Category Archives: Russia

Yes, Prime Minister on Russia

The Huffington Post today highlighted this Yes, Prime Minister clip from 1986. 


Are Russia’s actions in the Crimea a sign that they are adopting ‘Salami tactics’? 

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Google pins its rainbow colours to the mast

googleOver a billion people visit Google every day. Today they will be met by Google’s protest over the violations of gay rights in Russia as the Winter Olympics get underway.

In case the rainbow doodle left you in any doubt, Google then quote the Olympic Charter underneath that states that “every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport without discrimination of any kind”.

Left Foot Forward today have given us ‘5 good reasons why LGBT activists are protesting against Russia‘ – many of which result in the Olympic Charter being little more than an aspiration for an openly gay athletes in Russia.

Google were joined by Channel 4 who also turned their logo rainbow for the day. The TV channel stated that they wanted to wish good luck to all athletes competing at the Games – gay or straight.

Channel 4 rainbow logo for Sochi Winter Olympics
Hynd’s Blog tips its metaphorical hat to Google, Channel 4 and the transformative power of sport.

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Human Rights Watch intervenes in Russia drug trafficking case


Last June I wrote in Liberal Conspiracy about the shocking case of Dr. Khorinyak who had been convicted of drug trafficking offences after prescribing basic pain medications to a friend who had muscular dystrophy since childhood, was unable to walk, and was diagnosed with cancer in 2007.

I am delighted therefore to read in ehospice that HRW has now written to the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, Yury Yakovlevich Chayka. In their letter, HRW makes a clear legal and moral case for why the Russian authorities should drop these ludicrous charges against Dr. Khorinyak. The letter states:

“Our research has found that regulations on medical use of controlled substances in Russia are overly bureaucratic and excessively onerous, interfering with proper prescribing and with the ability of patients to access these medications. A report detailing these findings is forthcoming. Russia has among the strictest drug control regulations in the world, going far beyond what is required under international law. Russia not only strictly regulates morphine and other drugs in its class but also tramadol, a significantly weaker opioid that is not a controlled substance internationally.

Under international law, countries have an obligation to regulate the availability and accessibility of strong opioid medications, such as morphine, to prevent its misuse and diversion. However, drug control efforts must be continually balanced against the responsibility to ensure opioid availability for medical purposes, in line with the right to health under international law.”

It continues:

“While Dr. Khorinyak and Mrs. Tabarintseva may have violated the letter of Russia’s drug control regulations, they did so out of humanitarian considerations to help a patient with a legitimate medical need, who was deprived access to medications for arbitrary, bureaucratic reasons. As a medical professional, Dr. Khorinyak felt duty bound to help Mr. Sechin, and her actions essentially did no more than seek to end a situation in which Mr. Sechin’s rights were being violated. The prosecution presented no evidence whatsoever that Dr. Khorinyak and Mrs. Tabarintseva personally benefited from prescribing and buying tramadol for Mr. Sechin, that any of the medication was used for non-medical purposes, or was diverted to the black market. We therefore consider the prosecution and conviction to be disproportionate and in violation of international human rights law.”

Human Rights Watch intervention in this case is welcomed. Hopefully the prosecutor will take their advice and drop these disproportionate charges.

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Talking on Russia Today about Israel/Palestine and International Humanitarian Law

Have a watch of me being interviewed on RT (Russia Today) on Israel/Palestine and International Humanitarian Law.

This video is about a year old but I’ve only just stumbled across it. No laughing at me not being able to hear the presenter nor the hesitant roundabout answers.

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The Russia Winter Olympics: To boycott or not to boycott

“The victim’s naked body had been dumped in a courtyard in the city of Volgograd. His skull was smashed and he had been raped with beer bottles.”

This is from the latest news report that I have read describing another reportedly homophobic brutal murder in Russia. Sadly, this incident is not an isolated one. It fits into a much wider picture of discrimination and prejudice. A report  from ILGA –Europe measuring everything from hate crime to family recognition found that Russia was the hardest country in Europe in which to be homosexual.

In addition, this summer saw the passing of a law banning, “gay propaganda”. The list of human rights concerns for the LGBT population of Russia could go on and on.

In the past few weeks however, this long-standing blight has been hurtled into the consciousness of the western liberal mind.  The hook of the winter Olympics and the ever contentious issue of boycott has got the chattering classes…well chattering.

For myself, I don’t know what I think about the proposed boycott (although I feel quite comfortable condemning the above mentioned and other human rights abuses).

And so, I thought I would draw your attention to some of the more interesting things I have read and let you make up your own mind. In the meantime, hopefully this process will hopefully help me make up my mind.

No shortage of opinions but still not sure what mine is!

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Russia is leaving cancer patients to die in pain – where is the outrage?

An edited version of this article appeared in Liberal Conspiracy – the UK’s most popular left-of-centre political blog. 

In Russia cancer patients are left to suffer and ultimately die in pain with inadequate access to basic pain control drugs such as morphine. When one doctor defied the state’s overly restrictive laws, she was arrested. It is time for the healthcare community to speak out.

Dr. Khorinyak allegedly wrote out two prescriptions for the pain relief medication tramadol. The prescriptions were for Victor Sechin, a terminally-ill cancer patient. In the eyes of the Russian state, the medical practitioner of more than 50 years broke the law.

In 2011, it is thought that the Russian Federal Drug Control Service discovered the prescriptions at the local pharmacy, and referred the case to the prosecutor and the court. Dr. Khorinyak was then charged under:

  • Article 234 of the Criminal Code: “Trafficking potent substances in large quantities by prior agreement with the intent to sell, an organized group”;
  • Article 327 of the Criminal Code, “Forgery of documents in order to facilitate the commission of another crime.”

The online palliative care news service, ehospice, spoke out about Dr. Khorinyak’s case. Quoting Trustees of the Worldwide Palliative Care Alliance (WPCA), the ehospice article said:

“The Worldwide Palliative Care Alliance is seriously concerned to hear about the prosecution of Dr Alevtina Petrovna Khorinyak…We fully support Dr Khorinyak in attempting to provide pain relief for patients coming to her for help. We stand in defence of her professional practice and her humane response to patients in pain.”

The article finished by urging readers to sign a petition calling for the charges against Dr. Khorinyak to be reversed. The editor of the international edition of ehospice, Kate Jackson, explained her decision to run the story saying:

“Dr Khorinyak performed her professional duty and acted with compassion towards a patient in pain. If it is outside of the laws of a country for a doctor to treat a patient to the best of their ability, then there is a need for a serious and urgent re-examination of those laws.”

Indeed, Russia’s overly restrictive laws regulating access to morphine have been the focus of on-going criticism for a number of years.

In its 2012 annual report, Human Rights Watch commented on Russia’s health policy saying:

“Although over 300,000 Russians die of cancer each year, with many facing severe pain, available palliative care services remained limited. As a result, hundreds of thousands of patients die in avoidable agony each year. In much of the country, the government does not make oral morphine available through the public healthcare system, or adequately train healthcare workers on modern pain treatment methods. Existing drug regulations are excessively restrictive and limit appropriate morphine use for pain relief.”

Indeed, the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Highest Attainable Standard of Health and on Torture, Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment have said:

“The failure to ensure access to controlled medicines for the relief of pain and suffering threatens fundamental rights to health and to protection against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Indeed, Article 21 of the Russian constitution states that:

“The dignity of the person shall be protected by the state. No circumstance may be used as a pretext for belittling it.”

Simply put, palliative care is a human right.

In Russia though, 450,000 people are diagnosed with cancer every year resulting in more than 2.5 million people suffering from the disease. Russia not only has a clear moral obligation to support these patients but also a legal human rights responsibility as well – one that it is currently neglecting.

With the noble exception of ehospice and a handful of other professionals, few have spoken out. The Russian government is standing by while thousands needlessly suffer. When one person does speak out, she is prosecuted as a criminal.

It is time for health care professionals from around the world to stand up for Dr. Khorinyak and speak out, not only against her prosecution but also against Russia’s wider neglect of patients in need of pain relief.

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Russia has blood on its hands – the plight of Syria

Months have passed between Russia’s crucial vetos at the UN security council that have effectively scuppered any chance of effective international sanctions. In this time, it is estimated that a further 2,600 have been killed in Syria.

Russia however has a significant vested interest in allowing the bloodshed to continue. It remains, despite the ongoing atrocities, Syria’s largest arms supplier. In recent weeks large shipments are reported to have arrived in the country. This is happening despite widespread reports of 10 months of a government campaign of killings, arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances. Amnesty International and a UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry consider some of these events to amount to crimes against humanity. How, in light of this can Russia justify continued trade in arms with Syria?

Russia is illustrating why, in July 2012, implementing an effective arms treaty at the UN to eradicate these loophole is so important. The arms trade is morally based on a false assumption about the competence, legitimacy and morality of other nation states to use arms in line with international expectations (a notion that I would have trouble with any way). Syria and Russia are all to clearly illustrating that these assumptions do not play out into reality. They are also showing the devastating effect the arms trade can have on people’s lives.

Russia, through the continued irresponsible use of its veto, and its continued arms deals with Syria has got blood on its hand. We have seen only snippets of the atrocities that are taking place as the Syrian regime continues to deny free and unfettered access to international human rights monitors. History will tell us the extent of what is occurring, all we know for sure now is that Russia is allowing this bloodshed to continue.

Finally, it is worth noting, that the UK is not exempt from the dirty arms trade. Read more here.

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Trans-Caspian Pipeline lives to fight another day

The Council of the European Union has today announced that it has adopted a decision authorising the Commission to negotiate an agreement with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan on a legal framework for a Trans-Caspian (natural gas) Pipeline System.

I have blogged before about the problems this pipeline may hold. Anyone concerned with human rights and development in Central Asia should follow these developments closely. Will the EU live up to its human rights commitments in its trade deals?

Regardless it looks like the EU is committing itself down the energy road of reliance on large quantities of imported natural gas. A diversification away from Russia is a no brainer but holds with it infinite dangers. Interesting times ahead – watch this space.

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Cental Asia and the war on terror

The language around the war on terror is slowly slipping out of use.  Its consequences however, are very much so still part of the contemporary geo-political scene.  Whether we are talking about rendition, torture or illegal invasions – the war on terror has, and is still having a major impact on international relations.

In this blog however, I am going to focus on a region of the world that is often ignored in western news coverage, but has a massive influence on our foreign policy – Central Asia.  I will briefly track the rise of radical Islam in Central Asia before looking at its impact on the contemporary political scene.

To illustrate Central Asia's geographical significance in world affairs

Soon after independence after the collapse of the USSR, the independent governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan faced opposition from small radical groups.  The reason I single out Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is not because their situation was unique to Central Asia, but because of the harsh measures they took to counter this threat. From the early 90’s onwards political engagement was severely restricted.  Critics suggest that this helped fuel the more powerful radial groups, who were predominantly Islamic organisations. As they developed in numbers and sophistication, they became inter-connected to what we broadly understand today as part of the “international terror threat” (excuse my use of this misleading crass terminology).

In response to this growing threat, all the Central Asian republics took the extraordinary step of banning any political organisation based on religious or ethnic origins.  A number of small Islamic organisations were forcibly dismantled.  As such member dispersed, some to seek support abroad, others to work at community levels.

The civil war in Tajikistan (92-97) acted as a calling card for radical Muslims from across the region.  After a series of defeats, the mujahedeen (those fighting in the name of their faith) moved across the border to Afghanistan. Approximately 100,000 refuges made their way to Afghanistan, although of course these were predominantly civilians.  It was during this period that political activists first made contact with the Taliban and what would later be referred to as Al-Qaeda.

In the late 90’s people start returning home and there was a move throughout the region to organise better structured terrorist Islamic movements.  The most prominent at this stage were the Islamic movement for Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahir.  From 1999-2001 the IMU launched a series of attacks on Uzbekistan looking to oust the political regime. These attacks would often be launched from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. They never took any real strong holds as they faced stiff international opposition predominantly from Russia.  In 2004 suicide bombings in Uzbekistan were allegedly masterminded by the IMU.

It is from this basis, we can see that post 9/11 Central Asian governments were more than happy to condemn the actions of Al-Qaeda and join the US in their “war on terrorism”. Immediately, all Central Asian republics granted free air-space over their countries to the US and NATO. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan all agreed to host US forces on their territory. The US set up two air bases, one in Kyrgyzstan and the other in Uzbekistan.

Once again, Central Asia is the unspoken stage of world politics.  Post the 2003 invasion of Iraq; we can see Russia, China, the EU and the US all fighting it out for influence in the region (for ideological, warfare and energy security reasons). Kazakhstan has sent engineers into Iraq, but the other 4 states have kept their distance.

Issues around energy security have become confused and intermixed with issues around the “war on terror”.  In 2005, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran all met up to hold a conference on protecting oil and gas infrastructure from terrorist activity.

Today, we can still see Central Asia’s role as a “feeder channel” to the Al-Qaeda missions fighting the US/NATO operations in Afghanistan. The growth of Islamic extremist and terrorist groups in Central Asia is directly impacting the stability of the Central Asia itself but also, Pakistan and US/NATO interests in Afghanistan. The volatile Afghanistan and Pakistan borderland is being made even more unstable and dangerous by Central Asian insurgents and it is unlikely real progress can occur without dealing with this issue head on. If we simply continue to fight the insurgents in a militaristic sense, I suggest that these “feeder channels” will continue to replace the fallen men. To really go at the problem’s root causes, long-term planning and effective and transparent regional cooperation will be needed. This is easier said than done when dealing with insular regimes such as Turkmenistan (which remember does have a massive border with Afghanistan).

The one thing that can be said for certain, is that Central Asia will remain to be a key geo-political battle ground that will, if trends continue, act as a testing ground for our “fight against terrorism” and global security.  The domestic politics of the 5 Central Asian states will continue to have ripple effects on all of our lives and cannot be ignored.

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Another strange twist in the story of Turkmenistan

Berdymukhamedov does not always have such a good relationship with the international community

Just before Christmas, 2.5 million (80% of all users) mobile phones stopped working in Turkmenistan.  Why? The government decided to “switch off” the operation of Mobile Telesystems (MTS) – a privately owned Moscow based phone operator.  This left millions of citizens unable to communicate internally or internationally.  This is just the latest in a line of obscure human rights violations to have occurred in Turkmenistan.

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov came to power in Turkmenistan in 2007, with a promise to up-hold human rights.  On paper it looks as if some progress has been made, but, in reality the legacy from dictator for life Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashi) lives on.  Niyazov was the guy who:

  • Niyazov banned lip-synching, car radios, beards, and the playing of recorded music at weddings
  • Citizens with gold teeth were told to have them extracted
  • He shut rural libraries, saying that people in villages did not read
  • Opera was banned in 2001 as Niyazov declared: “Who needs Tosca or La Traviata any more?”
  • All hospitals outside the capital Ashgabat were closed and about 15,000 doctors were dismissed in 2005
  • Compulsory education was cut by a year so that students could not qualify to study abroad

To name but a few of his eccentricities.

It was hoped when Berdymukhamedov came to power he would move away from Niyazov’s cult of personality.  We can see however that not only is his human rights record appalling (see here for Human Rights Watch letter to him on this issue from last year), but it appears it is erratic as his predecessors.

In a recent wikileak Berdymukhamedov was described as “vain, fastidious, vindictive, a micro-manager, and a bit of an Ahal Teke “nationalist.” from the US embassy.  Later in the same leak it states “Berdimuhamedov does not like people who are smarter than he is. Since he’s not a very bright guy, our source offered, he is suspicious of a lot of people.”

It looks as though Turkmenistan, with Berdymukhamedov at the helm is moving further and further away from the “west” and closer to isolation.  There is no real sense of accountability.  No one questions why the former Dentist operated on a patient to open a new hospital (no joke – see here). No one questions his legitimacy to do any of the things he has done. This is not good for Turkmen citizens, and it is not good for the international community.

Although I have highlighted some of the more bizarre aspect of modern Turkmenistan, it is important to remember it remains one of the oppressive countries in the world.

The question then remains, how do the international community try and engage with rogue leaders who shun all traditional forms of diplomacy? For this, there is no easy answer.

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Article 31 continues to be ignored as Russia cracks down

Boris Nemtsov

Russia is once again showing it has no respect for its own constitution by continuing to deny its own citizens the right to assemble.  Article 31 of the Russian constitution clearly states that citizens have the right to freedom of assembly.

A recent wave of “Article 31” protests across Russia has been met with an iron fist.  Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was just one of 70 arrested on New Years Eve in Moscow.

For the last couple of years now pro-democracy protesters have gathered in Triumfalnaya Square (Moscow) to raise awareness of Article 31 of the constitution.  Recently Moscow’s mayor has allowed these protests to go ahead but illegal equivalents around the country have been severely restricted.  Russia must allow its citizens the full right to assemble and protest.

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Russia is one of the most abusive countries in the world

Putin continues to act with de facto impunity

When you think of modern Russia, you think of a country that has developed out of its authoritarian past, moved away from the Cold War years and become a modern functioning democracy.  Think again.  It remains, sadly, one of the most abusive countries in the world according to Freedom House index

Putin’s Russia is slowly becoming notorious for its iron fisted approach to civil society, the media and the electoral process.  Throughout Russia freedom of expression is ignored, the media silenced and elections are crippled through staggering corruption.  These problems only intensify when you look into areas such as Chechnya where human rights abuses intensify.  All of this happens in an air of impunity.

Without tackling the issue of impunity, all other problems will continue to flourish in Russia.  We will continue to see “slow-motion assassinations” like that of Sergei Magnitsky who was tortured for over a year whilst imprisoned for trying to report corruption he uncovered.  We will continue to see assassinations of the likes of Makasharip Aushev who was a civil society activist who ran the web-site www.ingushetia.org.  We will also see more of Anna Politkovskaya friends and work mates killed.

Sadly, not only are these crimes allowed to happen within Russia with impunity, but the Kremlin is allowed to interact international with impunity.  The international community has routinely failed to apply any real pressure when dealing with Russia.  It is not as if we are short of examples that we could raise with the Kremlin.

The common argument for why we cannot face up to Russia is our gas dependence (as highlighted in the EU Strategic Energy Review of November 2008). This government seems to be looking to domestic sources of energy in light of this (note that nuclear is not “domestic”).  The question that we all need to be asking Mr Hague, is that in light of this growing energy independence can we now live up to our human rights commitments and challenge Russia’s appalling human rights record? For if we don’t, we become implicit in the continued impunity in Putin’s Russia.

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Another Murder in the North Caucasus

I have blogged before about the incredible life and sad death of Anna Politkovskaya.  I finished that blog by stating that unless we stood up and demanded justice and a full investigation into hers, and all other journalists and human rights defenders deaths and attacks this would continue to happen. 

On the 25th October Makasharip Aushev, a civil society activist was shot dead in his car in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria in the North Caucasus.  He was a member of the Russian Federation’s Human Rights Ombudsman expert council on the North Caucasus.  He known best however, for running the opposition web-site  www.ingushetia.org

How much longer will the EU sit by and let its neighbours allow attacks on individuals who wish to carry out peaceful and legal activities?

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Anna Politkovskaya – A letter to Anna

Anna Politkovskaya was an investigative journalist who was shot dead on the 7th October 2006.  A few nights ago, I went to see “A letter to Anna”, a documentary film about the work and death of Anna.  She had written extensively on torture and human rights abuses across Russia but particularly in the North Caucasus.  Often her writing would have a member of authority as the villain in the story exposing scandals within the highest enclaves of society. 

She knew that she worked in constant danger but continued because of her belief in telling the truth.  She was a truly remarkable person who lived in truly remarkable danger.  In 2004 on her way to cover the Beslan hostages situation she fell mysteriously ill on the flight on the way there.  She came close to dying that day and many of her friends suspected poisoning.  The threats and attacks she suffered and her eventual death, is unfortunately, not a rarity amongst journalists in the Russian Federation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_journalists_killed_in_Russia).  This Wikipedia page highlights the point. 

The problem does not stop at individual cases such as Anna’s.  There is wide spread de facto impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes.  This has left an environment where journalists and human rights defenders work in constant danger.  Irene Khan of Amnesty International directly correlated the impunity that is allowed for these crimes with many recent deaths, including the death of Natalia Estemirova (http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/news/human-rights-activist-natalia-estemirova-murdered-in-russia-20090716). 

The Russian and Chechnayan authorities need to highlight in the public domain how they intend to investigate these politically sensitive crimes in an impartial and thorough manner.  We cannot allow such impunity to go unchallenged in the 21st century.

If you think that this has nothing to do with you, I ask you to do one thing, Watch “A letter to Anna” and tell me that you were not moved by her incredible outlook on life.  Tell me that you could not feel the incredible injustice in her life and death. 

Anna Politkovskaya’s spirit lives on through the work of all the journalists she inspired.  It is imperative, in my opinion, that we let her life be remembered by not letting her colleagues be forgotten now as they face the same challenges she did. 

Please, make an effort to watch the film.

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