The annual report of the US State Department on human rights conditions in 194 countries has a chapter on Russia. To me, a Russian and a Muscovite, its nearly as absorbing a read as the books of the now famous detective writer Boris Akunin.
The point at issue is not the long list of the weak points of Russian democracy. To a Russian reader, it is rather boring, as he or she knows very well where and how Russia lacks human rights and civil liberties.
It is true that people die and disappear in Chechnya without good reason. It is true that elections, from parliamentary to gubernatorial, are not perfect and frequently give rise to accusations of the use of the so-called administrative resource. It is true that Russian courts should become more independent of the authorities, make wider use of juries and do many other things to guarantee the equality of Russians before law.
But, if we remember that barely a decade has passed since the dissolution of the Soviet system of lawlessness, we will see that Russian democracy, even in its currently imperfect state, is a cause for optimism and possibly even pride.
So, criticism of Russia in the US State Department's human rights report goes unnoticed by the ordinary Russian reader. However, interest bordering on amazement flares up immediately when one reads about the incredible number of public and private organisations, commissions, foundations and even media that are working in Russia on the money of the US budget.
The nominal raison d'etre of these "partners," as the report says, is the numerous actions, projects and campaigns they carry out, allegedly to promote democracy in Russia. Poor Russia, it is entwined in a mesh of oversight and enlightenment centres, which teach us ignorant Russians thousands of things, from the way to treat thieving magnates to what can be viewed as sufficient proof of a Russian spying for a foreignintelligence service.
And this lesson is being given to Russia on money from the US budget.
The above report says that one of the US partners (meaning a Russian organisation financed by the USA) trained 1,000 students from 200 regional television stations in management, journalism, marketing and production technologies. That is no small figure. The scale of this missionary lecturing stuns me.
The list of such "partners" includes at least 2,000 Russian non-governmental organisations that live on US grants and other forms of financial assistance. In all, the USA provided about $79.2 mln in 2003 on nursing Russia's embryonic democracy, including $48 mln for exchange programmes. This leaves $31.2 mln that the US spent directly in Russia allegedly in a bid to make civil liberties flourish here.
One can only welcome this untiring and persistent work for democracy!
But Moscow and international human rights organisations have one disturbing question: Is Washington, which is spending its energy and the taxpayers' money on the development of democracy abroad (including in Russia), disregarding Americans' requirements? Should it not address the acute problem of democracy at home instead?
The annual State Department reports traditionally do not cover the human rights situation in the USA. Meanwhile, a thinking reader will be shocked even by a cursory glance at the chapter in the annual reports of Amnesty International on the situation in the USA.
Why is the US State Department worried so much about the death of people in Chechnya if 16,110 people were killed in the USA (according to the US Department of Justice) - an absolute world record in the number of lethal crimes? Why does it prefer not to notice that 16,000 Iraqis, including 10,000 peaceful civilians, who died in carpet bombings of residential areas and commercial centres in Iraq (according to the Britain's Independent on January 20, 2004)?
The insincerity of US lecturers of the Russian media about the freedom of the press becomes especially outright if we remember that, according to the study of Sonoma State University, the freedom of the press, speech and expression of one's opinion is in a deep crisis in the USA.
Take the scandals that regularly shake the US media. Here is one of the latest examples: On June 5, 2003, two chief editors of the New York Times resigned after charges of deliberate distortion of information against them were proved. In point of fact, similar incidents encouraged 15 prominent American journalists to publish the book "Black List," where they warn that the freedom of the US press is in danger. One of the co-authors, Kristina Borjesson, who had worked for CBS and CNN, said in an interview with Le Figaro that the US authorities controlled all information carried by the national media, in one way or another, and American journalists would soon degenerate to the role of government stenographers (Le Figaro, May 8, 2003).
More examples could be provided, and not to illustrate famous Soviet-era propaganda thesis about the US criticising human rights violations in the Soviet Union, while Black Americans were being lynched in the US.
The thing is that if the USA, though the civil liberties situation in America is dramatic, deems it possible to spend millions on nurturing some "independent press centres," "public commissions" and "charity foundations" abroad, including in Russia, its generosity must have a very serious reason.
Vladimir Putin put his finger on it in his annual state of the nation address to the Federal Assembly. He said that Russia was experiencing political, economic and media pressure from those foreign elite, centres of power and other external forces that want to weaken Russia as a global commercial rival.
As soon as the Russian leadership scores the first modest results in restoring elementary order in the country - putting the oligarch on a par with the poor man before law, ending the use of a national television channel for gross blackmail of the authorities, creating conditions for the overwhelming approval of the constitution in Chechnya - then these achievements are denounced as a slide towards authoritarianism.
The audacity of these denunciations is surprising. The US Secretary of State, who is saved from biting questions by aides turning the camera away, deems it possible to complain about the civil liberties situation in Russia in an interview to Izvestia.
Meanwhile, the Russian human rights advocates who stand up for the Russian scientist who sells secrets abroad do not rise in support of the rights of the detainees of the Iraqi Abu Ghraib prison and the Guantanamo base, or relatives of the Al-Jazeera cameraman who was killed by a US missile - the people who really need their assistance.
As Vladimir Putin said, such organisations, foundations and commissions "do not want to bite the hand that feeds them." In plain English, human rights are frequently used as a means of payment for mercenary foreign interests in Russia.