Originally written by Tom Balmforth for the Atlantic.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has approved new members for an expanded Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. The appointments follow a walk-out by some of the fiercest critics on the advisory body earlier this year.
The new 62-member council includes liberal journalists and prominent rights activists. But also noteworthy are the names that are missing, including Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the 85-year-old figurehead of Russia’s human rights movement. Alekseyeva is one of 15 prominent figures who left the presidential council in the wake of the disputed December parliamentary elections that were criticized for being skewed to favor the United Russia ruling party.
In a presidential decree on November 12, Putin officially struck Alekseyeva from the roster, along with commentator Dmitry Oreshkin, Yelena Panfilova of Transparency International Moscow, and Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the Civic Assistance organization, as well as a handful of others who tended their resignations this year.
Those members were replaced by mostly lesser known appointees — including pro-Kremlin figures and staunch critics of the Kremlin like Liliya Shibanova, head of the Golos election monitor, Pavel Chikov of the Agora Center, journalist Leonid Parfyonov, and Aleksandr Verkhovsky of the Sova Center. The council is an advisory panel established to assist the president in fulfilling his constitutional responsibilities to guarantee and protect human rights. Its tasks also include helping the development of civil society institutions in Russia.
The human rights council is traditionally comprised of fierce critics of Putin, but it has been criticized as little more than a talking shop. 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].”
The presidential decree increases the number of members in the council by at least half, to more than 60. The additions were selected via public debates and online voting involving more than 100,000 people, according to Mikhail Fedotov, the council’s chairman. Pribylovsky, however, says that the decision to conduct the voting online paved the way for falsifications using computer technology.
Pavel Salin, a Moscow-based political analyst, says that the expansion of the council could be a trick to dilute staunch criticism from the council’s remaining tough critics with mild, Kremlin-friendly rhetoric. “The role of this council has increased recently, because within the political system of the country, there has taken shape an opinion that sharply diverges from the outlook of the authorities and that wants to strike down at the political system,” Salin says. “If the council before was effectively technical, then now it can it play a fairly serious political role.” He says some United Russia and Kremlin officials are pushing Vladimir Putin to weaken the council in light of the anti-Kremlin discontent that has crystalized over the course of this year.