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Rights Group Says Situation in Russia ‘Worsening’ - 2004-06-10


The non-governmental group, the National Endowment for Democracy, has bestowed its 2004 Democracy Award on four Russians, highlighting what many experts say is a worsening situation in Russia for human rights and democracy.

Russian human rights activist Yelena Bonner and her husband, Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov, campaigned for democracy in the Soviet Union under the communists. She won the Endowment's Democracy Award in 1995.

"Russia today is not democratic. It does not intend, in the presence of its leadership, to become democratic," she said.

Ms. Bonner, who has continued to campaign for human rights in Russia, urged western countries to be wary of Russia's development and not accept flowery words, in the absence of concrete deeds that bring the country closer to democracy.

"Illusions cannot change reality, and yet, that is exactly what is happening, the presence of illusions in the relationship between the West or the relationship of the West towards Russia," she said.

American officials indicated that they have not been lulled into complacency. In a speech during the awards presentation, Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner acknowledged that Russia has made progress, following the collapse of communism.

"And the United States remains committed to working with Russia to ensure that progress continues,? she added. ?But recently, this pace seems to be slowing, and regrettably, in some areas, Russia's human rights record has worsened. Secretary [Colin] Powell and senior U.S. officials continue to push with their Russian counterparts over human rights issues in Chechnya, increased restrictions on free media, the failure of December's parliamentary elections to meet international standards, the rule of law issues and growing government pressure on civil society organizations, including human rights NGOs."

Senator John McCain also indicated that Congress sees what he described as a "rollback of democracy" in Russia. The senator accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to turn back the clock to the days of the old Soviet Union.

"I think there's a clear ambition on the part of Mr. Putin to restore the near abroad of the old Soviet empire," he added. "And we should watch events in Belarus and Ukraine very carefully, in the upcoming weeks and months that lie ahead of us."

National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman said, more than a decade after the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, Russia is now at a crossroads.

"It can move forward toward democracy, economic prosperity and the rule of law or it can move backward, toward state domination of the society and the economy, restrictions on basic freedoms and deepening corruption and autocracy," he said.

Mr. Gershman said the Endowment hopes to influence true democratic development in Russia by giving the awards to the leaders of four organizations that he says help make up the "backbone of the country's democracy movement."

"Ludmilla Alekseeva, the founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, that survived persecution under communism and has re-emerged today under her leadership as Russia's leading human rights organization. Arseny Roginsky, the chairman of the International Memorial Society, that protects refugees and victims of political persecution in Chechnya and other zones of armed conflict in Russia, and also commemorates the millions who perished under Stalinism. Aleksei Simonov, the president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, the principal Russian organization that defends freedom of the press, trains journalists to work in war zones and protects their rights. And finally, Mara Polyakova, the director of the Independent Council for Legal Expertise, that mobilizes the best legal minds in the country to review and analyze legislation affecting basic rights, and provides legal assistance in defense of these rights," he announced.

The recipients all stressed what they saw as a common cause between themselves and Americans who support democracy overseas.

Aleksei Simonov said he simply appreciates the international recognition.

"Having found such an important interest in ourselves, it is another version of being praised," he stated. "It's another version of being praised. It's very important."

Ludmilla Alekseeva said she is happy to see this year's Democracy Awards go to four people who are actively trying to develop a civil society in Russia.

"It proves that we are visible, that we do count," she added. "And all four of them represent a different direction in which civic society is developing in Russia."

She added that, despite difficulties, she has already had and expects to face in the future, she is absolutely convinced that civil society in Russia is here to stay.