MOSCOW (WOMENSENEWS)–The cramped two-room offices of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, a prominent human rights group in Russia, are lined with files and stacks of paperwork.
Female volunteers answer the phones and handle walk-ins. Most of the clients are women who come to find missing sons, learn about methods to evade the draft and, in the worst case, prosecute the military for abuse or death of their children.
The office buzzes with activity as staffers struggle to keep up with a stream of women, one of whom sat for over an hour as a volunteer placed call after call to government offices requesting information on her missing son.
A few feet away, another volunteer stamped the word "deceased" on a stack of paperwork on missing soldiers.
With a war in Chechnya, concerns about "dedovschina," or violent hazing, and low salaries, many women do whatever they can to help their sons stay out of the military.
The group is one of the best-known and respected nongovernmental organizations in Russia. It has 300 regional offices and serves some 50,000 clients a year in office visits and hotline calls. It acts as a watchdog, bringing complaints of military abuse to national attention that would otherwise not receive press coverage.
But in the aftermath of a law that took effect in late April, Soldiers’ Mothers considers itself at risk.
The law gives the government the right to investigate all the activities of any nongovernmental organization, including a review of foreign funding and regional activities. If the government finds reason to object to a group it can take the group to court and press for its closure.
Law Rankles U.S.
Along with Russia’s recent moves to temporarily cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, the law has rankled U.S. officials. In April, Vice President Dick Cheney issued a condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"In many areas of civil society–from religion and the news media, to advocacy groups and political parties–the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people," Cheney said in a speech to European leaders in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius.
Cheney’s comments brought denials and outrage from Russian government officials. The tensions are building as President Bush prepares to meet Putin in St. Petersburg in July or at the summit of the Group of Eight major industrial powers, when Russia takes its turn as head.
Leaders of nongovernmental groups are hoping that Bush will make an appearance at a conference they plan to hold on the sidelines of the summit.
Soldiers’ Mothers holds a meeting for families and recruits to ask questions about how to evade the draft every Wednesday.
At one of these meetings in March, the meeting room, housed in a building for the political opposition group Yabloko, was packed mostly with mothers and some young men. Leaders offered advice about getting a medical exemption during the discussion. One technique involved having the recruit drink cups of coffee and smoke about 12 cigarettes to drive his heart rate up for the exam.
‘Russia’s Cindy Sheehan’
Valentina Melnikova, one of the Soldiers’ Mothers five leaders, ran the meeting.
A stout older woman with fiery red hair, Melnikova exemplifies just what the government is up against. A longtime organizer at Soldiers’ Mothers who got involved to keep her own son out of Afghanistan, Melnikova calls herself Russia’s Cindy Sheehan, the U.S. activist who has invigorated anti-war activism. Melnikova says she has spoken with Sheehan about working together.
Even though the group survived a court summons in late April, many rights activists worry it will be the main target of the law, both because it is working on a political issue and because it is so effective.
The final draft of the law appeared in January just as Soldiers’ Mothers was bringing a particularly horrific case of military abuse to national attention.
A first-year solider in Chelyabinsk–a city located in Siberia in the southern foothills of the Urals–was beaten so severely that his legs, genitals and right fingertip were later amputated.
Soldiers’ Mothers was alerted about the case and a military cover-up by doctors who performed the amputation. The group pushed for press attention, leading to a national outcry and calls for the resignation of the Russian defense minister.
Jumping to Conclusions
Ella Pamfilova, who sits on a presidential-appointed committee on nongovernment organizations and advised Putin on the law, says critics may be jumping to conclusions.
"Today, the law is not worse than in any other countries," Pamfilova said. "It’s not good; I cannot say that it is great or perfect. It’s mediocre. But it doesn’t have anything terrible in it right now. The problem is how it will be applied, because it has a number of articles that are very vague."
Ludmilla Alexeeva is the doyenne of the human rights community, a vibrant 78-year-old who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. She says older activists such as herself managed to work under the Soviet Union, when repression was much worse.
But while there aren’t bread lines in Moscow or dissidents being sent off to Siberia, Alexeeva says that the law has created a familiar atmosphere of fear that will undermine what human rights activists have together achieved in the 15 years since the fall of communism.
"The real danger is that the law will attack the network of connections between nongovernmental organizations," she told Women’s eNews during an interview in her apartment just off Novy Arbat, a cobblestone street full of souvenir shops. "This will be destroyed of course, and it’s very sad because the efforts of 10 years we worked hard to build such a network and our human rights activities are successful because we are networked, not separate organizations."
Alexandra Poolos, former managing editor of Women’s eNews, has worked for Newsday, Radio Free Europe and the Wall Street Journal Europe. She has recently completed a fellowship at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.