Idealism expires as a Communist becomes Russia's rights monitor

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The Independent Online
IN A MOVE which symbolises the loss of the idealism that held sway in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, Russia's parliament yesterday elected a senior member of the Communist Party to be the nation's human-rights commissioner.

The decision, part of a trade-off over jobs between parties, infuriated Sergei Kovalyov, the previous incumbent, a former dissident considered Russia's successor to Andrei Sakharov.

Mr Kovalyov, the country's best-known rights activist, who spent years in a Soviet prison camp for his activities, called the appointment of Oleg Mironov a "foregone conclusion". He told the State Duma, or lower house, before being shouted down: "The shameless deal leading a Communist to this position is monstrous."

Rights groups, which blame the Communist Party for trampling individual rights during decades of repression, are certain to argue that the job of commissioner, though vague (and lamentably under-funded) is needed, and should not be a mere chip in a political bartering process. The concept of human rights is still in its infancy in Russia. The 1993 constitution, which affords citizens considerable protection, is ignored at grassroots level and by the government. Abuses of individuals by the legal system and the authorities - notably the police, who beat up prisoners and target ethnic minorities - are still widespread.

Such is the relative novelty of a rights commissioner that the role has yet to be fully defined, though he has the power to launch legal appeals for those who believe their rights have been violated. He can also issue annual reports. The appointment of Mr Mironov, 59, a former law professor who is a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, ended two years of tawdry bargaining between parties over who should have the job.

In the end, the Communists appear to have been given it in return for giving the pro-government party "Our Home is Russia" chairmanship of the parliamentary defence committee. Mr Mironov is now expected to quit the party. Among the 11 candidates were Mr Kovalyov, fired from the commissioner's post in 1995 after mounting a campaign excoriating President Boris Yeltsin for the Chechen war but not before confirming his reputation as a courageous, fiery defender of rights. Another contender was the former justice minister Valentin Kovalyov, who was fired after publication of photographs which appeared to show him frolicking in a steam bath with two naked women, neither of whom was his wife.