Mar 02, 2006

Udmurt: Freedom of Expression and The Rights of Peoples Are Violated

Freedom of expression and the rights of peoples are violated in Udmurt. One of the few opposition newspapers, Argumenty I Fakty v Udmurtii, was closed down

In national autonomous regions of Russia, of the right of the individual to free expression of opinion and to receiving information, and the rights of indigenous peoples of these regions are grossly violated.

Against the background of general deterioration in the area of democracy in the Russian Federation, more and more concern has been recently caused by the situation of the fourth estate, the mass media. The Russian authority systematically imposes its control on the information resources and actively interferes in the mechanisms of opinion-shaping in the civil society.

The assignment of Modest Kolerov, formerly chief editor of the information agency “Regnum”, as head of the Department of Foreign Interregional and Cultural Contacts at the Office of President of the Russian Federation means strengthening the propaganda front to keep up the old Soviet practice of creating the image of an external enemy in the public opinion all over the country. Paradoxically, the stuff produced by that agency has been focused on accusing other post-Soviet states in precisely the breach of freedom of expression – as, for example, the Baltic countries concerning the “ethnic issue”.

In its external information policy Kremlin has to count with equally strong rivals, which compels it to respect at least the limits of internationally recognised legal arguments and the etiquette of international policy. In their internal policy, using the shield of sovereignty, the Russia’s authorities are much less scrupulous in the choice of levers to apply pressure on the society. This arsenal includes various mechanisms from the once again applied practice of armed “cleansing” to the good old Soviet practice of “telephone law”.

In the course of time more coarse methods have been used. While in the times of perestroika any public initiative that needed the State’s support might be rejected for the reason of the economic crisis and the shortage of resources, the present economic situation in Russia is more favorable, partly because of rising oil prices. However, if the situation does not still permit to close an opposition newspaper by an administrative decision, it can be strangled by bureaucratic and economic methods.

Restrictive methods are practiced by both federal and regional authorities. Oppression in the regions is tacitly approved and, moreover, encouraged by central institutions. The situation at the level of units of the Federation has its peculiarities. The democratic opposition has so far evaded the pressure of local authorities by printing its publications outside their administrative areas. Now, however, authorities of neighbouring regions have established a sort of mutual co-operation: they forbid printing opposition publications of their neighbours. The announced scheme of integration of administrative units would kill the last chance to express dissenting opinion.

These mechanisms of pressure can be demonstrated by considering the cases of regions that commonly pass the attention of general public. Of late, the situation in the Mari and Udmurt republics has nevertheless gained international publicity because of the restrictions on the freedom of expression and other rights and freedoms. It is particularly interesting to analyse the situation in these regions, since these are ethnic republics. In either case, the titular nationality that gives the republic its name is now an ethnic minority. Also, as noted by Valery Tishkov, Director of the Ethnology and Anthropology Institute of the Acad. Sci. of Russia, representatives of the titular nationality are by no means in power. They are underrepresented politically, including in the government institutions.

For example, there are only six Udmurts among the hundred deputies of the local National Assembly of Udmurtia, whereas the share of Udmurts and Bessermens in the population is 30 per cent. In the local government of Mari El, only two Maris have remained, although the Maris make up 43 per cent among the population of the republic. At the tacit approval by federal authorities, above all by Sergey Kiriyenko as Plenipotentiary Representative of the President of the Russian Federation in the Volga Federal District, the policy of oppression of the local nationality is continued by President of the Republic of Mari El Leonid Markelov, including large-scale removal of the Maris from leading positions. Undesirable persons are purged not only from the government but from regional and local administrations as well.

Thus by harassing the opposition mass media the authorities violate the rights of ethnic minorities, since the last alternative representation channel available for indigenous peoples is blocked.

The Udmurt Republic
The situation with freedom of expression is not better in another Finno-Ugric republic, Udmurtia. One of the few opposition newspapers, Argumenty I Fakty v Udmurtii, was closed down last summer. It was punished for having taken the liberty of publishing, in pursuit of sensation, some materials criticising the authorities.

The next wave of persecution against the only remaining opposition newspaper and information agency Den (“The Day”) has now began in Udmurtia, according to Novaya Gazeta (11 April 2005). All other periodicals are already under the control of the republic’s authorities.

Earlier, the Izhevsk Polygraphic Enterprise refused to print the Day in the Udmurt capital Izhevsk. For that reason, it was printed in neighbouring areas during the previous election campaign: first in Kirov and, for the last three months, in Perm. For a while, the editorial office had even gone underground: formally, an office was rented but the editorial work was carried out in a rented private two-room apartment.

The last attack of the authorities on the Day was caused by its coverage of mass rallies against the “monetization of benefits” similar to rallies that took place in other cities all over Russia. People at the meetings demanded also the retirement of Aleksandr Volkov from the office of President of Udmurtia.

As a result, the company Informpechat, a retail distributor of press, refused to sell the Den through its point-of-sale network (according to the Novaya Gazeta). The same days, windows of the editorial office were twice smashed with bricks by unknown persons, and then the cable was cut off in the house lobby, which prevented the newspaper from covering at its website a five-thousand strong protest rally in Izhevsk.

The harassment continued with Chairman of the Government of Udmurtia Yuri Pitkevich personally calling important advertisers and partners of the newspaper, including those outside the republic, forbidding them to advertise in the Den, according to Novaya Gazeta. He probably did not have an idea of possible consequences of his telephone campaign.

In connection with these calls, Chief Editor of the Day Mr. Sergey Shchukin lodged a complaint to the Office of Public Prosecutor, demanding a criminal investigation in making obstacles to legal professional journalist activities. It is doubtful, however, that this case, as many other similar ones, would ever reach a fair solution in the court.

The most recent infringement on the freedom of expression in Udmurtia was a pogrom in the editorial office of another opposition newspaper, Liberalnaya Udmurtia, committed on 4 May. Practically all technical equipment of the newspaper has been destroyed. As in other similar cases, the criminals remain unknown. The objective, once again, was not the theft of property but its destruction. As a result, the newspaper will probably have to suspend its activity for a long time. The most probable reason of this action was the active coverage by the Liberalnaya Udmurtia of protest rallies against the monetization of benefits.

Excerpt: World Security Network