests. Prior to founding CGI in 2012, Dr. Zlobin served as director of Russian and Asian programs at the World Security Institute in Washington, D.C. and was the founder and director of the international news agency Washington ProFile as well as director of Russian and Asian Programs at the Center for Defense Information. In the early 1990s, he was a political adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev and his successor, Boris Yeltsin. Since moving to the United States in 1993, he has held teaching positions at Georgetown, Stanford, and Harvard universities, and was a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. In 1993, he founded and served as the editor of Demokratizatsiya, the first academic journal on post-Soviet politics and democratization that is still published today. Since 2004, Nikolai has also been a permanent member of the Valdai International Discussion Club. Dr. Zlobin’s writings have appeared in The New York Times, Vedomosti, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, and Izvestia. He holds a BA and MA in History and a PhD in Public Administration from Moscow State University.