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Kremlin Human Rights Watchdog’s New Master

In two days, Vladimir Putin will be inaugurated for this third term as the President of the Russian Federation. And with his reentry into the nation’s chief position, the issue of human rights and the development of civil society, a touted reform in the past four years under current President Medvedev, face an uncertain future. Earlier this week President Medvedev’s held his final meeting with the Kremlin’s Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. With their terms expiring on Monday, the departing council members did not hold back their disappointment of the Council’s accomplishments and criticism of the Kremlin’s unwillingness to make true reform.

The Council Chairman Mikhail Fedotov opened the meeting by raising his concerns to the exiting President that the council, though it has helped pass a number of laws, has still a long way to go on issues of police and anti-corruption reform. He described the current government apparatus as “sufficiently bulky, archaic, and clumsy.” After the meeting in an interview with the press, Fedotov warned that if under President Putin the members of the Council were to be replaced by “generals” and “those who attack human rights,” he would have no interest in being part of such a Council.

Other prominent members of the Council made their own departing shots when they announced that they would not be returning to their posts under the new administration. During the final meeting, Yelena Panfilova from Transparency International announced that she would not take part in a future Council. Stating that she was still committed to her work on “civil activity,” she was not “prepared to work as a member of the next Council” but instead saw herself fulfilling her duties from the outside.

Particularly biting was a statement by council member Dmitry Oneshkin from the Russian Academy of Science. “A significant number of those currently in the Council will likely not be in the next Council. I also do not plan on returning. It would be awkward for me to work with a President whom I do not consider legitimate.” Oneshkin’s comments refer to the Putin’s victory in the March Presidential elections and the oppositions’ claims of fraud.

The Human Rights “Insider” of the Kremlin

While Putin has yet to announce his intentions of the makeup or even the reconvening of a human rights council under his administration, the disgruntled exits of its current members casts uncertainty regarding the Kremlin’s future activity in the development of human rights and civil society. A rarity for most political and advisory organs of the Kremlin, the Medvedev’s Council on human rights at times was a voice of sharp criticism from within. On major headline issues that attracted both domestic and international attention, the Council was particularly vocal.

Last December, the council went against the Kremlin line regarding a second conviction of former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a case that is widely considered as political retribution by the Kremlin. The Council described the conviction against the ex-tycoon as “flawed” and citing “fundamental violations.”

In the mid-2011, the Council submitted a scathing report regarding the death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergey Magnitsky, attributing his death to systemic and pervasive corruption in the country’s law enforcement and judicial system. Despite the fact that the Council’s report conflicted with the details of the official investigation, President Medvedev took a rare move and agreed with the findings of his Council.

Nevertheless, the Council’s accomplishments in the past three years have not seemed to satisfy anyone. In addition to the unhappy council members, President Medvedev also had a few departing words for the Kremlin watchdog, lamenting that the members had focused too much on “high profile but isolated cases” and thus giving “the impression that the council is only interested in high-resonance, well-spun case.” Also at the meeting, he went on to say that the Council should not try to solve all problems at once and to focus particularly on environmental issues and human rights violations in the Caucasus.

Today’s Reforms

Still, despite the undetermined future of the Kremlin’s human rights council, the government has been pushing for a degree of reform in the country’s political process. During the last remaining months of Medvedev’s term, the President advocated for a number of laws to appease opponents who accuse the government of an unfair political system.

Currently in the state Duma is a half-effort reform to return direct election of governors, a process that Putin stripped away during his Presidency. While the Kremlin will no longer have the ability to essential appoint governors, the legislation would still impose a “presidential filter,” which allows the president to consult with candidates before they run. Also, a part of the bill is a “municipal filter,” which requires 5-10% approval of local deputies for candidates to run.

Another reform under President Medvedev has been the relaxing of rules for party registration, lowering signature requirements from 40,000 to 500. Currently, there are seven registered parties but according to the Ministry of Justice, they have now received over 170 applications for party registration. While it is too early to consider any reform by the government as a major step towards political liberalization, change is happening, albeit slow and under the controlled guidance of the Kremlin. And as unsatisfactory as the human rights council may be, the mere fact that it exists is a testimony of this slow change.

If the past twelve years of Putin and his power tandem teaches any lesson, whether the Council is made up of illustrious human rights activists or military generals with no interest in Council matters, the progress towards civil society and human rights may continue at the tempo set by the power center, a pace which may not differ all too much be it under Medvedev or Putin.