Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Human Rights in Post-Soviet Russia

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Human Rights in Post-Soviet Russia

Article excerpt

Jonathan D. Weiler is a visiting assistant professor at Bowdoin University.

In this article I explore two specific areas of human rights concern in contemporary Russia: violence against women and conditions in Russian prisons. As I explain below, these areas clearly do not exhaust the human rights problems facing Russia today. However, they do highlight a confluence of factors that are evident in many new democracies, and they are having profoundly negative consequences for socially vulnerable groups. Specifically, I argue that declining state capacity, fiscal austerity, and growing social inequality, characteristic features of many of the new democracies, translate into gross violations of the rights of socially vulnerable groups. Furthermore, although civil society development and its implications for human rights are not central to this article, I do argue that the kind of civil society 1 that may be evolving in Russia and other new democracies is not that characteristic of a larger liberal project in the historic Western sense, which among other things protects human rights. 2 Instead, it may be that the nongovernmental organization (NGO) model for civil society, now central to U.S. Agency for International Development democracy building and implicitly accepted by many scholarly accounts, is more conducive to what William Robinson and others view as a neoliberal project. Thus, rather than supporting democracy as a system in which citizens are empowered to effect change at all political levels and in which they have the power to defend their most fundamental rights, civil society may reflect accommodation to a political order in which "a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision-making is confined to leadership choices in elections carefully managed by competing elites." 3 In other words, although an increasing number of citizens are involved in a growing NGO sector, civil groups remain unable to influence meaningfully larger questions of public policy, especially the overall shape of economic reform and social transformation, or to mitigate the increasing incivility of life in Russia. 4

I do not intend to criticize the activities of NGOs themselves, and I will, in the discussion of human rights violations, comment on some of the impressive work that independent human rights activists are carrying out in Russia. As I discuss later on, the burgeoning activity of NGOs is having a positive impact on certain specific policy areas, especially in the prison system. However, in the face of widespread poverty, great economic inequality, and reduced social spending, 5 the proliferation of NGOs in Russia, including human rights NGOs, may be no more than a finger in the proverbial dike. 6 Particularly, as I will address in more detail below, the weakness of the Russian state, especially the dearth of material resources available to it, creates obstacles to the realization of human rights that no amount of civil society development, understood as the emergence of large numbers of NGOs, will be able to overcome.

Scholars writing on Latin America have argued that the neoliberal project has yielded a proliferation of problems. 7 These include dramatic increases in income inequality and poverty; skyrocketing crime rates and attendant draconian crime-fighting policies characterized by an increase in incarceration and widespread human rights abuses; a criminalization of poverty; growing distance between ruling elites and masses; and an attendant cynicism about the responsiveness of authorities to popular concerns. In this article, I focus specifically on the human rights dimension of these problems. It is my contention that despite the development, however haphazard, of some form of democratic governance in Russia in the past ten years, human rights have suffered significantly. 8 Scholarly expectations about the relationship among democracy, democratization, and human rights are so strong, in fact, that there is only minimal consideration generally given to the possibility that once on the road to democracy, a state could experience a significant backsliding in the area of human rights. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.