'Promoting Human Rights, Civil Society and Democracy in Russia': Report on a meeting hosted by the Henry Jackson Society on 6 October 2016

19 October 2016

By Elizabeth Teague

Rights in Russia, the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and the Henry Jackson Society joined forces on 6 October to host five representatives of Russian civil society at a discussion in London. The meeting was held on the record and a video will be posted on the HJS website. This brief report aims to sum up the main highlights.

The five Russian speakers were:

Dmitrii Bartenev, attorney based in St Petersburg, whose work focusses on human rights cases. [1]

Valentina Cherevatenko, chair of the “Women of the Don” civil society organisation, set up in 1993 with a focus on women’s issues. In 2014, the Russian Justice Ministry designated “Women of the Don” a “foreign agent” under legislation introduced in 2012. In 2016, Cherevatenko became the first Russian citizen to face criminal prosecution under the “foreign agent” law. [2] Also in 2016, she was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya award by RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in War). [3]

Robert Latypov, chair of the Perm’ Regional Chapter of the International Memorial Society and head of the Youth Memorial Action Group. He organises volunteer camps in Perm’ Region, including expeditions in which young people visit former Gulag sites. The Memorial Human Rights Centre was designated a foreign agent in 2014, and its international branch was added to the list in early October 2016. [4]

Grigorii Melkonyants, co-chair of Russia’s leading independent election monitoring organization, Golos. [5] The Justice Ministry designated Golos a foreign agent in 2013 on the grounds that it had received an international award – even though Golos had declined to accept the money.

Natalia Taubina, director of the Public Verdict Foundation, which provides free legal aid and rehabilitation support to victims of human rights abuses. [6] It was put on the list of foreign agents in 2014.

Natalia Taubina opened the discussion by outlining the current situation. Since the adoption of the "foreign agent" law in 2012, [7] over 100 NGOs have been designated as foreign agents, which Taubina described as a tool used by the state to marginalise and stigmatise a wide range of civil society organisations. The “foreign agent” law also enabled the state to put financial pressure on such organisations since the fines imposed are substantial. As a result, civil society organisations have come under increasing pressure and many have been forced to reduce their activities either through self-censorship or because of a shortage of funding. A number of organizations have voluntarily disbanded but are continuing their work under different names or in an unofficial capacity.

Taubina went on to say that the incidence of violent physical attacks against civil society activists by “patriotically-motivated” groups such as Cossacks and members of the National Liberation Movement (Natsional’no-Osvoboditel’noe Dvizhenie—NOD [8]) is increasing. The state’s failure to react to such attacks encourages the attackers to feel they can act with impunity. Taubina concluded her introduction by saying that legislation of 2012 restricting freedom of assembly [9] has led to a sharp fall in public protests and demonstrations: “People have stopped going [onto the streets],” she said.

In the following Q&A, the speakers were asked whether and how, in these circumstances, Western governments and NGOs can assist Russian civil society. Do Western offers of support do more harm than good, for example by providing fuel for allegations of activity as a “foreign agent”? What can the West do that is helpful and that does not do harm?

All five speakers spoke in favour of continued Western support. Dmitrii Bartenev recommended action on a case-by-case basis. Russian NGOs understand the risks better than their Western partners, he said, so “Leave it to them to decide. They know best whether to accept or not.” Moral (as opposed to financial) support is welcomed by civil society organisations, as is pressure put by national governments through official channels. And the fact an organisation has been dissolved as a legal entity does not mean that it cannot go on working in an unofficial capacity.

Valentina Cherevatenko agreed that it is very important for Western governments and organisations to go on showing support for Russian civil society. At first, she said, when the Russian authorities started to crack down, Western partners tried to shield their Russian contacts from the glare of attention. For example, they would suggest meeting early in the morning or late at night. But, Cherevatenko said, she does not want to meet in secret. Secrecy, she implied, does more harm than good. She welcomed the fact that representatives of foreign embassies visiting her region now telephone in advance to arrange an appointment and that they publish their planned meetings on their schedule. She believes it is very important to preserve this trend of openness. And, as regards government-to-government communication, she argued that “Dialogue is always better than silence.”

Cherevatenko added that people-to-people diplomacy helps to counter the image of the “enemy” being propagated by the Russian authorities. This image is propagated day after day on the television, so there is strong risk that people will believe it. “Women of the Don” has developed a particularly close association with the Dutch Section of Amnesty International whose members have sent a stream of postcards to show their support. When they asked Cherevatenko what more they could send, she joked “Tulips?” To her surprised delight, the Dutch responded by sending sacks of tulip bulbs, which Women of the Don distributed for free to local residents in Novocherkassk, asking in return only for photographs of the flowers when they bloomed. This became a symbol of bridge-building and undermined the image of the West as the enemy projected by the authorities. “It’s hard to believe your enemy would send you flowers,” Cherevatenko said.

Robert Latypov explained that he got involved working for Memorial after going to an international youth camp organised by Memorial on the site of the Soviet forced labour camp Perm-36. He argued that such international events do more than anything else to counter the image of the enemy being propagated by the Russian authorities. He sees them as much more valuable than, say, academic exchanges. Sadly, he said, the number of such projects has plummeted in the past few years.

One question over which speakers disagreed was whether or not the Russian public has been brainwashed by state-sponsored propaganda and lost its ability to think critically. Some speakers agreed this was the case, but Cherevatenko did not. She argued that people’s apparent apathy toward political developments is to be explained by their strong instinct for self-preservation. She comes from Novocherkassk, where in 1962 workers’ protests saw dozens of protestors shot dead and many more wounded. Cherevatenko’s mother took part in the protests, but never spoke about them to her daughter. This instinct for self-preservation persists today and people keep silent and do not say what they really think. “No one will know what people really think until we have a free election,” Cherevatenko concluded.

Finally, speakers were asked about the impact of being labelled “foreign agents.” Here too there was some disagreement. Taubina said her organisation, the Public Verdict Foundation, had not been affected: “If people are in trouble, they come to us and they aren’t influenced by our being labelled a foreign agent.” Grigorii Melkonyants said that Golos had not seen any change in people’s attitude to it as an organisation, but that the foreign agent label had had a negative impact on Golos’ relations with electoral commissions, making it harder for the organisation to observe elections.

Robert Latypov felt that Memorial’s labelling as a foreign agent had had a major impact. In Perm’, he said, Memorial has 3,000 members. Many of these are people whose parents were imprisoned in the Gulag. In the Soviet period, their parents were labelled “enemies of the people” and this stigma carried over onto their children. In recent decades, the label “enemy of the people” was lifted. But now, Latypov said, the whole thing has come full circle and his members are again being designated “enemies of the people.” Latypov felt that, while professional NGOs such as Golos and Public Verdict may be able to cope with such labelling, for an organisation such as Memorial the impact will be much more severe. 
[1] http://www.mdac.info/en/dmitri_bartenev and http://www.equalrightstrust.org/news/lgbt-rights-and-russian-courts-report-launch

[2] She has been charged with deliberately failing to register Women of the Don as a foreign agent. http://www.rightsinrussia.info/home/rights-group-of-the-week/womenofthedon-2 and https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/case-history-valentina-cherevatenko

[3] http://www.rawinwar.org/content/view/288/188/

[4] http://www.rightsinrussia.info/home/rights-group-of-the-week/internationalmemorialsociety

[5] http://www.rightsinrussia.info/home/rights-group-of-the-week/golos

[6] http://www.rightsinrussia.info/home/rights-group-of-the-week/publicverdictfoundation

[7] https://www.hrw.org/russia-government-against-rights-groups-battle-chronicle and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_foreign_agent_law

[8] http://rusnod.ru/

[9] https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/06/08/russia-reject-restrictions-peaceful-assembly