Liudmila Alekseeva: "Everything depends on us"

posted 23 Mar 2018, 05:50 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 23 Mar 2018, 06:12 ]

16 March 2018 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group (original source: Vzglyad-info

Chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group Liudmila Alekseeva intends to bring to the attention of President Vladimir Putin the fact that the deputy chair of Saratov Region Court, Viktor Zhuravlev, is taking the news agency Vzglyad-Info to court. Alekseeva talks about this in a short interview with Vzglyad-Info.

The conversation, which lasted about an hour, took place in Liudmila Mikhailovna’s apartment on the Old Arbat. The head of the Moscow Helsinki Group talked about how she sees the human rights movement, how conflicts with official bodies can be resolved, and the role of the courts in these conflicts. She also compared the effectiveness of the work of the former and current human rights ombudspersons. Liudmila Alekseeva is a "tuning fork" for civil society (so her friends and colleagues say) and is as active as always, standing up for the principles of human and civil rights.

Liudmila Mikhailovna, how do you assess the current situation of the human rights movement in Russia. What is the impact of the worsening in international relations?

The human rights movement is going through a difficult time. The number of human rights groups has significantly fallen, especially in the regions. First of all, it is a matter of funding. It was not right that our human rights organisations existed at the expense of foreign donors, such as the Soros Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and others.

Our human rights movement was born back in Soviet times. In the 1990s we began to develop very quickly, but there was just no money at all in the country. Foreign foundations became active. They helped us a great deal, more than they helped other civil society groups. Now there is money in the country, there are many wealthy people who are perfectly able to support human rights defenders, and if they did so our organisation could not be rebuked for existing on foreign money. But nothing of the kind has happened, because we aren’t used to it. They give money to the Bolshoi Theatre and other theatres, to orphanages, but human rights groups are not on the lists of recipients. And we didn’t work hard enough to try to get this money, to attract the attention of investors in our own country to the human rights movement. We were quite happy with foreign donors, although we were only getting relatively little.

When the law on foreign agents was adopted, I personally understood that this had nothing to do with politics. We were receiving two million dollars a year. I immediately telephoned the foundations that were supporting us and said that we would finish the work for which the money had already been received, but that they should not send any more money. I was the first to refuse foreign funding. Why? Because, knowing our political leaders as I do, I was convinced that all the same they would force us to refuse foreign funding, but first of all they would do all they could to humiliate us. I thought it was better to stop at once. Colleagues from well-respected organisations almost accused me of being a traitor, in other words they would be punished in all sorts of ways and I would get off scot free. But they should have used their heads! Of course we suffered – we had two million dollars a year. Now we have four million – but roubles. It’s a very big difference.

We are a prominent organisation. We receive all kinds of grants. But Moscow is not Russia. There are many regions. I set myself the task of making sure we did not carry out a single project on our own, only in collaboration with regional groups. In a project about prisons we chose to work with organisations that had been working on this issue. I don’t mean in any sense they were branches of our organisation. These are independent groups. We paid for them to have office space, stationery and so on, and we were able to pay one or two salaries for those who were gathering material and writing about it. We shared our grants with them. This was a very good way to work, because if it was good working with a particular organisation, we could work with them on the next project. If it didn’t turn out well, then we would look for other partners.

How would you assess the work of the Presidential Human Rights Council and the advisory council of the Human Rights Ombudsperson? Do such institutions assist the development of civil society?

We fought for a number of years to have human rights ombudspersons. Now we also have them in the regions. Some of them are nothing more than OK, but others are quite good. It’s the same with the public chambers. I am on the public council of the Internal Affairs Ministry. And you know, it does its work, just like the Human Rights Council headed by Fedotov (Mikhail Fedotov, chair of the Presidential Council for Human Rights – Vzglyad-info). They are doing certain things. As for the human rights ombudspersons, еach one is more effective than the previous one. They chose Vladimir Lukin, who was not a bad person, but he had no influence. Now they’ve chosen Tatyana Moskalkova. Lukin is my personal friend, but Moskalkova is more effective. She has the rank of general in the police force, so she can make other people in the security organs “stand to attention.” They consider her one of their own. I was very worried when they named her. It turns out that she isn’t bad at all. When I call her, she always answers. She speaks and she takes action. And what she says, she’s in a position to do. She does well. Lukin would promise, but it wouldn’t work out. I hope that the next ombudsperson will be able to make even the president “stand to attention.” (Laughs)

To resolve conflicts, human rights defenders often seek justice in the courts. But some think that the “arbitrators” are taking orders from government representatives, or are even their close relatives. What do you do in this situation? Where do you seek justice and achieve fairness?

You know, this is what I started working on 20 years go. Civil society must be strengthened. Citizens are respected, and their rights observed, in those states where civil society can stand up for its point of view. Many say, “We are little people and it doesn’t depend on us.” That is just stupid. Everything depends on us. It is only then that the government will pay attention to us. Then we will get justice in court. But you have to work to achieve it. Someday it will be like that. As my grandmother used to say, "While the grass grows, the horse starves.” There is no other way. I think that so far we’ve come about halfway. I cannot say that we have no civil society. We do. Look at that famous case with the doctors. They beat them off. (The Moscow hematologist Elena Misyurina, ostensibly because of a medical mistake, was sentenced on 22 January to two years in prison. The circumstances of the case and the sentence caused a wide public outcry and protests in the medical community. On 5 February Moscow City Court released Misyurina from a detention facility under her own recognizance.– Vzglyad-info). But figures in the theatre world haven't been able to stop the prosecution of Kirill Serebrennikov. When cases of both kinds can be won, then we will have a fully-fledged civil society. It all depends on us. When we begin to demand that government pays attention to us, it will pay attention to us. And your position, as Saratov journalists, is absolutely right. I will bring your situation to the attention of the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. 

Translated by John Tokolish and Tatjana Duff