Svetlana Gannushkina: "The President's Mistake"

Source: (author), 02/09/10
Svetlana Gannushkina, Memorial & Civic Assistance:
“Ella Pamfilova is no longer chair of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. This is not right. A mistake has been made that could have a greater influence on future developments than it seems at first sight.
When I heard about this I was a long way from Moscow. Eight years ago, almost to the day, I was in Prague when I heard on the television news that Ella Pamfilova had been appointed chair of the Presidential Commission for Human Rights. I heard this and I thought: “It’s a good choice. Perhaps I would agree to join this Commission.”
I did not personally know Ella Pamfilova then, but I did know something about her. I knew how, in the first post-Soviet years, she had sat for hours waiting outside the office of the prime minister to secure the allocation of budgetary funds for pensions, for those same “social programs” that the young democrats had been scornfully ready to “give over to the communists”. It was thanks to Minister of Social Welfare Pamfilova that my mother received a pension that was twice my salary as an assistant professor, a salary which was also paid in arrears.
I also heard from a psychiatrist friend how he had a meeting with Ella Pamfilova and sought to convince her that it was wrong to exclude all mentally ill people from the list of those pensioners entitled to receive assistance from social workers. According to my friend, Ella Pamfilova replied without apparently much interest that she would “think about it” and he left convinced that there would be no positive outcome to the meeting. But she did not think it over for long. Already the next day an instruction was issued by the Ministry in which the kinds of mental illness that were to be excluded were clearly identified, and all those who suffered from other mental illnesses were given the right to receive social assistance.
When eight years ago I returned to Moscow, I learned that, oddly enough, I had actually been invited, through Memorial, to join the Commission. We began work and immediately took on a number of serious issues: the law on Russian citizenship, juvenile justice, refugee camps, judicial reform and pensions for conscripted soldiers disabled while in the army.
Neither the Commission, nor later (from 2004) the Council, nor Ella Pamfilova herself, ever saw themselves as merely serving the President (or Presidents). Our task was to help the President serve the public. How they (the Presidents) used our help and our expertise is another question, but we did manage to achieve quite a lot over these last eight years.
I was not able to speak with Ella Aleksandrovna today, and I do not know why she decided to resign. The attacks of all kinds that have been made against her – by Olga Kostina, by the youth group Ours [Nashi] (and do we need to be told just whose they really are?), a group that is easily confused with those that were called Going Together – of course, it is all very unpleasant. But Ella Pamfilova would not have taken the decision to leave the Council because of them.
All dogs bark, when their owner allows it.
And here a question arises. Does the President of Russia need the Council? Does he need the advice of those who were invited to become Council members? Does he need the support of Ella Pamfilova? Why was he silent all the time when all these vicious dogs were snapping at Pamfilova’s heels?
But the President, you see, is not always indifferent to attacks on public officials. He went out of his way to say that one “boy”, a figure in our public life, was “not so bad”. (Yes, does it really matter whether he is a good boy or a bad boy, so long as he is “our” boy!) If there is anyone who does not remember, this “boy” was Ramzan Kadyrov, and it was said a year ago after the kidnapping in Grozny and subsequent killing of Natasha Estemirova. And it immediately became clear what decision the court would reach in the defamation suit brought by this “boy” against Oleg Orlov, who had said that Ramzan Kadyrov was to blame for the fact that on the territory entrusted to him people who are inconvenient to him are being killed. And now on the same grounds Oleg Orlov is being prosecuted for slander.
And when Ella Pamfilova in the most ridiculous way was accused of forgery, no one at the top batted an eyelid. And if you please, the court rules that the accusation of forgery is not a defamatory statement, but a value judgment.
At every meeting of the Council, Ella Pamfilova talked openly with President Medvedev about the fact that the judicial system is ineffective and lacks independence not because of the law, but for quite other reasons. And this, by the way, annoyed him. “And what am I to do? Get rid of these (judges) and recruit new ones?” an irritated President asked at our last meeting on 19 May. But that won’t help the matter” And even putting bribe givers in prison won’t prevent corruption. Nor is there any point in dismissing top police generals.
And here, the words once said by an old plumber are apposite: You have to change the whole system.
And I repeat that a big mistake has been made. It was wrong of you, Dmitry Anatolievich, to rush into accepting Ella Pamfilova’s resignation. Perhaps she did have very strong reasons for resigning. But you definitely had even more compelling reasons not to accept her resignation. Her support, her advice, and the truth she spoke would yet have come in very useful for you. Not for nothing did Leonid Radzikhovsky, who is not the kindest person in the world, once say that Ella Pamfilova is an honest, courageous and sane person, something that, you’ll agree, is also not of the least importance.
But we won’t be saying goodbye to Ella Pamfilova. For a long time to come we shall still be working together with her in this same civil society, supporting the development of which, jointly with you in the framework of the Council, turned out worse than we would have liked.

* * *

“There has been a shift in the ‘balance’ in favour of the ‘hawks’”

The head of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, Ella Pamfilova, has submitted her resignation. The President accepted her resignation. Now the question is being decided whom to appoint as her replacement.

For the time being Ella Pamfilova is not ready to give specific reasons for her departure. Too much depends on the appointment of a new chair of the Council. However, she agreed to comment on the situation:

- It’s not possible to say everything about the reasons for leaving in a couple of sentences, and I’m not ready now to bare my soul ...It’s just that for a long time now I’ve felt myself to be not a mediator between the authorities and the human rights defenders who oppose them, but as if I was between a hammer and an anvil. This strain and pressure, when it became difficult to work the way I think necessary, proved the last straw ...

Of course, to some extent the events related to the right of citizens to demonstrate played a role here. The Council always took a tough stance on this issue. It is quite unacceptable when constitutionally guaranteed rights are constantly violated. This is a purely political issue, the problem is not with the police, they are just the implementers. The problem lies with those people who sanction these actions.

And the campaign against Vladimir Lukin had no logic. The Ombudsman had simply issued a public demand that the actions of the police be investigated. And in return he was attacked from all sides. Only those who were too lazy to do so failed to join in. We even issued an appeal in support of the Commissioner.

As for Nashi and others like them, the issue isn’t really about who or what they are, the issue is the muddy stream in which this small fish swims, a stream that is becoming more powerful and more murky - that's what bothers me. The muddy stream - as a tendency, washes away everything in its path, getting rid of the diversity of species, species that are for the moment still alive, but only just ... It is only at first glance that it seems obvious who is organizing this, but in reality everything is much more confusing and complicated ...

I hope that my departure is not in vain. I hope that the shift in the “balance” in favour of the “hawks” which has occurred will make the authorities expand, strengthen and develop the democratic component. Really democratic, without imitation. Without this there can be no question of achieving any kind of modernization.

What shall I do now I have left? I have not decided yet. I need to rest and “return to myself”. It’s funny, but I haven’t prepared for myself any specific job for the future. Though somehow I feel I won’t be without serious work to do.

Coming back to the Council, I might add that the President did not deprive us of his attention and there was a dialogue between us. He personally read all the papers and statements we prepared and honestly said what he agreed with and where he disagreed. For example, we had differing views over the law on the FSB. But the NGO community owes him a great debt of thanks for the large number of amendments to the law on NGOs which he supported. The Council’s resources are not exhausted, and I hope the Council will find a second wind.

From the editor: Novaya gazeta has suggested that Ella Pamfilova become a regular contributor to the paper with her own column. We shall report on the outcome.

Text prepared by Irina Gordienko


Rights in Russia,
10 Sept 2010, 07:23