The appointment of new human rights ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova has provoked a mixed reaction within Russian society in part because she is a former law enforcement official and a conservative politician who supported a series of controversial laws.

Tatyana Moskalkova, a new human rights ombudswoman. Photo: RIA Novosti

Last week the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, announced the appointment of a new human rights ombudswoman, Tatyana Moskalkova. The appointment has already generated its fair share of controversy within Russia because of her professional background in law enforcement and her conservative mindset.

Notorious for her deeply conservative and pro-government views, Moskalkova is expected to shy away from the more liberal approach of her predecessor, Ella Pamfilova, who recently left her post to become the new head of the Central Election Commission. Moskalkova is a State Duma deputy, a member of the Just Russia Party and, on top of that, a former law enforcement official — a major general in the Russian Interior Ministry. She voted for the adoption of a series of controversial legislative initiatives, including the notorious law on foreign agents, which targets nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia. Moreover, she supported the ban on adoption of Russian orphans by foreign families.

Moskalkova also initiated the amendment to Russia’s Criminal Code, which imposed liability for the violation of public morality. The idea for this amendment came shortly after Russia’s feminist punk group Pussy Riot carried out a controversial anti-government performance against Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in February 2012. A Moscow court convicted the participants of the group to two years in prison for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."

The comments by Moskalkova on her appointment to the new post are indicative of what Russia can expect from her. “Today, the human rights agenda is becoming increasingly used by Western and American institutions as a weapon of blackmail, speculations, threats, and attempts to destabilize and put pressure on Russia,” she said. “The Human Rights Commissioner has the necessary tools to counteract these phenomena.”

No wonder, then, that the appointment of Moskalkova brought about a mixed reaction in Russian society, with the Russian opposition describing her appointment as both absurd and humiliating.

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According to Leonid Gozman, democratic activist and a fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy, Moskalkova’s background does matter and has serious implications for Russia’s opposition and human rights campaigners.

“If one looks at her life path, it will be clear that she supported many repressive laws,” he told Russia Direct. “Nether does she abstain from voting nor is she absent [during the parliamentary sessions]. She is pretty notorious for her [conservative] rhetoric and the oppression of civil freedoms.”

At the same time, Gozman does not rule out Moskalkova’s decisions might be both effective and irrational due to their potentially repressive and heavy-handed nature. To clarify his idea, he gives an abstract example of how something can be both effective and irrational at the same time.

“If we discuss ways of how to improve road laws and regulations and boost safety on roads, we could forbid car driving entirely and there wouldn’t be car accidents in this case. No matter how you assess this decision, though, it is somewhat senseless.”

Gozman believes that Moskalkova will support the Kremlin’s repressive tendencies and, in so doing, contribute to tightening the screws in the country in general. To quote him, “there is no ground to believe” that Moskalkova will be rigorous in defending human rights and freedoms in Russia, given the fact that she is a police officer at heart, with the penchant for oppressive measures ingrained in her professional DNA.

Likewise, Russia’s former human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, raised his eyebrows at this appointment. According to him, the decision is ill considered, especially in the context of the recent appointment of Pamfilova as head of the Central Election Commission. In other words, Moskalkova’s appointment overshadowed the successful move of the authorities of entrusting the country’s electoral process to Pamfilova, who remains relatively popular among the opposition and liberals.

In contrast, Pavel Salin, the director of the Center for Political Studies at the Financial University under the Russian Government, warns against oversimplifying the impact of the appointment of the new human rights ombudswomen. “One should keep in mind that Moskalkova’s initiatives were very different, but only the oppressive ones stuck in our memory,” he told Russia Direct.

At the same time, the head of the Presidential Council on Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotov, argues that Moskalkova may be able to cope with her new obligations. According to him, the new positon will be challenging for her because of her lack of experience in the human rights domain. Yet, he emphasizes that human rights activists are not born but created.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen if she will be able to fulfill her commitments, given the fact that she has to deal with human rights activists and opposition campaigners, who are inherently skeptical toward those brought up in a law enforcement environment.

The first 100 days

To assess the work of Moskalkova, it requires at least 100 days, according to Salin. Her deeds should be a good indicator if her appointment is a step backward or forward. It is especially relevant in the context of the 2016 parliamentary elections in Russia, scheduled for September. That is the reason why October 2016 is the best time to evaluate all of Moskalkova’s ups and downs.

“All expectations and misgivings will be either confirmed or refuted,” Salin said, while warning the approaches of how the new human rights ombudswoman will talk to liberals and opposition will be certainly different in comparison with the one of Moskalkova’s predecessors. “They should understand that times have changed,” he admitted adding that the opposition itself has to be ready to come up with a compromise.       

The previous ombudswoman was easy to get along with for human rights activists, echoes Gozman. It will not be the case anymore during Moskalkova’s tenure, the expert regrets. What concerns Gozman most is the fact that the authorities appointed a figure who does not want to be criticized and, more importantly, is not accustomed to put up with the harsh criticism toward the authorities. 

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According to him, the position of human rights ombudswoman requires tolerance toward criticism, which means “the criticism of the governmental system.” But, far from criticizing the system, the new ombudswoman, on the contrary, will glorify the authorities, according to Gozman.

“This is a tactic that will serve the interests of those at the helm, not the interests of the country and its citizens,” he concluded. 

Meanwhile, Salin believes that one should look at the problem from a philosophical point of view, pointing out that the ideal candidate for the human rights ombudswoman position is impossible to find in the current political situation.      

In contrast, Gozman argues that it is very easy to find eligible candidates, pointing to the fact that the Russian Human Rights Council nominated several prominent and highly-experienced figures, including former human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, whom Gozman described as a moderate and effective official.