Ella Pamfilova on Human Rights in Russia

Between 2004 and the end of July, Ella Pamfilova served as the Russian president’s adviser on human rights. But she left that post to protest a wave of violent attacks against human-rights activists. In the past year three of them have been murdered, and four others have had to flee the country. NEWSWEEK’s Anna Nemtsova talked to Pamfilova in Moscow about Dmitry Medvedev and the government’s attitude toward human rights. Excerpts:

Every time we’ve spoken this year you’ve sounded more and more worried. Why?

For years, I withstood a never-ending wave of hate from members of the ruling United Russia party, activists of youth movements, and some members of the administration. It felt like I was living between a hammer and an anvil. The only true ally I had was President Medvedev.

What was your agenda?

Building a bridge between the president and human-rights groups, the main critics of Russia’s state power. Obviously, it was important for both sides to have a dialogue, to break a wall and find understanding about the main principles of civil-society activities. The situation with human rights was quite hopeless.

You are criticized for getting involved in politics. Can human rights and politics stay apart?

It goes without saying that our role involves political struggle. I had a mission of interpreting human-rights advocates’ views in the country, where there is zero political competition, where there is no political opposition, where the system immediately pushes every critic out.

What was your biggest achievement?

The Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights Council that we organized under the president had more than 30 activists; each had his or her own complicated agenda. The president spent hours talking to our council members about abductions and murders in the North Caucasus. The president looked into the cases of human-rights violations. That was my victory. The problem was that most of the president’s orders stayed ignored—that I consider the president’s failure.

What was the most disappointing case?

Several months ago, after the terror attack on Kizlyar in Dagestan, I traveled to meet with the victims’ families. It was our council who struggled to remind the Kremlin [that the victims included] their servicemen, their people, and [that they needed to pay] financial compensation to the victims’ widows. The president ordered that it be paid. Three months later, it has not been. Also, for many months, people have been protesting to protect the Khimki Forest outside Moscow, where a highway is being built. Aware that the case involved corruption at the highest level, the president ordered the prosecutor general to investigate. But the system does not work—somebody does not want to obey the president’s orders.

Did you and Medvedev have disagreements?

We totally disagreed about the new law giving the FSB [the Federal Security Service] the right to jail people even if they have not committed a crime. This is natural, that we could not agree on every issue. Our main frustration was to see the president drown in the total indifference demonstrated by his men in power. So even in the cases where our council found common ground with President Medvedev, his system failed him—we saw no outcome from his measures.

What is your advice to the president?

To make the system work and fight corruption, he should fire everybody who disobeys his orders, without mercy. The problem with human rights and freedoms is very deep in Russia. But that is just a part of a much bigger issue: human rights and freedoms cannot be protected in a country with immature democratic institutions.

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