A New Day for Human Rights in Russia?

Few saw it coming. In the past 10 years, Russia had pretty much cemented its reputation as the human rights curmudgeon of Europe – unleashing military brutality on its neighbors and its own citizens, using the courts to settle political vendettas, letting cases involving murders of journalists go unsolved. But low and behold, Russia has changed its tune. This week it officially ended opposition to reforming the European Court of Human Rights.

Russia faces a brand new day

The Strasburg-based international court was created in the 1950s to protect democracy and human rights in 47-member countries. In recent years, Russia had been the only member opposing a key reform – Protocol 14 – that would give the court more tooth to hold member countries accountable for crimes and speed up work by requiring fewer judges to oversee individual cases. But this week Russian lawmakers voted to ratify Protocol 14.

The reason for Russian opposition to Protocol 14 was no mystery. The court has ruled against Russia in over 100 cases dealing with Russian atrocities in Chechnya and elsewhere – rulings which Russia has largely ignored.

So is a new era dawning for human rights in Russia? Not likely.

From a political standpoint, the Kremlin can afford to loosen its belt. In the country, there’s no substantial government opposition to speak of, and in the former Soviet states, the idealistic “color” Revolutions of the mid-2000s have ended with a whimper. The one exception is Georgia, but in a European Union report on the 2008 war, for once Georgia – not Russia – was blamed for starting the bloody conflict. And on the global stage, President Obama’s “Reset” button on US-Russia relations has eased fears about US missile systems in Eastern Europe and NATO expansion.

Also, while the political elite may feel more secure to undergo international rebukes on human rights, an economically chastened Russia sees the benefits – or even the necessity – of greater international integration in the wake of the global economic crisis, particularly with its richest neighbor, the Europe Union.

So Russia has every reason to put forth a better face on human rights – and little to lose. But on the Moscow streets, has anything changed?

On New Year’s Eve, Moscow Police arrested a group of peaceful protesters holding an unauthorized “March of Dissent” against the Kremlin. One of those arrested was 82-year-old Lyudmila Alekseyev, who heads the Moscow Helsinki group and was the 2009 winner of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

- Ivan Weiss