Russia, the improbable human rights crusader

Russia alleges human rights violations in Ukraine, but forgets about its own horrid track record.

Russia's foreign ministry has published a report purporting to detail human rights violations in Ukraine since November 2013 [EPA]

In its propaganda against the authorities in Kiev, the Kremlin has decided to employ a curious narrative on “human rights”. The Russian foreign ministry recently released a “White Book” detailing “human rights violations” in Ukraine from November 2013 to March 2014.

Why is Russia so worried about human rights specifically in Ukraine?  Doesn’t it have its own history of suppression of human rights activism to deal with and murders of human rights activists (Natalia Estemirova, Nikolai Girenko, Anna Politkovskaya, to name a few) to investigate?

I guess in the media war against Ukraine anything is possible, even the absurd. The human rights abuser has decided to preach to the abused about human rights it tramples on regularly.

The ‘White Book’

The foreign ministry’s report titled “On violations of human rights and the rule of law in Ukraine”  was published in both Russian and English. Virtually no sources are provided for versions of events which differ greatly from those reported in the international media, uploaded video footage, etc.  The only mention of the gunning down by police snipers of unarmed protesters on February 20 (p. 19) effectively suggests that the snipers were hired by the opposition. No such claims were made until after Viktor Yanukovych, the head of police, Vitaly Zakharchenko and others had fled to Russia.

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The report simply omits a large number of the worst violations under the Yanukovych regime including the brutal dispersing of peaceful protesters on November 30, 2013; the use of titushki or government-hired thugs, working in coordination with the police; and the repressive laws pushed through parliament on Janunary 16. Nor does it mention the disappearance and murder of Crimean Tatar human rights activist Reshat Ametov, whose body (showing signs of torture) was found in mid-March in the village of Zemlyanichnoye.

The “White Book” conveniently does not mention the potential threat on the rights of the indigenous Crimean Tatar population of Crimea in general.  As the seventieth anniversary of their mass deportation by the Soviet government approaches, Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jemiliev was banned from returning to his homeland. Some Crimean Tatars involved in peaceful protests over this decision have been fined, while others are facing criminal charges. The Mejlis or representative body of the Crimean Tatar people has been officially threatened with dissolution, if it continues its supposedly “extremist activities”.

Part of Vladimir Putin’s justification for Russian intervention in Crimea and its later annexation was the alleged threat to the safety and rights of ethnic Russians living there. He has attempted to use the same rhetoric now for Eastern Ukraine.

No evidence has been produced of threats to the rights and lives of Crimean residents or Russian-speakers in eastern regions of Ukraine. Studies have not demonstrated systematic persecution and surveys have consistently found that the majority of the population is in favour of Ukrainian unity within present borders. 

Even those incidents reported in the “White Book” under the Chapter “Discrimination along ethnic and linguistic lines, xenophobia and racial extremism. Incitement of racial hatred” that really did take place would be a ridiculous justification for military intervention (damaging a Soviet monument or spreading leaflets at a metro stop hardly constitute crimes against humanity). Many of these incidents have been perpetrated (as described in the report) by ultranationalists, who politically enjoy very little support in Ukraine and therefore, one cannot talk about a systematic phenomenon.

Other incidents have been deliberately pulled out of context. Ukrainian border guards did not bar all Russian citizens from entering Ukraine. In mid-March, they were acting upon intelligence information about Russian agents trying to infiltrate into the country to incite anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Kharkiv. The guards were therefore stopping younger, well-built Russian men who could fit that profile.

While many of the examples given seem improbable, but would be difficult to disprove, some are simply comical. We are told that on March 17 “Dmitry N from Kharkiv witnessed a beating by nationalist radicals of a young woman on the street for speaking Russian on her mobile phone.” One simply wonders how Ukrainian-speaking nationalists made it to Kharkiv, a city of predominantly Russian-speaking population, and picked out a Russian-speaking woman to beat up, when everyone else around was speaking Russian.  

With pseudo-referendums now planned in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on May 11, it is worth noting that even Putin’s own Human Rights Council inadvertently debunked the claims about an overwhelming majority in the Crimea having voted to join Russia. The Council reported a turnout of 30-50 percent, of whom only 50-60 percent supported union. 

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In fact, Russia, with its encouragement of separatists, is directly threatening the political rights of Ukrainian citizens in the east to choose to vote. Recent events in Lukansk and Donetsk regions have clearly demonstrated that separatists intend to disrupt the upcoming presidential elections on May 25.

Human rights, Russian style

Russia’s stringent laws have already taken by surprise its newest citizens, the Crimeans. In the Crimean city of Kerch, an attempted pro-Russian demonstration in support of “brothers” in the south-east of Ukraine was approached by police, who informed the protesters that according to the law of the Russian Federation their event was illegal. The protesters defied the authorities, arguing that they were still wearing their old (Ukrainian) uniforms.

As Russia strengthens its grip on the peninsula, its unfortunate residents will soon enough face strict implementation of anti-protest and media laws. In fact, on May 9 a new law comes into effect which criminalises public calls to action that threatens the territorial integrity of the federation. This is on top of other recent legislation that punishes media outlets and individuals for expressing “extremist views” which has allowed the Kremlin to clamp down on independent media, sometimes for publications in relation to Ukraine.

President Putin seems to be following closely the events in Eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces are struggling against armed separatists. He went as far as warning Kiev of “consequences” and saying that “If the regime in Kiev has begun using the army against the population inside the country, then this is undoubtedly a very serious crime.”

Of course, he will know all about use of the national army against civilians and “serious” crimes. After all, he is famous for his hard-line approach in the Second Chechen War. And surely, he remembers all about the enforced disappearances, torture and executions committed by Russian forces in Chechnya and Ingushetia.

Putin also likes to talk about the “fascists” who have taken over the government in Kiev. And yet, he conveniently forgets to mention the support of his own government for fascist organisations within the federation and across Europe.

Despite all his efforts, Putin is already failing at home to push this contorted narrative on Ukraine onto the general public. The latest Levada Centre survey of Russian public opinion found a drop in support for confrontation with Ukraine or for parts of Ukraine joining Russia. Public enthusiasm has probably been dented by practical considerations, and it seems clear that Western sanctions could play an important role. In fact, some 77 percent of Russians “are worried” about events in neighbouring Ukraine and would probably not appreciate a further escalation.

Nobody has a monopoly on rights infringements, and there are clearly many people in eastern and southern Ukraine who genuinely feel that those now in power in Kiev do not represent them. Their grievances and demands need to be addressed, but this can best be achieved through fair presidential elections and ongoing reforms.  Russia is not a party to this process and should be consistent with its own rhetoric by not infringing on Ukrainian voters’ right to free elections.  

Halya Coynash a journalist and member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group.