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Public Statements

Democracy And Human Rights In Russia

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. McCAIN. Now I wish to take this opportunity to speak about the ongoing cause of human rights and democracy in Russia. These are not issues we hear much about from the current Russian Government, unfortunately, unless it is to denounce those Russian citizens who aspire to these universal values.

I had an opportunity the other week to meet with one of these brave Russian champions of human rights, human dignity, and freedom--a man by the name of Boris Nemtsov. I know several other people and other Members of Congress had a similar opportunity to speak with him. Mr. Nemtsov is but one of the many Russians who believe their country deserves a government that enhances and enshrines the human rights of its people in an inviolable rule of law, that allows citizens to hold their leaders accountable through a real Democratic process. This Saturday, March 20, many Russian human rights activists are planning public demonstrations all across their great country--I might add at great risk, since there is very little doubt that the Russian Government may even forcibly repress some of these public demonstrations, which will be peaceful. I asked Mr. Nemtsov what we in Washington could do to support the cause of human rights in Russia, and he simply said: ``Speak up for it. Speak up for us.''

It is my pleasure to do that today.

The Russian Government will surely take whatever I say here and similar things said by others and try to paint Russia's champions of human rights and democracy as puppets and proxies of the United States.

Of course, they would say and do the exact same thing even if no Americans spoke up for the human rights of Russia's citizens. So we should refrain from internalizing the Kremlin's talking points, especially when Russians themselves are requesting our moral support for their cause. Because the fact is, this isn't about particular individuals or particular demonstrations held this week or any week in Russia. This is about universal values--values that we in the United States embody but do not own, values that should shape the conduct of every government, be it ours or Russia's or any other country's. When we see citizens of conviction seeking to hold their governments to the higher standard of human rights, we should speak up for them.

This is all the more necessary when we realize the obstacles those citizens face, especially in Russia. I wish to read a passage from the 2009 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, which was recently released by our State Department. Here is how they described the human rights situation in Russia:

Direct and indirect government interference in local and regional elections restricted the ability of citizens to change their government through free and fair elections. During the year, there were a number of high-profile killings of human rights activists by unknown persons, apparently for reasons related to their professional activities. There were numerous credible reports that law enforcement personnel engaged in physical abuse of subjects. Prison conditions were harsh and could be life threatening. Eight journalists, many of whom reported critically on the government, were killed during the year. With one exception the government failed to identify, arrest, or prosecute any suspects. Beating and intimidation of journalists remained a problem. The government limited freedom of assembly, and police sometimes used violence to prevent groups from engaging in peaceful protest.

It will be very interesting to see how the police and the government treat these demonstrations that will take place across Russia on March 20. These conditions would be intolerable in any country, and this conduct would be unacceptable for any government. Clearly, Russia today is not the Soviet Union, neither in its treatment of Russia's people nor in its foreign policy. But I fear that may be damning with faint praise, and Russians themselves are right to hold their country and their government up to higher standards.

Russia is a great nation, and like all Americans of good will, I want Russia to be strong and successful. I want Russia's economy to be a vibrant source of wealth and opportunity for all Russians. I want Russia to play a proud and responsible role in world affairs. I will continue to affirm in public and in private that the best way for Russians to secure what they say they care about most--reduced corruption, a strengthened and equitable rule of law, economic modernization--is by nurturing a pluralistic and free civil society, by building independent and sustainable institutions of democracy, and by respecting the human rights of all.

I was happy to see that Russian political parties not aligned with the Kremlin actually won more seats in regional parliamentary elections this week. Perhaps this signals a growing recognition among Russians that the authoritarian tendencies of the Kremlin need to be rolled back through popular opposition. Perhaps the Russian Government could allow future elections at all levels to be freer and fairer. Perhaps. But there is still a long way to go for the cause of democracy in Russia, and I hope these small electoral gains only embolden democracy's defenders.

As we speak up for the rights of Russia's dissidents, we must do the same for the rights of Russia's neighbors as well--neighbors such as the country of Georgia. I visited Georgia in January, and I had a chance to travel to the so-called ``administrative boundary line'' with the breakaway region of Abkhazia. On the other side of that boundary line is sovereign Georgian territory occupied by Russian troops, as it has been since the 2008 invasion. When I was in Munich last month for an annual security conference, I heard several Russian officials speaking from the same script, alleging acts of aggression by Georgian forces against Russian peacekeepers--the same kind of rhetoric we heard before the 2008 invasion. This should give us all pause. I know Washington has a lot of foreign policy challenges at the moment, but we cannot forget Georgia and the support it deserves amid a continuing threat from its neighbor to the north.

A Russian government that better protects the human dignity of its people would be more inclined to deal with its neighbors in peace and mutual respect. That is why we should all say a silent prayer and a public word of support for Russia's courageous human rights activists, as they make their voices heard this Saturday. These brave men and women want the best for their country. They want a government that is not only strong but just, peaceful, inclusive, and democratic. I urge Russia's leaders to recognize that peaceful champions of universal values are not a threat to Russia, and that groups such as this should not face the kinds of violence, repression, and intimidation that Russian authorities have used against similar demonstrators in the past. The eyes of the world will be watching.

Mr. President, I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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