May 23, 2007

NGOs Under Putin Scanner on Estonia Events

Kester Kenn Klomegah

MOSCOW, May 23 (IPS) - Leading non profitable organisations and civil society have vehemently rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin's accusation last week that they did not take collective action when Estonian authorities removed Soviet war monuments from the city centre to an obscure location.

The president said Russian NGOs who are sharply critical of some policies adopted by his government, failed to react to the Apr. 27 dismantling of a bronze statue commemorating Soviet soldiers who liberated the Baltic state from the Nazis. The monument was also the resting place for 13 Soviet soldiers.

The removal has caused controversy between Moscow and Tallinn. Historically, Russians have paid homage at the monument, while Estonian authorities have considered their Soviet liberators as occupants.

"I did not see any flurry of activity coming from rights groups when the remains of Soviet soldiers were being relocated in the neighbouring country," Putin asked at a meeting with the Public Chamber, an institution he created to oversee the building of a formidable civil society. "Where were our human rights organisations?" he asked.

"I am not for fanning hysteria, of course," Putin added.

The Moscow Helsinki group, Centre for Development of Democracy and Human rights, Demos Centre, the Civic Assistance Committee, the Glasnost Defense Foundation, the Sova centre and the Human Rights Centre Memorial said the president's views on the "silence" of rights groups does not reflect the actual state of affairs.

The Moscow office of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said NGOs work independently and do not have to comply with any authority.

"We are independent organisations and not obliged to respond to anything that happens," observed head of the HRW's Moscow office Allison Gill just before she refused to discuss Putin's remarks any further with IPS.

But, others reacted unreservedly.

"Representatives of Russian human rights organisations expressed their most serious concerns in connection with the events which took place in Tallinn," Svetlana Gannushkina, executive director of Civil Assistance Committee told IPS. "We have no doubt that formally the decision on the transfer of the monument and of the burial place is absolutely lawful."

However, the position of Estonian authorities concerning the relocation of the monument and especially the dates of its transportation arouses regret, she said.

"In our opinion, there was no urgent necessity to transport the monument and the burial place. It is clear to us that this monument was perceived by various groups of Estonian society in very different ways. But these actions have led directly and inevitably to further confrontation and an even greater split in Estonian society," observed Gannushkina.

Questions were also raised about the timing of the action. "Why were these actions undertaken on the eve of May 9? It is quite obvious that the removal of the monument on the eve of Victory Day couldn't but have led to mass protest. The reported disproportionate use of force by the police also arouses serious concern," she added.

Nearly all the groups IPS interviewed condemned the Russian-inspired attacks on Estonian foodshops and buildings, the excessive use of force by the police and the fatal consequences.

"Still, we must admit that at the moment it is hard for us to have a clear picture of what happened, that's why we think it is important to send a group of representatives of our organisations to Estonia so as they could acquaint themselves with the situation. We decisively condemn those political and social forces which took advantage of these events to unleash anti-Estonian hysteria in this country," Gannushkina said.

Human Rights Institute has warned that the charges levelled against NGOs by the Russian authorities and the president could be used against them in the future.

"In our opinion, we have unquestionably expressed our views, describing Tallinn's decision as shameful. We're always accused of so many things," a director of the Human Rights Institute Valentin Gefter told IPS. In his opinion, it was the media that should be blamed for not reporting statements by the opposition and NGOs. "We are not offered space and air time. Even when they do, it's biased," he said.

A Kremlin spokesman told IPS in an interview that there was no new attempt to evaluate the performance of non-governmental organisations in Moscow, but President Putin was reportedly slightly dissatisfied.

"This was an opportunity to analyse the reaction by the Russian NGOs. Our judgement (is that), much was not done. That prompted the president to make such remarks at a meeting with the Public Chamber. We can't pressure the rights groups but we had expected more vigorous action," the Kremlin spokesman said.

According to the spokesman, NGOs are prepared to support the preservation of Soviet monuments and to protecting the legitimate rights and interests of Russians in the Baltic republic. Excessive use of force by Estonian authorities against demonstrators protesting the removal of the giant Soviet bronze statue in central Tallinn, resulted in injuries to many people.

Estonia has said that the bronze soldier in memory of all those who fought against fascism and other Soviet monuments "divide society". Indeed these are rallying points for ethnic Russians and places of their clashes with Estonian nationalists.

"We consider that this is a monument to people who died fighting fascism -- a man-hating and racist ideology. Undoubtedly, people who sacrificed their lives fighting fascism deserve our common respect and memory," executive director of the International Historical and Educating Charity and Human Rights Society Elena Zhemkova told local media.

The Russian groups called on the European Union (EU) to pay close attention to the April events in Tallinn, and provide their own assessment. In case the international norms of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression were violated, attention of the Estonian authorities should be drawn to the inadmissibility of these violations, they advised. (END/2007)

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