Lev Ponomarev: The Country Will Perish Unless Someone Restricts Political Repressions

posted 24 Jun 2018, 13:56 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 24 Jun 2018, 14:02 ]
5 June 2018 

An interview with Lev Ponomarev, executive director of For Human Rights, deputy chair of the Prisoners’ Rights Foundation, and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group 

For Human Rights and the Prisoners’ Rights Foundation have been refused presidential grants for the coming year. Previously, these human rights organizations, like many others, were basically forced to refuse foreign funding by the threat of being included in the register of “foreign agents.”

Lev Ponomarev, acting director of For Human Rights, deputy chair of the Prisoners’ Rights Foundation, and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, talked about this in an interview for the Voice of America Russian Service.

According to his information, the Presidential Grants Fund has turned down nearly all NGOs that have opposed the state in cases of violations of citizens’ rights as “undesirable” to the regime. Lev Ponomarev feels that Russia is gradually eliminating the genuine human rights community and creating artificial structures in its place. At the same time, he is convinced that if everything continues at these rates, very soon there will be no one in the country to defend “ordinary citizens from the ‘Leviathan’ the law enforcement agencies most often act as.”

Viktor Vladimirov (Voice of America Russian Service): Lev Aleksandrovich, what is the situation today with the financing of NGOs that is not controlled from above in Russia?

Lev Ponomarev: Previously, the Kremlin grants, albeit small, were given even to those organizations which had been given the status of foreign agents. Now not a single such NGO is on the lists of grant recipients. Probably the sole organization for which an exception was made was the Moscow Helsinki Group. One of its two applications for funding has been successful. But this is entirely understandable. Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva has a special relationship with the president (Vladimir Putin); he congratulated her on her birthday. In addition, she is on the presidential grants coordinating council. But should the present trend continue, the other NGOs, particularly For Human Rights and the Prisoners’ Rights Foundation, may have to cease their activities in 2019. In any event, that cannot be ruled out.

V.V.: How do you explain this disfavour of the authorities?

L.P.: This policy has been prone to vacillations. I’ve already had one instance when we (For Human Rights) went without money for three months. Then they gave it again. There are different people in power. Some believe that the human rights movement must be preserved if only as window dressing, in order to show the West that we do have a democracy, albeit “sovereign" and purely Russian, but human rights activists exist under it perfectly legally. The president himself has occasionally spoken out loud about the necessity of human rights activists in the country. . . . Maybe even he has an understanding that a normal state cannot be built without human rights activists. After all, somebody has to oppose the regime. If there is no political opposition in Russia, then, obviously, only human rights activists now can restrain the growing appetites of law enforcement agencies and officials, who are simply drunk on the power they possess. At the given moment, though, another point of view has probably won out — that of the law enforcement agencies.

V.V.: Law enforcement agencies are your permanent opponents?

L.P.: Lately we have been saying tirelessly that the country will perish unless someone restricts the political repressions coming both from law enforcement agencies (the notorious anti-extremism police department), and from the FSB [Federal Security Service]. But it is political repressions that are increasing more and more today. . . . A vivid example is the case of the anti-fascists, four of whom were tortured with electric shocks, which is now impossible to hide. Also, New Greatness, a small opposition group that was raided in Moscow as an example, moreover in the most insolent way. The group included all of 13 people, six of whom were taken into custody. What is especially disturbing is how a case was fabricated against them. For no reason at all. This group of young people, which had done nothing more than go to a Navalny rally once and then discuss it on social media, had been infiltrated by three agents from law enforcement. These moles had made the group extremist, acting essentially as provocateurs. It was they who wrote the extremist materials that resulted in the young people being taken into custody. The agents who infiltrated the group are themselves at liberty today and acting as witnesses. . . . This is an extremely dangerous, textbook example. If we don’t expose the manipulations of the FSB, things will get even worse, and mass repressions will follow.

V.V.: Does this mean that the repressive machine is finding work for itself, thereby justifying its own existence?

L.P.: Yes, and no one can stop their tyranny. I assert that it is from below that the very dangerous extremism of the repressive machine is coming. In any Russian town or village, law enforcement agencies are the most influential force, a force no one can restrict. The courts are wholly under their control, and here I have in mind the FSB first and foremost.

V.V.: Does this actually mean that NGOs have been deprived of foreign financing and the Kremlin grant-making programmes are used to sort out organizations, separating them into "sound" and "unsound"?

L.P.: By and large, yes. It may be an awkward situation when the state takes on the functions of financing human rights organizations. But we’ve been forced to rely on government funding. We did not want to have the status of foreign agent so we refused to accept foreign money. Because we’re engaged in major correspondence with state officials in order to make them somehow see reason. Evidently, though, (the Kremlin) wants to have, instead of us, so-called GONGOs [state organized nongovernmental organizations—V.V.] operating, that is, artificial human rights organizations that abet rather than oppose the state. In this sense we are returning more and more to the Soviet era. It’s the same as we saw with trade unions at that time, which did all kinds of things but did not defend workers’ rights.

Translated by Marian Schwartz