OSLO – Vladimir Bukovsky spent nearly a dozen years in a Soviet prison camp. So being forced to sit at the sidewalk cafe outside his Oslo hotel by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s security detail was but the latest indignity, however slight, that the former political dissident has had to bear at the hands of the Russian government.”It just gives you a taste of it,” he said in between cigarettes and sips of coffee as dozens of Russian security guards and machine-gun toting Norwegian policemen milled outside the door of the Grand Hotel, one of Oslo’s finest lodging establishments and the place where international dignitaries and Nobel Peace Prize recipients usually stay when they’re in town. “He’s just a puppet,” Bukovsky muttered.
Bukovsky came to the Norwegian capital this week for the second annual Oslo Freedom Forum, a gathering of over a hundred dissidents, politicians, activists, academics, and journalists. They all happen to be sharing the same hotel as Medvedev’s entourage, which is occupying the seventh floor and is here for the first state visit by a Russian leader in over a decade.
Medvedev has been focused on resolving a nearly four-decade maritime border dispute between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Circle, and late on April 27, the two countries announced they had finally struck a deal. But the attendees at the Freedom Forum believe that the nominal Russian leader’s visit to this city — indelibly known for its commitment to human rights — should raise issues more important than those relating to fish and ice.
The conference boasts some of the Kremlin’s harshest critics. In addition to Bukovsky, also in attendance are Russian opposition figure and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and Lidia Yusupova, leader of the Moscow-based group Memorial, which documents Russian human rights abuses in the North Caucasus.
On the face of it, the presence of the Russian president and a major international human rights conference in the same city — and in the same hotel, no less – is just a coincidence. The Freedom Forum began preparations in May 2009, immediately after the conclusion of its inaugural conference, and the Russian state visit was announced on April 19.