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Novaya Gazeta, No 19, March, 2004

Society’s Advocate Before the State
Vladimir Lukin: I'm not quarrelling with the authorities, I intend to make them abolish unlawful decisionss

Interview with Vladimir Lukin by Irina Gordiyenko

Everything depends on your staff. Russia has learned this too well. When the democrats (YABLOKO and SPS) failed to get into the Duma, Vladimir Putin promised that their ideas and staff would be in demand. And really, thanks to Putin's backing many YABLOKO members began entering different power structures. And Putin proposed one of the founders of the YABLOKO party Vladimir Lukin for the post of ombudsman.

Nobody knows what Vladimir Lukin may accomplish as Russian ombudsman but lots of hopes are pinned on his promotion. The reputation of Vladimir Petrovich is exactly what is needed for this post. At least, the country was not surprised in the way it was about Mikhail Fradkov's promotion to prime minister.

The Russian ombudsman gave an interview to Novaya Gazeta.

Question: In the West the notion of human rights is a dogma. In Russia these words often provoke a sneer. Everyone has heard about human rights, but no one can explain what it is.

Lukin: As ombudsman I understand them as they are formulated in our Constitution. And as an ordinary citizen I think a person can live freely and do what he considers necessary until his actions conflict with the interests of other people. This very gap between the interests of people marks their rights.

Question: In the West my rights end where the rights of another individual start. Here they end where the bureaucrat's arbitrary rule begins.

Lukin: Unfortunately this is the case. The higher is the rank of the bureaucrat, the more he thinks about himself. He believes that he is the direct bearer of law, rather than a person subordinate to law. At a verbal level we have the reins of law, but in practice the telephone rule prevails.

Here it is also important not to fall into extremes: human rights should not overweigh all other rights. Our task is to find a balance between the exercise of human rights and implementation of a system of social organisation rather than glorification of human rights at the expense of the statehood.

Question: Vladimir Petrovich, can you be sure that it is possible to change the mentality of the generation of politicians and state officials who came into the upper echelons of power after 1991 and are still there?

Lukin: Yes, I had such pessimistic thoughts. We have to find some serious examples of law-abiding behaviour, without hypocrisy and sanctimony and thereby try somehow to change the situation here. As our subordinate staff are as a rule people with a very sensitive nervous system, they immediately copy the behaviour of their bosses.

Question: What do you mean by the example of law-abiding behaviour?

Lukin: For example, Vladimir Putin, at least in words, stubbornly resists attempts to turn him into a Turkmenbashi prolonging the term of his presidential proxies. We are speaking about the present situation and I am deliberately giving you a positive example. This alone can be regarded as a very good example.

Question: OK, but are there other examples?

Lukin: I don t want to say that I don t see such examples, and I have no such right. I am waiting for the examples of the constitutional behaviour of the authorities. Not in form, but content.

Question: Whose interests will Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin represent?

Lukin: The interests of citizens of the Russian Federation.

Question: So, you are protecting the interests of Russians. From whom?

Lukin: From the state and other Russians. I'm society's advocate in its dealing with the state, if I may put it this way.

Question: Is there not a paradox here? You were recommended by the president, the symbol of the state, and yet you intend to protect citizens from the state.

Lukin: I do not see a paradox here. The Constitution guarantees the independence of the ombudsman elected for five years, i.e. for longer than the president or the Duma is elected. I'm as

immune to whims of the powers-that-be as possible. Of course, I may be relieved of my duties, but the procedure is not any easier than impeachment.

Question: Does the post of ombudsmen carry political weight within state relations?

Lukin: Yes, this is a political post, as it is instituted by the Constitution. At the same time, ombudsmen are not supposed to meddle in politics.This is a political post of a person committed to handling specific cases of human rights abuses. For example, I do not believe I'm empowered to comment on any political events, for example if Putin was correct to fire Mikhail Kasyanov and hire Mikhail Fradkov.

Question: But is this only a matter or personal ethics or indicated somewhere that an ombudsman cannot engage in politics?

Lukin: This is the level of personal cleanliness and professional ethics.

Question: Were you aware that the offer might be made beforehand?

Lukin: No, I had no idea. I was invited to see the president and told that he wanted to propose me for the role of ombudsman. I agreed.

Question: Shall we regard your promotion as fulfilment of Putin's promise to use the personnel and resources of the democratic political parties that did not make it into the Duma?

Lukin: The assumption is logical indeed. Moreover, Putin mentioned during our meeting that he was not in the least concerned about my membership Yabloko.

Question: The first human rights organisations in Russia did not have anything to do with the state. Financed by the West, they tried to copy its ways and means in their work. These days, the

state is noticeably more active in this sphere. A presidential commission for human rights was established as was the office of the ombudsman. Does this represent an attempt of the powers-that-be to lead the human rights movement and put it under their own control?

Lukin: As a matter of fact, the idea of the office of the ombudsman in Russia was first suggested by human rights organisations. Of course, there may be attempts to use human rights organisations for the purposes you've mentioned. However, I won't be of much help here. If somebody thinks I will help establish control over public human rights organisations, he should think again. When we talked to the president, I said that I would accept the offer only if human rights organisations did not object. They did not.

Question: What is the structure of human rights organizations in Russia?

Lukin: It is hierarchic. There is the constitutional ombudsman. The presidential commission for human rights under Ella Pamfilova comes next. These two are followed by regional ombudsmen. We have them in 27 Federation subjects. They are elected by local legislatures and

do not answer to me. As a matter of fact, I am considering making this institution independent of regional interests in order to have candidates for regional ombudsmen endorsed by the centre.

Last but not the least, human rights organizations and activists operate in all sorts of spheres. Some of them, for example, concentrate on children's rights.

Question: How large is the apparatus of the institution of the Russian ombudsman?

Lukin: At present it comprises 176 people. When I came, some insignificant changes were introduced. The number of the staff should be linked to the size of the population in Russia and number of problems that have developed. In the Czech Republic, for example, the apparatus amounts to 60 people, but they have a population of only five million people.

Question: The West constantly berates Russia for human rights abuses. Can we berate it too referring to the rights, say, of Saddam Hussein, the situation with human rights in Afghanistan, or the rights of non-combatants bombed during NATO's operation in Yugoslavia?

Lukin: We have politicians and diplomats for that. I am looking for an improvement in the human rights situation in Russia. At the same times I envy the Americans. They have adopted the right position. To tell the truth, they do not give a damn about developments in other countries. They meddle only when they have some interests to promote. In their own country, they value and cherish the rights of their citizens.

Question: You advocate improvements in the state of affairs in a country where there is no legal culture and state officials know no law. Although a state representative, you will fight the state and nevertheless claim to have no political standing. How are you going to interact with the powers-that-be then? You will have to seek compromises with them, won't you?

Lukin: I'm not going to seek compromises on specific laws. But working to aggravate the situation is wrong too. There are two ways of making my office efficient. Firstly, it is possible to mount a heroic campaign of self-assertion through the screams of how bad our powers-that-be are (which is not far from the truth, actually). It may earn me some applause, but will not enable me to accomplish much. Secondly, it is possible to become a cog in the state machine and lose all respect. I do not plan to do either. I know that it will be difficult for me, but that's a matter of practice rather than theory. Let us wait and see.

Question: What will be your priorities in communications with the authorities: compromise or opposition?

Lukin: Let me tell you a funny story. One man asks another: Why are you always quarrelling with your wife? You should be gentle with the old girl, very gentle. That is how our relations should be built. The authorities should feel a need to amend its unlawful decisions. And this goal can be achieved in many different ways. Revealing your methods is the same as showing other card players the cards that you have been dealt.


See also:

Human Rights

Novaya Gazeta, No 19, March, 2004

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