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Sergei Kovalev: What is happening in Russia is taking us back to the not so distant past (Deutsche Welle)

posted 21 Feb 2015, 06:41 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 21 Feb 2015, 07:09 ]
18 February 2015 

Original source: Deutsche Welle

The chair of the Russian Memorial Society, Sergei Kovalev, has spoken to Deutsche Welle about the conditions in which human rights defenders work in Russia. According to Kovalev, a human rights defdenders with more than 50 years’ experience, Russian society faces the threat of a return to totalitarianism since any kind of oversight over the actions of authorities has been abandoned.

DW: In October 2014 the Russian Ministry of Justice designated Memorial as a “foreign agent”, the Supreme Court reviewed the Ministry of Justice’s case which aimed at the closure of Memorial. How can human rights activists work under such conditions?

Sergei Kovalev: Work is difficult. Nevertheless Memorial is doing the same work that it has been doing since the organization was created in 1992. We act, guided by the principle “Do what you have to do, come what may”. It’s a different matter that problems have arisen not only with Memorial, but also with other human rights organisations. The authorities have even clamped down on the Sakharov Centre which has similarly been designated by the Ministry of Justice as a ‘foreign agent’ although even recently it was impossible to imagine that someone would publicly vilify Sakharov’s ideas.

It seemed that the authorities wouldn’t touch the name of Andrei Sakharov. I even supposed that in connection with the 25 year anniversary of his death, Mr Putin would say something. After all, Sakharov, creator of the atomic weapon, the might of Russia, is a major figure, deserving commendation, even given the fact that he had his own views about the development of society. But these expectations have turned out to be fruitless.

Now we often hear that people are calling the Russian regime authoritarian. However the recent events involving the search for foreign agents and the arrests of spies demonstrate that we are sliding into a totalitarian system. This is a serious signal to society – that which is happening in Russia today is taking us back to our not too distant past.

DW: Public opinion research shows that the majority of Russians support Putin’s politics. Why does society remain indifferent to the problems that the human rights activists focus on?

The current evolution of the country does not surprise me. I think that it would be a sad error, including for the West, to think that the Cold War ended with the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Of course, it seems that the time had come when we could hope for gradual change. But for Russia this was merely a temporary step back because the basic political tendencies in the country haven’t changed at all.

We must remember that when Vladimir Putin inherited the highest post in Russia from Boris Yeltsin in 2000, you could count on the fingers of one hand the people who loudly protested that an officer of the unreformed KGB, which had annihilated millions, turned out to be the head of state. At the time many decided that the “evil empire”, which they called the Soviet Union, was finished. Having defended the idea of a democratic transformation at the walls of the White House in 1991, Russians naively thought that the road to serious transformations was open to the country, and that the new political leadership was ready to proceed with reforms.

However, post-Soviet Russia saw the continuation and success of a process of social selection that Stalin had initiated in the test bed of the Gulag. Now we see how the government reacts with intimidation and public smearing anyone who takes an active civic stance. The Russian Constitution, for which at one time I drafted the section on the rights of the individual, has been turned into a document not intended for implementation. I am reminded how one procurator in a penal colony where I served a term, told the prisoners: “Don’t bother referring to the Constitution in your complaints – it’s not written for you but for American blacks so that they will think it is really great to live under the Soviet regime.”

So I think that our whole society is guilty for what is happening. People have forgotten the simple truth – the development of democracy demands continuous oversight of, and pressure on, government. Without public oversight the regime can only move in one direction – towards degradation. The only way out is to change the government. I cannot see any other way to stop what is happening in Russia.

DW: Memorial has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. What do you think of this?

Of course, such an award would be important as support for the organisation and would strengthen the authority of human rights activists who are not allowed to live and work normally in Russia. For many years Memorial has made every effort to keep public attention focussed on human rights. It’s also important that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Lech Walesa, has given his support to the nomination of Memorial.

However, I don’t place any special hopes on receiving the prize. Perhaps I am mistaken but the Nobel Committee will be careful how they handle Moscow so they don’t upset them. It seems to me that in the West nobody thoroughly understands that the recent events in Russia are not far from being just Russia’s internal business.

My main concern now is that the events in Georgia, in the Caucasus, in Transdnistria, the annexation of Crimea, what is happening in south-east Ukraine, should not be forgotten. Because the “Evil Empire” has not gone away. This is a global problem, a threat to the whole world.

Translated by Frances Robson