Russia's human rights record was under the spotlight leading up to this month's G8 summit in St. Petersburg, and there were calls for a boycott of the meeting. The meeting went ahead as planned, and there was no open criticism of President Vladimir Putin's policies. But that has not lessened concerns, and a U.S. government commission this week Thursday held a hearing to discuss how the United States can maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with Russia, while challenging its record on human rights.
The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe - also known as the Helsinki Commission - heard testimony from representatives of five human rights groups.
They said the Russian government has been showing less tolerance for religious and ethnic minorities, making it more difficult for human rights organizations to function, and taking more and more control of the media.
National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman told the panel these developments are a symptom of the dichotomy that exists in Russia today. "There are two Russias in conflict with one another: a Russia of bureaucrats that is trying to hold on to power by closing off all independent avenues of political participation and expression, and a Russia of citizens that is pressing to reverse the return of authoritarianism," he said.
Thomas Melia of the non-profit group, Freedom House, says efforts by the U.S. and other nations to press Russia to reform its policies are viewed by leaders in the Kremlin as meddling with the nation's internal affairs. Melia says the Russian government believes the West wants it to fail. "We talk about human rights and democracy, and they see that as a challenge to the state they are trying to build. So, they think we are being anti-Russian, when we think we are being pro-Russian," he said.
Kansas Senator and Helsinki Commission Chair Sam Brownback says that, in today's world, strong U.S.- Russian relations are a necessity. But he thinks that can be accomplished, without ignoring Russia's domestic policies. "The situation that you want to try to do is be fully engaged, and yet always maintaining tension on the human democracy-human rights agenda, until it's to a Western standard, recognizing that it's never ever perfect in any country," he said.
This week, the European Court of Human Rights found that Russian military forces violated the rights of a young Chechen, who disappeared six years ago after a Russian general ordered him shot.