Vladimir Putin has met with the renewed Presidential Council on Human Rights and promised to review the controversial law on ‘foreign agents’ as well as the debated bill on the protection of religious feelings.
On Monday, the president approved the new make-up of the Russian Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, which comprises 62 members.
Putin admitted that his opinion might sometimes be different from that of the rights watchdog’s members. However, he urged the advocates not to take offence and promised to do the same, speaking on Monday at the first meeting of the council.
“It should be frank, transparent and honest joint work,” the Russian President underlined.
Looking back at his previous experience of cooperation with the top human rights body, the President admitted that not everything that he had considered to be right actually was right.
“Same as I can’t say that everything that the council’s members asked me for was grounded,” Putin noted.
The president agreed to discuss again the earlier adopted controversial law that labels non-profit organizations (NGOs) funded from abroad and engaged in political activity as “foreign agents.”
"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.”
The sole purpose of this law is to prevent foreign organizations representing other states from interfering into Russia’s internal affairs, Putin underlined.
According to the president, it is one thing when Russia discusses its own problems. But when someone else attempts to “rule us on the sly, by financing certain structures” it is wrong, and “we should at least know who those people are.” Putin stressed he sees nothing unusual or anti-democratic in such a requirement.
The president pointed out that whatever is done in Russia is done for the sole purpose of making the country more efficient and sustainable. But that cannot be achieved if the state leans only on “law enforcing and repressive bodies.” The society should become more organized, efficient and responsible, Putin stressed.
The president has urged the lower house not to rush with the adoption of the new bill that introduces punishment of up to five years in prison for insulting believers’ religious feelings and desecration of shrines.
The draft law is strongly opposed by many public activists who fear it may be used as an instrument for censorship, political persecution and, also, it may affect the freedom of artistic expression.
One of the new members of the council, liberal politician and former presidential candidate Irina Khakamada, stressed that the proposed legislation is very controversial and “dangerous” and may divide the community.
Putin suggested discussing the bill with rights activists. “Let’s think together to avoid any kinds of extremes,” he said.
The president reminded that a huge number of priests representing different religious groups were subject to harsh repressions in the Soviet era. Russia has to take into account that “painful legacy” and think about the protection of clerics and people’s religious feelings.
The bill was initiated after a series of acts of vandalism against religious sites and violence against clerics.
According to the president, it may be happening because of a lack of general culture or understanding of spiritual values. Such understanding cannot be imposed by force, he believes. However, the state cannot leave it without a reaction.
“If people have no responsibility and understanding of what is happening within the community, there should be some kind of regulation,” Putin said.
The council – established in 2004 – was significantly reshuffled after a string of resignations that followed disputed parliamentary elections in December 2011 and Putin’s return to the Kremlin in the spring.About a dozen members quit the Council – which initially included 40 rights activists.
The candidates for the vacant posts were selected via a newly-introduced procedure, which was criticized by many rights activists. For a start, the watchdog’s working group selected 86 candidates. Then, public discussions and voting were held on the institution’s website. Finally, the list of candidates was submitted to the President for approval.
One of the contenders, the head of Moscow Bureau for Human Rights Aleksandr Brod, announced a hunger-strike in September after his name was excluded from the list of contenders. During Monday’s meeting Putin agreed to make Brod a member of the council.
Fifteen people, including Russian veteran rights advocate Lyudmila Alekseeva, and the head of Transparency International Russia, Elena Panfilova officially stopped being members of the council.
The chair of the watchdog, Mikhail Fedotov believes though that the former members may become permanent experts in the council’s working groups.