4 December 2015
Originally published in Security and Human Rights [Netherlands Helsinki Committee]. Reprinted by kind permission
The Russian Human Rights defender Andrey Yurov received the first Helsinki Civil Society Award on 19 November 2015 in The Hague. The Netherlands Helsinki Committee launched the award to honour the work of prominent activists and organizations that base their activities on and contribute to the legacy of the Helsinki principles. Andrey Yurov is a human rights defender and the founder of the International Youth Human Rights Movement which works in 30 countries. Currently, Yurov heads the Crimea Human Rights Field Mission which monitors the situation in annexed Crimea. Freelance journalist Eva Cukier spoke with Yurov about the human rights situation in Russia, the terrorist threat after Paris and the upcoming Dutch referendum on Ukraine.
First of all, can you explain the situation in Crimea?
Currently all is rather quiet in Crimea. At first glance, it might even seem as if nothing has changed at all. However, for the Ukrainians and Tatars on the peninsula literally everything has changed. They face severe humiliations and violations of their rights. I myself haven't been able to visit Crimea since July when the Russian authorities put our monitoring group, the Crimea Human Rights Field Mission, on the so-called 'patriotic stop-list' [a list of unwanted non-governmental organizations which Russian legislators believe to pose a potential threat to Russia – EC]. I don't want to endanger our volunteers by visiting them, but of course we are in contact and are working together. Another obstacle is that Ukraine has implemented a dangerous law which makes it illegal to travel to Crimea via Russian territory. For the sake of Crimea, Ukraine should repeal that law so that human rights defenders can travel freely and do their work.
How do you assess the human rights situation in Russia today?
It is clear that we have a colossal problem with fundamental rights in Russia, but that has been going on for years. Every year it is getting worse, but I also see some positive developments.
You mean that it used to be very bad and now it is just bad?
Exactly. You see, I am a human rights defender, not a politician. So I try to be objective. It would be a lie to say that Russia is governed by a terrible regime that is destroying its citizens day and night. I won't deny that the situation has deteriorated in many respects, but we also need to acknowledge the improvements. The penitentiary system, for example, has become much more transparent. Today human rights defenders are allowed inside the prison walls, ten years ago that would have been unthinkable! And police violence has diminished in some regions because there is more oversight from civil activists and human rights defenders. The situation is still very difficult, but it is not impossible to do something.
Even if there are some improvements, doesn't the arbitrariness of the system worry you?
Yes, but that is something different. It has to do with the fact that Russia is not a real constitutional state. In a system that is not based on legal principles you may go to prison even if you haven't done anything wrong or the opposite: you have done all kinds of bad stuff but you won't go to prison because you or your relatives have connections. In Russia, people experience different consequences for the same actions. However, this problem did not emerge yesterday but centuries ago.
What do you think of Russia's intervention in Syria, will it increase support for Putin?
This is a question to ask a political expert, not a human rights defender. I can only give you my opinion. You see, it is very hard to say whether states should or should not interfere in the internal affairs of other states. How can we stand by and feel good about ourselves when people in Syria are killed every day? From a human rights point of view, non-intervention is not an option. How can one interfere, that's a different question. You know, I am not a pacifist but I am a convinced antimilitarist. And even I still haven't decided whether it would be legitimate to take up arms against an elected leader. Is it important that Hitler was elected, or that Assad was elected, or Saddam Hussein or indeed any dictator?
You mean that democracy is not the decisive factor?
The West treasures elections more than anything, but in my opinion democracy is not about elections. If fascists and populists gain the majority of the votes, that has nothing to do with legitimacy. As a matter of fact, democracy in its purest sense is intolerable. What if the fascists had been elected in a legitimate way? Would we then have to respect them? After World War II, humanity agreed that human rights are more important than national sovereignty and that they are needed to prevent genocide and mass repression. But even democracy can turn a state into a monster, so even democracy has to be limited. It's a lesson we shouldn't forget. A ruler who has been elected democratically but engages in mass human rights violations automatically loses his legitimacy. I don't care if he has received 100 % of the votes. This is why I am not a politician. I have a different criterion for legitimacy, which is laid down in the United Nations Charter. You know that elections aren't even mentioned in the Charter? On the other hand, there are many states which have no democracy but where people do not live bad lives at all. The Vatican is an example.
In a recent interview you said that the terrorist attacks in Paris present a serious test to the concept of human rights. What do you mean?
Before 9/11 the USA was generally regarded as a bastion of democracy and human rights. But after the terrorist attacks, the US Congress allowed some very bad things to happen in the field of legislation and law enforcement which resulted in a total stagnation of human rights. Europe will see a similar development. For many people safety is the second most important requirement in life, just after physical needs such as food. The 'war on terrorism' is a very convenient banner for the sake of which people are willing to sacrifice their freedoms. This counts for civilized and liberal Europeans and Americans. With regard to less liberal societies - those in the Eurasian region for instance - freedoms are even less of a priority. And the secret services just love it. I am not talking about the Russian FSB, but about secret services in the whole so-called civilized world. The more threats we face, the more our rights are endangered.
So how do you see the future after the Paris and other terrorist attacks?
The mandate of the secret services will be expanded and human rights will suffer everywhere. Again: not only in Russia, but everywhere. What happens in Russia is a reflection of what is happening in the world. Actually, the USA and Europe were first to demolish international standards. Look at Serbia, look at Iraq. I am against the common but very primitive idea that the East is evil and the West is paradise. In terms of human rights, the USA are not doing much better than Russia. But I can't understand why Europe allows America to do things that others can't. With these double standards, the West is doing authoritarian regimes a big favour. I will give you one example: Europe keeps pointing at the death penalty in Belarus, but how many people are being killed in China? I don't see people freaking out about that or about the rights violations in America. What I am saying is that everybody is participating in the silent destruction of human rights and international law. The West thinks it's the good guy and Russia is the bad guy. But no one speaks about, for instance, Azerbaijan, even though what is happening in Azerbaijan today is incomparable to what is going on in Russia. But we keep silent because of economic reasons, because Azeri oil and gas supplies present an alternative to Russia. And what about Turkmenistan, where civil society has completely been destroyed? It doesn't interest anybody, all that interests them is Turkmenistan's cheap gas. What I am trying to say is that what happens in those countries, Russia included, is a reflection of the tendencies in the West.
In your opinion, is everybody a hypocrite?
Everybody, except for civil society activists. We can't be hypocrites because we have to be objective. Our common enemy is the attempt to overturn human rights. In the recent terrorist events I see a huge challenge to our civilization. Because in such circumstances people are immediately ready to forget about human rights.
What do you think about the referendum that will be held in the Netherlands regarding Ukraine's association with the European Union?
Some seem to think that Moscow is behind this referendum, but I don't think that is the case. The people behind the referendum are Eurosceptics and their interests by coincidence overlap with those of Moscow. Many people see Russia as a symbol of resistance against NATO. Look at France where the Communists and Madame Le Pen have united in one front. But unfortunately NATO doesn't only bring us joy. Some think that sceptic people are fools and NATO is like the sun, like Jesus Christ. But NATO isn't Jesus Christ and things are far more complicated. Regarding the referendum, the Kremlin is too stupid and too corrupt to be behind it. But one thing is certain: this corruption is saving Europe.
What do you mean?
Just look at what is going on in Crimea. A bunch of opportunists have been appointed there who have only one goal: To steal what is there and share the loot with their bosses. Take the Kerch project [the project to build a bridge to Crimea from the Russian town of Kerch - EC]. Such large construction projects are meant only for one thing: corruption. I have a theory about this – and I have been arguing a great deal with 'Transparency International' about this: If the level of corruption in a country is extremely high, then it becomes impossible to build a totalitarian state. A corrupted regime is simply too weak to build a repression machine. Mass repression has to operate like a watch and all the little screws have to believe in the system. When the screws are stolen, the system will collapse.