#10 - JRL 7029
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
January 22, 2003
A fly's eye view of how Russia swats human rights
By AMY KNIGHT
Amy Knight is a specialist in Russian security affairs and the author of Spies Without Cloaks: The KGB's Successors.
I am a mukha (fly) on the wall in Vladimir Putin's Kremlin office when in walks the chief of Russia's security police, Nikolai Patrushev. They have been buddies since their days in the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) KGB. No offer of a shot of Stolichnaya (Mr. Putin is not a big drinker). Straight to the serious stuff.
"Kolya," says Mr. Putin, "we are getting some bad press abroad about the way we treat foreigners and journalists. Maybe we should let up a bit."
"Whatever you say, Volodya. Except that the Western media are making a mountain out of a molehill." (Mr. Patrushev actually says the Russian equivalent, "an elephant out of a fly," which annoys me: Size isn't everything.)
"Take that Stevenson woman everyone is fussing over. We decided not to let her back in the country because she's a troublemaker. No big deal."
Mr. Patrushev is referring to Irene Stevenson, a highly respected U.S. labour activist living in Moscow since 1989. Ms. Stevenson, who had a valid visa, was denied entry into Russia after Christmas, 2002. The only explanation was a vague reference to national security. Apparently, Mr. Patrushev's Federal Security Service (FSB), which has the ultimate say on admitting foreigners, considers those who advise workers on how to improve their working conditions a security threat.
The President shrugs: "We are also taking flak over the recent decision not to accept Peace Corps volunteers from the U.S., and for asking the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to get out of Chechnya."
"Look, Volodya, Bush and his pals in the West are obsessed right now with Iraq and North Korea. Forget that we sold all those weapons to Baghdad and Pyongyang. The last thing they are worried about is how we treat a few of their citizens here. As I said to the press last month, those Peace Corps types had worn out their welcome. They were always snooping for information. As for the OSCE, their people in Chechnya were constantly complaining when somebody got tortured or raped. I say, good riddance. With the West so preoccupied, this is the ideal time to turn up the heat on meddlesome foreigners. Besides, some of them could be spies."
"Umh," says the President, "you are probably right, Kolya. But some of those human-rights groups are tallying up the journalists who have been harassed and intimidated in Russia over the past year. One media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, voted Russia as the world's most dangerous country for journalists. And people both here and abroad are still harping about the war in Chechnya."
"Volodya, your popularity is soaring. Nobody cares about a few loud-mouthed journalists. We have control over 90 per cent of the media -- 95 per cent, now that NTV chief Boris Jordan has just been fired. Reporters are grovelling to please us. It's almost like the good old Soviet days. Bozhe moi! (My God!) How I long for those times, when we KGB officers could send anyone who annoyed us off to Siberia without the press blinking an eye. . . . As for Chechnya, sure, no one buys the idea that the referendum scheduled there for March will represent the people's interests. Or that the war is over. They are dying like flies in Chechnya."
(Like flies? I think . . .)
"But does the average Ivan Ivanovich care? Thanks to the spin we put on the hostage crisis in that theatre in October, we've convinced everyone who matters that the Chechens are just a bunch of terrorists."
"Well," the President demurs, "that's true. But U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow brought up Chechnya last week at a press conference and said that the U.S. was deeply disturbed by Russian 'excesses' there. I don't want Bush to hassle me about Chechnya and human rights again, like he did when he first took office."
"What's with it with Vershbow these days?" demands Mr. Patrushev. (What he says literally is, "What kind of fly bit Vershbow?")
"Volodya, Bush likes strong, law-and-order leaders who shoot from the hip. Besides, ever since Sept. 11, the Texas cowboy has cut corners on human rights in his own country in the name of fighting terrorism. Who is he to criticize you? You and Bush are two 'berries from the same field.' "
Two pairs of steely eyes meet. Both men grin. There's a discrete knock on the door. Time's up.
"Guess I'd better go, Volodya. Heh, what's that fly doing up there, buzzing around the portrait of our hero?"
I'm beside a picture of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first Soviet secret police chief, known as "Iron Felix" for his resolve in eliminating the Bolsheviks' enemies. The President opens a drawer and takes out a swatter.
And I am history -- like thousands of Chechen civilians.