The Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies hosted renowned human rights activist Lev Ponomarev for an informal discussion with students, faculty, staff and friends of the University.
Ponomarev’s talk, titled “The Presidential Elections and the General Situation of Human Rights and Rule of Law in Russia,” touched on a variety of subjects, including torture in Russian penitentiary colonies, journalists’ rights, and social and civic liberties.
Ponomarev heads the For Human Rights movement, which is the largest human rights organization of its kind in Russia.
“Our organization’s primary task is to help everyone who comes to us,” Ponomarev said through an interpreter. “In Russia, human rights are violated in practically every field.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Ponomarev played an active part building Russia’s budding democracy – he was a representative in the USSR parliament and later a member of the Russian State Duma. Along with other democratically minded politicians, Ponomarev helped create a legal basis for a democratic Russia: laws prescribing the separation of the branches of government, guaranteeing an independent judiciary, introducing a market economy, and improving the penitentiary system. However, since the arrival of Vladimir Putin as president, the opportunity for democratic progress has been stifled, Ponomarev said.
Although Ponomarev, who is a theoretical physicist by training, cannot predict the future of human rights in Russia after Putin steps down as president in March, he and other democracy supporters have been planning on organizing a new type of democratic movement. So far, an initiative group has been created. Comprising leaders from a variety of liberal democratic movements within Russia, the group seeks to unite activists and present a united opposition to the danger of a return to totalitarianism.
During his talk, Ponomarev focused on two issues with which his organization works most closely: abuses in the penitentiary system and in the conduct of elections. The parliamentary elections conducted in December 2007 were the least free elections since the fall of the Soviet Union, he said. People were coerced into voting for the Kremlin party – United Russia.
Ponomarev also stressed that in Russia, human rights activists cannot help but be involved in politics because “if we help one, two, three people with the same problem, we tend to think that it is not the problem of the individual but one of the system. And we then must criticize the system,” he said.
That’s when the actions of human rights advocates become suspicious to the government, Ponomarev said. According to him, Putin’s government separates human rights activists into two groups: the good and the bad. The good are those who help ordinary people; the bad are those who criticize the state. By his own admission, Ponomarev straddles this definitional chasm.
“Despite all the abuses, however, one cannot forget that a space for freedom still exists in Russia,” Ponomarev said. “Our situation cannot be compared with the Soviet time when any action against the government would be punished by imprisonment and worse.”