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Boris Altshuler: Speech at the conference marking the 40th anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group

posted 8 Jun 2016, 09:01 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 8 Jun 2016, 09:01 ]
12 May 2016. 

By Boris Altshuler, Chair of the board, Right of the Child, Member of the Moscow Helsinki Group 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group 

The announced theme of my speech is ‘The protection of social rights and its link with civic rights.’ The link between these two areas of human rights work is self-evident. It is enough to glance at neighbouring Finland, a country that has put into effect the reforms of the emperor Alexander II: independent courts, free and fair elections, and a system of local government obliging the authorities to take into account the interests of the local residents. The result is a country that, with almost no natural resources whatsoever, is a world leader in terms of standard of living and the social protection of its citizens. I would add that a Finnish police officer would never understand our classic joke about the militiaman who doesn’t need a salary: ‘They gave me a pistol, they gave me a peaked cap – the rest I’ll do myself.’ 

We – at the NGO Right of the Child – are literally buried under an avalanche of desperate pleas for help from families with children: ‘Nowhere to live’, ‘Nothing to feed the children with’. And questions arise: ‘Why in a country that, in terms of natural resources, is the richest in the world, do millions of children regularly go hungry?’ ‘Why do children have nowhere to live in the largest country in the world?’ (the latter question was the heading of the statement Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva and I put out in April 2015). 

On 25 April this year in Novaya gazeta I published an article entitled ‘Whoever decided to ‘deal with’ NGOs has also ‘dealt with’ Russia’ [«Кто “заказал” НКО, тот “заказал” и Россию»], the main idea of which was that the attack in the manner of the ‘intelligence services’ on active human rights organizations was organized by the same corrupt, monopolistic monolith which you can say is either in power or consorts with those in power, and which is robbing the country, in other words suffocating Russia and Russian citizens by pushing up the prices on new-build residential buildings, on food and essential items, and at the same time ruthlessly suppresses the socially important small and medium sized business, not to say any competitive economic initiative. 

At Right of the Child we work with large-scale associations of farmers, of construction workers, and we know about the truly effective proposals these people have to overcome these monopolies, and by the same token engage a huge mass of currently inactive Russians. We know that these proposals have lain neglected for years on the desks of government, and we clearly see how impenetrable this same corrupt and monopolistic monolith is. 

It is well known that free economic initiative, free market competition, are the basis of any democracy. The basic truth of market economy lies in the fact that a free market itself is unstable and always and everywhere requires strict government protection from monopolisation and the collusion of cartels. This government protection of the competitive market formed the basis of the well-known ‘economic miracles’ of post-war Japan, Germany and Singapore and so forth. 

There has been nothing similar in the New Russia over the 25 years since its creation. The assertion, popular among our ‘market-reformers’, that ‘the market will itself put everything in its place’ is, as Talleyrand said, ‘worse than a crime, it is a mistake’. It has to be admitted that in questions of anti-monopoly and anti-corruption policy the Russian government is a dwarf, a homunculus, in comparison with the governments of the United States of America or, for example, Finland, that I mentioned earlier. 

Paradoxically, Russian liberal economists and opposition politicians have never talked, and never talk, about the need to strengthen the anti-monopoly functions of government, not least as a measure of first necessity to overcome mass poverty among the population, despite the fact that we have regularly brought this issue up with them. One of the tragic consequences of this ‘error’ has been the dead-end of democracy-building in which the Russian Federation now finds itself. 

It is impossible to build a state that observes civil rights in practice, and not on paper, if social rights, that determine the quality of life for millions, are ignored. I suggest that it is precisely because of this that the Western programmes of ‘democracy building’ have been unsuccessful, in essence failed completely. They have been carried out in the conditions of total corruption and monopolism that formed on the territory of the former USSR after its collapse, conditions that have been unbearable for the population. After all, what we are talking about took place not only in Russia. The same situation exists in Ukraine, and in all other countries of the former Soviet Union. 

International treaty-based obligations in the sphere of combatting corruption and monopolies could have been the main support. In August 2015 the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) Yury Orlov and Liudmila Alekseeva, along with the majority of other members of MHG, called on the OSCE to work out and adopt one more ‘basket’ of obligations for the States participating in the Helsinki process in the sphere of social rights (see link in the addendum). Since this appeal went unanswered, in November 2015 Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva and I wrote to the German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier (since Germany was to be chair of the OSCE in 2016) with a proposal to work together to develop effective measures to overcome corruption and the growth of monopolies. Again there was no answer. Over the last two months I have written three letters on the same issue to the Special Representative of the Federal Government of Germany for the OSCE, member of the Bundestag Gernot Erler. There has been NO response to any of these appeals! It is plain that ‘real politicians’ in the West as in Russia, in fact everywhere, are the same. 

In this sense the situation today is fundamentally different from that of 1970-80 when by some miracle it was possible to force the ‘real politicians’ of the West to speak out in defence of the rights of specific individuals who fell victim to the totalitarian system. Andrei Sakharov, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech of 1975, spoke out about the fundamental importance and effectiveness of such an approach. It was on this basis that, at the initiative of Yury Orlov and other Soviet human rights activists, the international Helsinki movement was born. And this proved to be extraordinarily effective. Indeed, it was thanks to sympathy of this kind for the plight of specific individuals that the ‘Cold War’ ended, and humanity took a step back from the brink of thermonuclear war. 

How we lacking we are in that kind of sympathy today! There have been human rights defenders in the past, they are here today, and there will be in the future. But in the matter of saving specific, concrete individuals and families with children, we are catastrophically lacking in political support. And do what we may, we seem unable to get this support either in Russia or in the West. 


Internet links on the issues raised in my speech: 

1. 06.08.2015. Yury Orlov, Liudmila Alekseeva and a majority of members of Moscow Helsinki Group, ‘Violations of social rights are a threat to interantional peace’ (in Russian and English): 

2. 25.08.2015. Boris Altshuler, speech at MHG conference ‘New “Basket” as Remedy against Appalling World Instability’ (in Russian, in English

3. 08.02.2016. Boris Altshuler, ‘Global Security, Sustainable Development and Social Rights: recipes for human rights from Moscow’ (in Russian, in English

4. 22.05.2016. Boris Altshuler, ‘The Борис Альтшулер, ‘The elderly are put to death, and then eaten’ (in Russian). 

5. 21.05.2016. Boris Altshuler – on the 95th anniversary of the birth of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov (in Russian here and here