Staunton, April 1 – Citizens of the Russian Federation who have failed to obtain justice in Russian courts have frequently appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. That has so embarrassed the Kremlin that its operatives appear to have taken what would be illicit steps to discourage the members of one repressed people from pursuing such cases.
These cases are those filed by residents of Kalmykia, a Buddhist people who live in a republic adjoining the North Caucasus. Last month, Interfax reported that more than 2700 Kalmyks, having exhausted their appeals in Russian courts had turned to Strasbourg but that 108 of them had been rejected by the European court.
Moscow officials spread this news through Moscow and republic media, and Kalmykia head Aleksey Orlov even suggested, as the central government clearly hopes, that “all the remaining complaints will be rejected.” But one activist suggests the Kremlin may have taken further illegitimate steps in orchestrating the rejections that have been received.
In his blog and then on the pages of two larger outlets, Valery Badmayev, the chief editor of the independent “Sovremennaya Kalmykia” and an expert advisor to the For Human Rights movement, described what he says appears to be blatant Moscow interference in the judicial process (vestnikcivitas.ru/pbls/2862 and echo.msk.ru/blog/valbad/1032846-echo/).
Last summer, he writes, residents of Kalmykia with the status of victims of political repressions (who total “about 30,000”) filed suit in Russian courts against the Russian finance ministry seeking compensation for their moral losses during their exile in Siberia in Stalin’s time.
They did so, Badmayev says, in response to an article he wrote that pointed out that two citizens of Georgia had been successful in getting the European court to order the government of their country to pay compensation for similar losses. But challenging the Russian government, he suggests, is a far more difficult task.
Having been involved in the preparation of almost 1300 Kalmyk appeals to the Strasbourg court, Badmayev says, he recently received copies of two refusals. The latter raise some serious questions. Not only are the signatures of the same individual different on the two documents, but he describes himself as having a position which does not exist at the court.
Badmayev says that he is “convinced” that these refusals from Strasbourg signed by an unknown person and the media campaign against making appeals to that court in the Russian government-controlled media are “inter-related events” and that “all this was approved in the Kremlin.
The Russian leadership has its reasons, the Kalmyk editor continues. Not only do such appeals undermine its “political reputation” but, because there are approximately two million victims of Soviet-era repressions still alive, such cases could ultimately force Moscow to pay “enormous” sums to them.
Badmayev says that he and his colleagues are preparing a letter to the chairman of the European Court of Human Rights and to the Council of Europe asking them to investigate “the doubtful refusals apparently signed by an individual of the name Ryngelevich,” since judges rather than bureaucrats are supposed to sign such decisions.
While a few repression victims may be taken in, the editor and rights activist continues, he has been pleased that some of those who have heard about these “rejections” are nonetheless pressing their appeals to Strasbourg. Two Kalmyk women in particular have told him that the rejections are the work of the Russian authorities and should be ignored.
Even if it should turn out that the rejection letters are genuine, Badmayev continues, there is another reason for the victims to press their cases at Strasbourg. In the European court, cases are considered individually and it is not the case that “all our complaints will fall into the hands” of those who may be prepared to do what Moscow wants.
And “there is the hope that part of the complaints all the same will be considered not by a single judge but by a whole group of judges.” If that happens, then the court’s finding in the case of the two Georgians will have precedential value for Kalmyks who continue their “real struggle for the return of national dignity to the Kalmyk people.”
The Kalmyks, like many other peoples, had high hopes when Moscow in 1991 dopted two laws on the rehabilitation of victims of political repressions and of repressed peoples, but those hopes were largely dashed because the center did not enforce them and then in 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin limited them in order to prevent the collapse of the country.
Part of the reason for Moscow’s approach in the 1990s was financial, Badmayev says, but now, under President Vladimir Putin, the Russian government has plenty of money from petro-dollars, but instead of doing so, he has orchestrated the removal of the words about compensation for moral damages from the earlier laws.
In this way, “the former KGB officer” and those who do his bidding in the Duma “acted in the ‘best’ traditions of the Cheka and the NKVD.” Almost all regional leaders loyally followed without objection, but this all meant “to speak crudely” that Moscow was “spitting on our dignity and we have put up with it” until now.
But those who are conducting this campaign against appeals to the Strasbourg court are “very much mistaken” if they think that everyone in the Russian Federation will act like “truly Soivet people who in their mass simply are afraid of the courts, fear the bosses and agree with the party leaders in everything, even if these leaders exile them to hard labor or start a war.”
Today, people are increasingly willing to “defend their rights independently of wehther the powers want to respect these rights or not.” Some say that those doing so in Strasbourg are only seeking money, but in fact, Badmayev says, “we are showing the authorities that we are not slaves.”
Recently, he relates, an 80-year-old Kalmyk told him that she had begun to learn Russian while on the train deporting her to Siberia. The very first Russian words she learned, the woman said, were “Are there any corpses?” words used by NKVD guards each morning to find out whether children or old people had died and should be “thrown out of the wagons.”
And there is yet another curiously Russian twist to all of this, Badmayev says. As of January 1, 2005, the Russian government has transferred responsibility for financing social welfare from itself to the regions. If it follows the same logic regarding compensation for moral losses, then the Kalmyk authorities will have to pay it, not Moscow.
Moscow routinely insists that it is the legal successor of the USSR and that means it must take this responsibility on its own shoulders, as he and other rights activists have frequently pointed out. Unfortunately, their views “do not have any significance for the Russian authorities.”
According to Badmayev, “formerly repressed peoples from other regions of Russia support the initiative of the residents of Kalmykia,” something he says he is very pleased about and something he would like to promote by “establishing contact with all [those across the Russian Federation] who stand with them.”
While the European Court cannot compel governments to fulfill its decisions, those decisions do matter, and sometimes those appealing to them can obtain real redress. On Friday, Vienna’s “Die Presse” reported that the court had ruled that Austria must grant asylum to a Chechen refugee (diepresse.com/home/panorama/oesterreich/1382047/Verletzung-von-Folterverbot_EGMR-ruegt-Oesterreich?from=suche.intern.portal).
Each such decision not only strengthens the influence of the court and increases the interest of the citizens on the continent to make use of its good offices but also makes it more likely that governments, including that of the Russian Federation, will conclude it is better to carry out the court’s orders or better yet to behave in ways so that their citizens won’t have to make such appeals.