US President Barack Obama today confirmed that he plans to visit Russia at the invitation of his counterpart Vladimir Putin.
The news coincides with reports that Putin told a meeting of the Civil Society and Human Rights Council that he was open to reviewing a series of recent laws, including a controversial provision that labels overseas-funded non-governmental groups as “foreign agents”, that activists complain are designed to silence dissent.
“Everything that is not related to politics should in no way be subject to regulation by this law,” he told the meeting. “We can get together in a larger group and fairly and openly discuss this issue.”
Since Putin’s re-election in March, preceded by the largest protests in his 12 years in power, parliament has rushed through laws tightening controls on the Internet, increasing the penalties for defamation and expanding the definition of high treason, among others. Rights activists and political opponents say Putin has orchestrated the clampdown, and the West has also expressed concern that civil liberties are being rolled back.
“Everything that is taking place here is done for a sole purpose – that of our country being stable. Effective and stable,” Putin told a meeting of the Civil Society and Human Rights Council, his own advisory body.
“It cannot be more stable if it is only based on the power of law enforcement and repressive agencies. It will be more stable if society is more collective, effective, responsible, if a bond is established between society, the citizen and the state,” he added, according to RIA news agency.
Putin this week approved new members of an expanded Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, a 62-member forum that has caused controversy amongst democracy advocates.
The new body includes liberal journalists, democracy advocates and rights activists, as well as Putin supporters, but the Moscow Helsinki Group’s Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Transparency International’s Yelena Panfilova, analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, and Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of the Civic Assistance organization, were among the 15 leading activists who resigned from the council earlier this year to protest the disputed December parliamentary elections.
“The human rights council is traditionally comprised of fierce critics of Putin, but it has been criticized as little more than a talking shop, writes Tom Balmforth of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:
Alekseyeva has said Russia needs a nongovernmental civil and human rights council. Vladimir Pribylovsky, a political analyst and director of the Panorama think tank, says the change in the composition of the council is unlikely to have a large impact. “The point is that [the council] is a purely decorative body. It doesn’t even have the right to initiate a draft bill,” Pribylovsky says. “It can advise the president, but it can’t even make legal initiatives. It can advise the president — if the president asks for counsel. So the council itself can simply speak its mind in the Internet media and press. I don’t think that Lyudmila Alekseyeva and [Dmitry] Oreshkin have any problem speaking their mind about anything [without the council].”
But other civil society and democracy activists believe the council still provides a valuable forum for dialog with the regime. Consequently, pro-Kremlin figures now sit alongside critics of the regime, including Liliya Shibanova, head of the Golos election monitoring NGO, the Agora Center’s Pavel Chikov, journalist Leonid Parfyonov, and Aleksandr Verkhovsky of the Sova Center.
Several of the NGOs cited here are funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.