Russian-Speaking Americans Concerned With Human and Civil Rights Abuses in Russia Appeal to U.S. Congress and the G8 at Their National Convention in New York, Followed by Rally
American Russian-Speaking Association for Civil & Human Rights, Inc. (ARA) held its first national convention on May 6, 2012, in downtown Manhattan. The convention, under the title “Russian-Speaking America on the Rise: Awakening and Empowerment Through The ‘Fair Vote For Russia’ Movement”, was attended by ARA representatives from the states of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, California, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. Leaders of ARA groups in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Kansas addressed the convention via Skype, video, and written remarks. In total, ARA currently has a presence among Russian-speaking population in 20 U.S. states.
The convention was also attended, in person or via Skype, by leaders and representatives of the Association’s allies in the ‘Fair Vote for Russia’ movement and partners in the Coalition of Russian-Speaking Organizations for Civil & Human Rights: Institute of Modern Russia (President – Pavel Khodorkovsky), International Association of Former Political Prisoners and Victims of the Communist Regime (President – Alexander Bolonkin), The Andrei Sakharov Foundation (President – Alexey Semyonov), The General Petro Grigorenko Foundation (President – Andrew Grigorenko) and others.
The event began with expressions of outrage as participants watched online the scenes from Moscow, where police brutally attacked people, including women, teenagers, and the elderly, at the officially approved rally of protest against the inauguration of Vladimir Putin.
The convention opened with a video greeting by Ludmila Alexeyeva, Chairperson of the Moscow Helsinki Group and Member of Russia’s Presidential Council for Civil Society Development and Human Rights. The greeting was recorded in Moscow on the occasion of ARA formation. “At last … we have the first organization that unites [Russian-speakers in America] not only on the basis of shared culture, but also around shared policy views,” said Alexeyeva, the winner of 2004 Democracy Award by the US National Endowment for Democracy. “I thank its founders and wish this organization serious growth and real success.”
“Our organization grows out of an unprecedented movement in our diaspora, and out of real community needs, particularly among newer immigrants,” said Dr. Dmitri Daniel Glinski, ARA co-founder and Executive Director. “While the forces in Russia are highly unequal, and the timing of the events that will lead to change is unpredictable, we should capture the spirit of this movement to advance our two main interrelated goals. The first is to advocate with the U.S. government for more human rights-oriented policies toward Russia, including the speedy adoption of the Magnitsky Act. The second is to take part in building a more assertive and influential Russian-speaking community in America and to start catching up with other immigrant communities in the development of our advocacy organizations and nonprofit sector in general. We need to build our capacity to defend ourselves against media bias and discrimination in various markets, including employment; ensure a fairer representation of Russian-speaking Americans in government at various levels and in major philanthropic institutions; gain access to the sources of funding from which our nonprofit organizations have been excluded; create opportunities for our nonprofit talents and ensure their proper recognition; expand the range of communal dialogue and tolerance of different views in our own midst; and reduce our community’s dependency on others, without weakening the bonds that tie many of us to American Jewry.”
“Our Association is created to help increase the cohesiveness of our community and provide a venue for those who want to maintain their links to Russia while integrating in American society,” said Dr. Alexander Militarev, ARA co-founder and Board Chair. “We are building an organization that does not divide Russian-speaking immigrants by ethnicity or religion, and we see those among us who have paid a price struggling for civil and human rights as role models. It is delightful to see so many young faces in this room.”
“We are holding this convention and the rally on the eve of Mr.Putin’s inauguration to convey our solidarity with the movement for change in Russia,” said Xenia Grubstein, ARA co-founder and the chief organizer of Russian rallies in New York since December 2011. “It is particularly important given that today hundreds of people were brutally beaten and detained in Moscow. We also work in close cooperation with the international Fair Vote for Russia movement in other countries, and it is possible that its participants will follow our lead by setting up organizations in their respective countries. And in addition to our advocacy, we shall also get involved in simple and inconspicuous everyday activities to change those things around us that need to be changed.”
Ms. Grubstein also read the greeting to the convention issued by the Fair Vote for Russia movement, which says: “We are confident that by being united in the Association, you will push even stronger in support of the civil rights of the people of Russia, for their fair representation in the government.” Convention participants were also greeted by other international partners, including a written statement from Association Russie-Libertés (France) and the Fair Vote for Russia group in Sydney, Australia.
“Our Association shall develop a broad base of support by serving a wide variety of interests among Russian-speakers, who may or may not have an interest in Russian domestic affairs” said Alex Kodner, ARA co-founder and Associate Executive Director. “In addition to our rights advocacy, we should address the everyday problems of our community, including employment, education, and family, and help individual community members in their integration in American society. This will help us bring together Russian-speaking US citizens and those who keep arriving today in search of a better life.”
“ARA should pay serious attention to Russian authorities’ violations of civil rights of former Soviet political prisoners who struggled for the democratic transformation of Russia and now receive compensation from the government that amounts to 2.5 US Dollars for every month they spent in Soviet jail,” said Dr. Alexander Bolonkin, ARA Vice Chair of the Board, political prisoner from 1972 to 1987, and subsequently senior researcher at NASA. “We also need to ensure that the Russian government pays the pensions it owes to its former citizens and residents, regardless of their current citizenship and residency.”
“We are pleased to have supported the Association, which is a new endeavor for us, but is in line with the direction that we should be encouraging,” said Alexey Semyonov, President of The Andrey Sakharov Foundation. “We need to connect with our social environment that could support our mission and our development. I see the creation of the Association as an opportunity for us to get to another level. It is encouraging, and I hope that the Association will comprise all those directions that were mentioned here and that are important for our shared identity, including a strong component working to help secure human rights in Russia.”
“The Putin regime would not have been able to survive without collaboration with the West, as Putin’s cronies are looting the country and depositing their booty in Western bank accounts,” said Dr. Andrei Piontkovky, senior researcher at the Institute of Systems Studies in Moscow and a leading opposition columnist, in his video address from Moscow. “You will help change Russia by drawing the attention of US government and judiciary to the need to combat money laundering by Russian corrupt officials, including through such agencies as the Financial Action Task Force. In this case, one cannot speak about interference in Russia’s internal affairs – it is all about compliance with U.S. own laws on U.S. territory. And thank you for what you have done in broadening the support for the Magnitsky bill in American society and in Congress.”
“A coalition of Russian-speaking organizations is very important, and should have many different functions – political, cultural, educational, and other,” said Natalia Pelevine in her video greeting from Moscow. “I have big confidence in this undertaking and hope to be able in the future to participate in it directly.” She also invited ARA supporters to join the online organizing of protests in connection with Vladimir Putin’s expected trip to the US for the G8 Summit.
“It seems to me that the minimum platform on which all of us can unite is the defense of human rights and the pursuit of such a social system [in Russia] that allows for the existence of a human rights movement, the independent press, and independent judiciary,” said Andrew Grigorenko, President of General Petro Grigorenko Foundation. “In other words, we are talking about the institutions able to give that society a chance for a continuous self-correction.”
“Tomorrow we are having a meeting in the U.S. Senate, and I just received the news that our message to Sen. Kerry was shared with the CSCE representatives,” said Tanja Nyberg, ARA Federal Government Affairs Coordinator and representative in Virginia. “As we all know, the action on the Magnitsky Act in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee has been delayed in connection with the G8 summit, and our convention should convey our collective message to the Committee. Our Association’s group in the Greater Washington area has been very active and vocal since the first rally in December, and our Magnitsky memorial event on April 8 took place at the Pushkin Monument. So Washington DC now has an extension of the Pushkin Square in Moscow.”
“One of the main priorities for our Association is to develop or strengthen our close ties with those communities with whom we are historically related, including Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Jewish,” said Sergey Semyonov, ARA coordinator in Chicago and Midwest. “We shall promote our ideas through a wide range of cultural activities, as one can often find supporters in rather unexpected places.”
“The formation of ARA helps increase the visibility and influence of the Russian-speaking diaspora in the US,” said Vlad Burlutski, ARA representative in Erie, PA, in his video message. “It will also enable us to work more closely with established institutions of American society and with US Government and to defend the rights of Russian-speaking Americans.”
“ARA human rights activities should include assistance with emigration to those Russians who are exposed to a variety of threats in their native country,” said Larry Poltavtsev, ARA supporter from Vienna, VA, and President of Target Labs, Inc. “We should assist them with moving abroad and adapting to their new country.” He also shared the experience of the Webinon Center, assisting Russians on business-related migration, employment and career pursuit by skilled immigrants, as well as of the Spectrum Human Rights Alliance, a related agency that assists politically motivated migration.
“Russian-speaking community in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley is one of the largest in the country, and our group in support of the movement for change in Russia counts about 700 people,” said Andrey Strigin, ARA coordinator in Northern California. “In spite of our regular protest rallies, we have also been able to develop normal business relations with Russia’s Consulate General. We also combine our protest actions with musical events. Our largest rally across from the City Hall was also a musical concert. This helps us attract a much larger audience.”
“On behalf of our supporters in Missouri and Kansas, I welcome the participants of the convention and congratulate us all on this important step in our organization’s development,” read the statement by Aleksandr Elesev, ARA coordinator in Kansas City. “Today in Moscow due to government violence a point of no return was crossed. We wish strength and courage to our friends in Russia in their struggle for freedom.”
Participants of the Convention adopted, by signing, two documents. The first is a letter to Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) urging him, as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not to delay action on the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011. ARA finds it particularly important given Russian authorities’ violence and intimidation of opposition activists on the eve and during the protest rallies in Moscow on May 6. “The passage of the Magnitsky Act through the Committee before, rather than after the upcoming Summit of the Group of Eight Industrialized Nations in Camp David, MD, is in the best interest of both the United States and the people of Russia,” says the letter, which was subsequently signed by many ARA supporters and allies not present at the Convention, including Pavel Khodorkovsky, President of Institute of Modern Russia.
The second document adopted by the Convention is the address to the participants of the Summit of the Group of Eight Industrialized Nations in Camp David, MD. The letter urges them to use their diplomatic leverage with the Russian authorities to address the cases of 33 individuals convicted by Russian courts under questionable circumstances and widely viewed as victims of political persecution. The names on this list are the same as those submitted for presidential pardon by Russia’s Presidential Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights. Former President Dmitry Medvedev refused to pardon these individualsin the absence of their individual requests, with an implicit admission of guilt. As a result, only one on the Council’s initial list, Sergey Mokhnatkin, was pardoned. Participants of the Convention also added the three singers of the ‘Pussy Riot’ group to the list of cases they ask to be discussed at the G8 Summit.
The Convention established 11 permanent working groups of the Association, including a group on fundraising, a group on U.S. government relations, a group on inter-ethnic relations, a group on business and human rights, and a group on social issues, including the rights of sexual minorities.
After the Convention, its participants held a rally of solidarity with Russian advocates of democratic change, in front of Russia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, concluding it at the Sakharov-Bonner Corner.
On Monday, May 7, representatives of ARA leadership visited the office of Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) in Washington, DC, where they had a discussion on a range of issues pertinent to the Russian-speaking community. In the course of the meeting, they passed the materials of the Convention to the representatives of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
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