No Reset

Obama Gets an Earful on Syria From Russian Human-Rights Activists

The few who bothered to meet the president in St. Petersburg gave him an earful on Syria. By Anna Nemtsova.

President Obama must have been disappointed to see the group of activists at St. Petersburg’s Crown Plaza hotel. Only nine showed up.

Some of Russia’s top human-rights defenders, it seemed, realized the American leader had failed to reset relations not only with Russian authorities but Russian society as well, and turned down their invitations to meet on Friday afternoon. Activists said they doubted that a president who accepted the convictions and pursuit of whistleblowers in his own country would be an influential advocate for the issues they face in Russia.

One of the nine, opposition leader Yevgenia Chirikova, admitted that she felt she needed to talk to Obama about his own challenges. “I came to criticize Obama, to make him realize that impeachment, which he might face soon, is a trifle compared to the blood he would always have on his hands if he bombs Syria now,” Chirikova, the winner of the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize, told The Daily Beast. But she added that sitting down to talk was still important, even if the chances for any positive changes were low.

At the meeting, Chirikova urged Obama to consider the Magnitsky Act, the 2011 law that punishes the Russian officials implicated in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky by banning their entry to U.S. Russians paid a high price for that law, including new anti-U.S. adoption measures last winter, the activist said. “I wonder how to add more names to Magnitsky list. For instance, the mayor of Khimki town, who is responsible in the death of his critic, journalist Mikhail Beketov. But Obama did not answer my question,” said Chirikova, who’s been jailed numerous times for her activities and officials have threatened to take away her two children if she did not stop her activism.

The scene was different back in 2009, during Obama’s first visit to Russia. Dozens of civil activists and human-rights defenders met with the newly elected president, hopeful that his “reset” ideas would bring more political freedom to Russia. Unlike today, the U.S. and Russian presidents were meeting at a summit; at one such meeting, the president mentioned the physical assault on activist Lev Ponomarev, the founder of All-Russian Movement for Human Rights. Ponomarev was among those who skipped the meeting with Obama this year.

“If they told me they needed to save a person, I would have immediately come,” Ponomarev explained. “We recently met with John Kerry without any results—these meetings with the U.S. leaders make no sense. But they are a nice tradition. We complain to them and they tell us that we are great,” he added.

Svetlana Gannushkina, chairwoman of the human-rights group Civil Support Committee, also declined the invitation, instead sending her appeal in writing. She complimented America’s leadership for feeling responsible for the world’s fate, but warned President Obama in her letter: “Military operations leading to the death of new victims among the civilian population are not the best expression of this responsibility.” Of Obama, she said “we can see that he is ready to send whistleblowers to jail and bomb other states—this is a horrible example for Russian authorities and a disillusioning one for Russian youth.”