Night Is Falling On Human Rights Across Yeltsin's Russia

Recent firing of ex-dissident suggests the rule of law in Moscow barely exists

NO Soviet-era dissident had risen as high in current Russian political life as Sergei Kovalev. But now Mr. Kovalev, a protege of the late Andrei Sakharov and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, has been brought down: On March 10, parliament stripped him of his post as the Russian Federation's first commissioner for human rights. His dismissal, prompted by outspoken criticism of the war in Chechnya, adds to the sense that respect for human rights and the rule of law in Russia now hangs in the balance.

The Chechnya assault, which Kovalev's commission estimates has left 24,000 civilians dead, is a prime illustration of President Boris Yeltsin's increasingly heavy-handed rule -- and his disdain for human rights. Kovalev's removal, however, shows that parliament is no more to be trusted than the presidency as a guardian of human rights and constitutional order.

Kovalev's downfall, in a sense, was quite foreseeable, given the shaky legal basis on which he was expected to exercise his mandate. In October 1993, Mr. Yeltsin created the President's Commission on Human Rights by decree -- his favored mode of governing. When Russia adopted a new constitution that December, parliament was instructed to pass a federal constitutional law establishing the commissioner's office. But Russia's fractious State Duma, dominated by former communists and hard-line conservative supporters of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, has been more interested in political squabbles than in making laws and shouldering constitutional obligations. A draft law on the commissioner's job got no further than a first reading.

No one likes the whistle-blower

Again, Yeltsin stepped in with a decree. This time he let Kovalev, already appointed chair of the President's Commission on Human Rights, be ombudsman while parliament left the commission dangling in legal limbo. On the face of it, the situation seemed promising: Kovalev would occupy two posts. He would chair the President's Commission on Human Rights -- and be ombudsman of the Russian Federation. In fact, his position was vulnerable. Neither post had a basis in law; both rested on presidential decrees. This was especially problematic since the conduct of the presidency was an object of Kovalev's scrutiny.

Kovalev, as principled under Yeltsin as he had been in the days of Brezhnev, made enemies from the start. In August 1994, he issued a damning annual report on human rights in Russia, which members of the presidency attempted to suppress. Next, he took on -- unsuccessfully -- Yeltsin's decree to combat organized crime, with its sweeping suspension of civil liberties.

But Chechnya was the last straw. Spending three weeks under the bombs in Grozny, Kovalev sent out daily dispatches that described the assault as an ''enormous human tragedy.'' He accused the Russian government of massive violations of international human rights norms.

Is the killing constitutional?

While it was clearly Kovalev's criticisms of the war in Chechnya that prompted parliament to sack him, the deputies did not have to give any real grounds for his dismissal. Since his office had no basis in constitutional law, Kovalev could be fired arbitrarily, out of political malice. Simply put, Kovalev was punished for his independence -- the basic quality required of any ombudsman who hopes to be effective.

Neither Russia's parliament nor its presidency has been any friend of human rights and constitutional order. That leaves the judiciary. But prospects for a bold judicial defense of constitutional norms are also gloomy. As of last month, Russia at least does have a Constitutional Court, replacing an earlier court that Yeltsin paralyzed when it challenged his armed attack on parliament in October 1993.

As its first action, the fragile new court will next month consider the constitutionality of the assault on Chechnya. Can the court be any more successful than its predecessor -- or Sergei Kovalev -- in standing up to unfettered presidential power?

In introducing the resolution dismissing Russia's first human rights commissioner, one Duma deputy said that the controversy surrounding Kovalev had made it impossible for parliament to consider the draft law establishing his post. Duma members now have the duty to build this critically important position on the rock of federal constitutional law, rather than the sands of presidential decree.

Unfortunately, even if the law is passed, it is hard to imagine that Russia's current parliament will choose to replace Sergei Kovalev with someone of the same principled and independent cast of mind.

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