| Question: Shortly before your election, you
met with the President. He no doubt shared with you his ideas of the ombudsman's
duties. Did he make any recommendations?
Lukin: We had a thorough, stimulating conversation.
The President stressed that the human rights commissioner should maintain
his independence. The President vowed to do everything in his power to
make sure that this institution is not purely ornamental and that it is
respected both by the powers that be and by society at large.
I am also convinced that independence is the principal condition for
effective performance in this office. An ombudsman that is unduly admired
by the ruling authorities is a bad ombudsman: This means that instead
of defending citizens' rights, he simply goes through the motions. This
is definitely what I am not going to do. The ombudsman is duty bound to
tread on the authorities' pet corns.
Question: Are you ready to come into conflict with the ruling
authorities as one of your predecessors did in his time?
Lukin: Will I be necessarily in conflict? This can
hardly be an end in itself. There are two extremes here. Either the ombudsman
heroically challenges the ruling authorities or he kowtows to them in
everything. Both models are counterproductive. In the first instance a
bureaucratic padding is bound to emerge between him and the authorities,
effectively crippling all his efforts. In the second, the ombudsman will
fall short of his official and public purpose.
Question: So the ombudsman is merely an intermediary between
society and the political establishment?
Lukin: He can also be a go-between, but I would rather
say that he should be society's advocate.
Question: Now, isn't the Presidential Human Rights Commission
just this kind of advocate? How do its functions differ from those of
the ombudsman, and isn't there some overlapping here?
Vladimir Lukin: The Presidential commission is not
an independent body. As indicated by its title, it assists the head of
state. The President is also an ombudsman in a sense - insofar as he is
the guarantor of constitutional rights. I don’t believe there is
any real risk that functions are overlapped and duplicated. I have already
met Ella Pamfilova (Chair of the Presidential Human Rights Commission.
- V.V.). We discussed in detail possible lines of our interaction.Generally
speaking, I do not think that there can be too many structures defending
human rights, especially in Russia. There can only be too few.
Question: Indeed, it would be wrong to say that there are
too many in this country. Consider this: Although the law does not prescribe,
neither does it proscribe that ombudsmen be elected at a regional level.
How many do we have?
Vladimir Lukin: Twenty-seven. Although we know only
too well the feudal ethics of local bosses. Nowhere are human rights so
flagrantly and brazenly violated as in Russia's remote corners. Now, I
have just been on the phone with Sverdlovsk region. Authorities there
have decided to deal with the homeless. They are ready to provide them
with medical services, feed and clothe them. This is certainly praiseworthy.
Yet it is absolutely impermissible to round up these people and force
them into special camps - something that is reportedly being done there.
I am going to check out what is actually happening.
Generally, it would be a good idea to have an ombudsman in each Federation
component. But with this proviso: He must not be dependent on the local
authorities. Yet even if there are human rights commissioners everywhere,
this does not free me from my responsibility to monitor the human rights
situation across the country.
Question: Say, in Chechnya, right? The office of the President's
special envoy for human rights in this republic was recently abolished.
Are you ready to take on these duties?
Lukin: I certainly am. Chechnya is a part of Russia.
Protection of human rights in the republic comes within my jurisdiction.
It is not a matter of who is guilty and who is innocent there. If human
rights are violated, I am obligated to intervene, regardless of the political
rationale behind a particular violation. This said, a local human rights
commissioner can also be elected in Chechnya. I believe that this will
happen, sooner or later.
Question: Don’t you feel that over the past four years
the human rights situation in Russia has seriously deteriorated?
Lukin: It is difficult for me to judge. I do not have
enough facts at my disposal.
Question: How come? What about the closure of "uncooperative"
TV channels or the series of "espionage" cases or the Yukos
affair or the lap-dog courts?
Lukin: Naturally all these developments do raise concerns
in society. However, the human rights problem in Russia is not confined
to a handful of high-profile cases, the closure of a TV network or the
latest scandal over yet another oligarch. It goes much deeper than that,
affecting as it does the relations between Russia’s citizens and
the ruling authorities. It is a problem of legal awareness or more frequently
a lack of such awareness. At this level, I do not know if anything has
actually changed for better or worse. Yet I am sure that the principal
task is to ensure that citizens are aware of their rights and uphold them,
and that the authorities reckon with them.
Question: Have you already defined priorities in your future
Lukin: It is difficult to talk about priorities here.
Defence of political rights is just as important as, say, defence of social
or economic rights. Defence of the rights of women, ethnic minorities,
and pensioners - the list could go on and on. All these issues merit equal
But it should be understood that the ombudsman's powers are not boundless.
Consequently I am not in a position to go and raise the subsistence level,
but I can raise this issue with the legislative and executive branches
of government. The subsistence level is the material realization of the
right to life.
But what I intend to begin with is children's rights - what with rampant
homelessness and juvenile crime. The recent murder of a nine-year-old
Tajik girl in St. Petersburg by a group of local skinheads is a wakeup
call for all of us.
Question: Are you going to intervene in politically-motivated
Lukin: Only if human rights are violated during a trial.
Say, a defendant is denied legal counsel. There can be no interference
in judicial investigation itself, let alone attempts to influence the
outcome of a trial. The ombudsman simply does not have such powers.