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Russia: An Agenda for Putin's first 100 Days

Published in: Public Service Europe

Four years ago - when Dmitry Medvedev was taking over as the president of Russia - an international correspondent asked me for one word to describe Vladimir Putin's 2000-2008 presidency. I came up with three, "so-called stability". Despite all the patriotic rhetoric lately, not many in Russia expect that Putin's new term will bring another six years of "stability". No one wants turbulence, of course, but unresolved political, social and human rights issues are growing increasingly visible and pressing. Adopting a 100-day agenda focused on these unresolved issues would be a good start.

The Russian election cycle never fails to surprise. News about the president and prime minister's plans to swap seats in 2012 led to a major political awakening in the country. The biggest crowds since the 1990s showed up on the streets of Moscow and other large Russian cities. Now the "swapping scenario" is close to its end. Yet, in a sign that Russia's restive mood continues, another opposition protest in Moscow - with estimates of up to 60,000 participants - took place on May 6. The protest was marred by violence from some of the protesters and an excessive and indiscriminate use of police force in response. According to the Interfax new service, 436 people were detained; while other independent sources provided names of almost 650 detainees. Detentions of peaceful protesters on the Moscow boulevards continued on May 7 and May 8.

The ability to distinguish between protesters who resorted to violence and those who remained peaceful, as well as to effectively investigate abuses by police during the protests, is going to be an important indication of the new Russian leadership's position on freedom of assembly. Police behaviour this week was also a reminder of the authorities' unjustified efforts in recent months, often behind the scenes, to stop the protest movement in its tracks. These abuses also need to be investigated. Practices included harassment of the election monitor 'Golos' and intimidation of activists in St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara and Moscow.

Websites of critically minded news outlets repeatedly suffered from online attacks that made them temporarily unavailable. But the protest potential in Russia has not worn out. It is, in fact, transforming and spreading. Perhaps, the best proof is the events in the southern city of Astrakhan, which was previously off the radar of political activism. On April 14, it had the biggest political protest this year after Moscow. This is a notable sign that discontent – in varied locations and formats - will not cease without genuine political, judicial and law enforcement reform. Back in December, Medvedev claimed that political change was under way. What has changed since then?

First, following a 2011 judgment by the European Court of Human Rights, the Supreme Court of Russia quashed its decision to deregister the pro-democracy Republican Party of Russia. In line with the same judgment, significant amendments to the electoral law were introduced in the Duma. And on May 2, Medvedev announced that he had signed a law restoring the direct election of governors - though with filters, including a presidential one, to reject undesirable candidates. The first round of elections may be in the autumn.

These are, indeed, positive moves. But they will hardly feel sufficient to the thousands of protesters and others who over recent months called for pluralism and consistency in addressing fundamental human rights issues. So what could Putin do in his first 100 days? New mantras - be they "stability" or "modernisation" - are not required, unless they focus on effective investigation and justice, backed by the political will to ensure the independence of the judiciary and accountability for violations by police and law enforcement agencies. Russia has a shamefully long list of cases that await justice and thorough investigation.

There are more than 210 judgments from the ECHR in favour of people from Chechnya, whose rights were seriously violated during the war and counter-insurgency operations there. Though they received monetary compensations from the state, effective investigation and accountability remain a major problem. The same is true for cases concerning many other places in Russia. Putin could send a signal by ordering and delivering serious investigations and bringing those responsible to justice in the cases of Sergei Magnitsky - the lawyer who died in police custody in 2009, for instance, or two imprisoned leading businessmen Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. Then there is the separate list of brutally murdered journalists, such as Anna Politkovskaya, and activists like Natalia Estemirova. Russians are waiting to see when grand-sounding commitments to the rule of law actually bear tangible results.

These would be first steps to be followed by endorsement of the European court's constructive role and the fostering of a friendly environment for civil society. Ideally, a comprehensive human rights agenda for Russia should be adopted this summer and then carried through. Unlike in 2000, or even 2008, there are more engaged actors within the country who will be watching Putin and the new cabinet. In fact, the first 100 days in office will be long enough to know whether the genuine element of change is there and whether the new leadership will make human rights a priority.

Anna Sevortian is Russia office director at the Human Rights Watch campaign group and is based in Moscow

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