Night Is Falling on Human Rights across Yeltsin's Russia Recent Firing of Ex-Dissident Suggests the Rule of Law in Moscow Barely Exists

Article excerpt

NO Soviet-era dissident had risen as high in current Russian political life as Sergei Kovalev. But now Mr. Kovalev, a protege of the late Andrei Sakharov and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, has been brought down: On March 10, parliament stripped him of his post as the Russian Federation's first commissioner for human rights. His dismissal, prompted by outspoken criticism of the war in Chechnya, adds to the sense that respect for human rights and the rule of law in Russia now hangs in the balance.

The Chechnya assault, which Kovalev's commission estimates has left 24,000 civilians dead, is a prime illustration of President Boris Yeltsin's increasingly heavy-handed rule -- and his disdain for human rights. Kovalev's removal, however, shows that parliament is no more to be trusted than the presidency as a guardian of human rights and constitutional order.

Kovalev's downfall, in a sense, was quite foreseeable, given the shaky legal basis on which he was expected to exercise his mandate. In October 1993, Mr. Yeltsin created the President's Commission on Human Rights by decree -- his favored mode of governing. When Russia adopted a new constitution that December, parliament was instructed to pass a federal constitutional law establishing the commissioner's office. But Russia's fractious State Duma, dominated by former communists and hard-line conservative supporters of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, has been more interested in political squabbles than in making laws and shouldering constitutional obligations. A draft law on the commissioner's job got no further than a first reading.

No one likes the whistle-blower

Again, Yeltsin stepped in with a decree. This time he let Kovalev, already appointed chair of the President's Commission on Human Rights, be ombudsman while parliament left the commission dangling in legal limbo. On the face of it, the situation seemed promising: Kovalev would occupy two posts. He would chair the President's Commission on Human Rights -- and be ombudsman of the Russian Federation. In fact, his position was vulnerable. Neither post had a basis in law; both rested on presidential decrees. This was especially problematic since the conduct of the presidency was an object of Kovalev's scrutiny.

Kovalev, as principled under Yeltsin as he had been in the days of Brezhnev, made enemies from the start. …


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