During the past month, hundreds of Russian NGOs—including Memorial, the Public Verdict Foundation, and For Human Rights movement—were inspected by prosecutors. Lev Ponomaryov, head of For Human Rights and a former member of the Russian State Duma, spoke with IMR’s Olga Khvostunova about the reasons for these inspections and their consequences for Russia.
Olga Khvostunova (OK): Following the recent inspection, the Prosecutor General’s Office opened an administrative case against you. What happened and what exactly are you accused of?
Lev Ponomarev (LP): I’m presiding over three human rights organizations: For Human Rights movement, Foundation For Defense of Rights of Prisoners, and a regional organization called Hot Line. All three organizations went through a planned inspection by the Ministry of Justice. We provided all the necessary documents—dozens of volumes of them. Around the end of February—beginning of March, we received inspection reports where some formal infractions were indicated, and we made plans to fix them in due time. There were no references to the fact that our activities have extremist or any other illegal character; nor was there anything said about us participating in political activities. Two weeks later, prosecutorial officers, accompanied by officers of the Tax Service and Ministry of Justice and an NTV crew, appeared in our office and demanded that we provide the same documents that we had done before for this unplanned revision. I declined to do so.
LP: It’s against the law. Article 22, Part 1 of the federal law “On the Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation” says that a prosecutor has a right to implement such an unplanned inspection only if he or she has information about illegal activities of the organization in question. Our prosecutors didn’t have such information. Besides, preparing all those documents again would mean paralyzing our organization’s work. I wrote a letter to the Moscow Deputy Prosecutor in which I explained why I consider this inspection to be illegal and enclosed previous inspection reports from the Ministry of Justice. On the following day, I was summoned to the Prosecutor’s Office for drawing up a protocol on the administrative violation, that is, a failure to comply with the legal requirements of the prosecutor (Article 17, Part 7). For the following two days, my lawyer Karinna Moskalenko and I would go to the Prosecutor’s Office to challenge the prosecutor. Our petition was, naturally, denied. Then, they delivered to us a court decision to impose administrative sanctions against our three organizations. In turn, I forwarded my complaint to the court.
OK: What are your expectations?
LP: It would be naïve of me to expect that I would win the case. But even if eventually they send me a paper offering to register my organizations as “foreign agents,” I will reject it again and will defend our rights in court. . . . I’m not ready to disclose my entire strategy now. As a result, I assume they will try both to penalize us and to shut us down, that is, to deprive our organizations of legal status or, in other words, to destroy them.
“It’s an ongoing destruction of the third sector, with the attack targeting NGOs that deal with human rights issues.”
OK: Do you think they can shut you down?
LP: I don’t know whether we are on the “hit list” or not. From my part, I’ll try to resist to the utmost and to call for other human rights activists to resist as well so that we can consolidate against this attack on NGOs.
OK: So there is an actual “hit list.” Who is on it?
LP: When I was talking to the prosecutorial officers, they implied that such a list indeed existed and that one of our organizations might be on it. And I’m really worried about it. But there is also another matter: even if my organizations are not hurt by these inspections but some other NGO is hurt, I and other human rights activists have to demonstrate irreproachable conduct. Human rights organizations have to show an example of how to defend themselves against illegal actions of officials.
OK: Why is this series of attacks on NGOs taking place now?
LP: About a month and a half ago, Vladimir Putin spoke at an FSB [Federal Security Service] panel. He said, as if addressing no one in particular, that he couldn’t understand why the law on “foreign agents” had been passed but was not being implemented. And I guess, at this moment, Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika might have thought that it was his moment of glory. Maybe he wanted to distinguish himself, or maybe he was insecure in his office, but as a result we have a horrible story: hundreds of NGOs were raided by prosecutors. It’s an ongoing seizure and destruction of the third sector, with the attack targeting not just NGOs, but even more so NGOs that deal with human rights issues.
OK: Why was the law on foreign agents not being implemented?
LP: The Ministry of Justice was commissioned to oversee the execution of this law. But the problem is that Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov himself, when he spoke in the State Duma earlier this year, said that he had no mechanisms to implement this law, because it contradicts the whole complex of legislation that regulates NGOs’ work.
OK: Why would Putin pay such close attention to that particular law?
LP: Starting from last year, when he returned to the Kremlin and had to deal with the protests at Bolotnaya Square, Vladimir Putin and his inner circle have been slowly implementing an anti-constitutional coup. You have to understand here that a coup doesn’t always bring a change of a country’s leader. In this case, it’s the Russian constitutional system that has been changing. The first step in that direction was made with the so-called “Bolontnaya case,” or the “May 6th case.” Then, from midsummer last year, the State Duma started to make gradual legal changes in the country’s state system.
OK: Do you mean the repressive laws that the Duma has passed during that time?
LP: Yes. Today, the most dreadful legislation is the law on “treason.” It has been frozen for now, but one has to keep in mind that this law had been passed and signed by the president. Thousands of people could be sentenced to lengthy prison terms under it. According to this law, a person can be prosecuted not just for leaking state secrets, but for any help given to a foreign state or an international or foreign organization if their activities are targeting the security of Russia. If a foreign citizen is collecting any information, not necessarily a state secret, to use it against the security of Russia, he or she can be prosecuted for espionage. The scope of people who can be prosecuted for dissemination of state secrets has also been expanded. The new law prescribes punishment for revealing classified information that has been acquired not only at work, but also during classes or in “other cases” that are not specified in any way. If Russian authorities consider that my conversation with you as a representative of a foreign organization can harm Russia’s sovereignty, security, or anything else (this law has very vague provisions), then our conversation can be a reason to open a criminal case against me. And if convicted, I’ll be jailed for a long time. The second piece of legislation that changes the Russian constitutional system is the law on “foreign agents.” The third one is the return of libel to the Criminal Code. And don’t forget the increased penalties for participating in unsanctioned protests, etc.
OK: And what kind of state system is Putin aiming for?
LP: Good question. To be honest, I don’t understand Vladimir Vladimirovich. On one hand, he says that Russia is building a democracy. On the other, he takes antidemocratic actions that provoke more and more indignation inside and outside Russia. I don’t understand: Does Putin really think that after he destroys the nongovernment sector, the West will forgive him in return for oil, gas, and cooperation on Afghanistan and Syria? I can offer one possible explanation. Putin might have made a decision to withdraw from the Council of Europe and G8 and go for isolation. In this case, his actions are understandable. But on the other hand, if the country isolates itself and starts building the so-called “Fortress Russia” [a policy based on repression at home and confrontation abroad], it will have catastrophic repercussions for the country’s political system, establishment, and Putin himself—he will be swept away by more decisive people who have never had any interests in the West.
“Thousands of people could be sentenced to lengthy prison terms under the ‘treason’ law.”
OK: Still, the political changes of the past year have had an impact on civil society as well. Can civil society influence the political process and avert these catastrophic repercussions you have mentioned?
LP: You are right, we can only hope for the development of civil society in Russia, and these hopes are not groundless. Over the last year not only the activity but also the size of civil society has increased by several times. There are many reasons for that: the insulting “job swap” of Putin and Medvedev, mass street protests, the call for civic monitoring of the elections. Plus, public approval ratings of the authorities have steadily been declining in recent years. It became some sort of a counterpoint: many people just got tired of Putin and his United Russia party. Now the protest activity has calmed down, and we face a question: What’s next? How can civil society develop further? If it’s dispersed, it cannot influence the social and political process. Two initiatives have appeared. The first one is the Coordinating Council of the Opposition, known to many people, including those in the West. It represents a vertical structure of the protest movement. The second one is our initiative that we had initially called the Moscow Civic Forum, which represents a horizontal structure of the protest movement within Moscow. On March 16, we held a conference where a nationwide movement called the Civic Federation was founded. It’s a very good name—everyone is equal in this organization. We are going to try to work in terms of equal democracy, so that there is no competition for being number one.
OK: Who joined your movement? How was it formed?
LP: During the mass protests in Moscow many groups of activists would form friendships and create their own coordinating organs. The organization called the White Ribbon pioneered in that process and gave its name to an entire movement. Later, a new organization called the Resistance Group branched off the White Ribbon. Our movement, For Human Rights, and these organizations together came up with the idea of the Civic Forum. I talked to Lyudmila Alekseeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and she supported our project, too. We are also communicating with other, less well-known organizations. But the most important thing is that we got the support of a large interregional group, created via the Internet on a base of White Ribbon members, which united many activists across the country. It was they who decided to come to Moscow and to found the Civic Federation.
OK: What kind of problems is the Civic Federation going to address?
LP: We are already working on many of these problems. First of all, we help people who need legal protection. For example, people worry about problems regarding housing and public amenities, building and district management, financial control over local authorities. The second group of problems concerns the environment: construction that violates ecological norms, slashes of parks, etc. Yet another problem is moving the residents of the Khrushchev-era buildings that are being demolished in the center of Moscow to the far-away suburbs outside the Third Ring Road. People unite into groups on their own, trying to defend their right to a decent life, and come to us. And we help them. Our goal is not to manage them, but rather to share information and experience and to help them to network. It’s very hard work.
“Over the last year not only the activity but also the size of civil society has increased by several times.”
OK: What are you trying to achieve?
LP: We don’t have any political goals; that’s what the Coordinating Council is trying to achieve. We want to build a new human rights movement. As a matter of fact, today we are witnessing a third stage of the development of the human rights movement in Russia. In the first stage, there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Soviet dissidents. In the second stage, in the 1990s, there were hundreds of professional human rights organizations and groups. And now we see thousands of volunteers, human rights activists, civic activists who work alongside professional human rights organizations created earlier. For example, when last year there was a prison protest in Kopeisk (Chelyabisk Region), very soon this news became a part of the agenda of local human rights activists and journalists. A short time after the news came out, many Moscow-based journalists went to Kopeisk, and the situation was more or less resolved. But if prisoners’ families hadn’t come there and hadn’t protested for several days, this problem wouldn’t have gotten a public stir. Before, it wouldn’t have gotten any attention—prisoners’ rights was a concern only for professional human rights organizations.
OK: You are speaking of human rights activists, but is the general public mature as well? Before, you mentioned that civil activity has increased by many times, but how do you register that growth?
LP: I see it by the number of people going to the street protests, by their reaction on the Internet, by mass protest actions, by the number of people’s letters that are published in the media. It’s noticeable by the number of inquiries that I receive as a human rights activist. People have become very active. Most of all, it applies to the thinking intelligentsia that has recognized its interests and decided to express them.
OK: In your opinion, will this growth in civil activity bring any political results? So far, authorities have taken the opposite path of repressions.
LP: Well, of course. Authorities are in a dead-end; they are looking for a way out, toughening the laws. The latest example is the “Dima Yakovlev Law” [that banned adoptions of Russian orphans by US citizens.] Many officials of the executive branch, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets, claimed that this law was wrong. You wouldn’t imagine this happening before. Besides, the fight against corruption that Putin had to put up has reached the people close to him. And this process is getting out of the authorities’ control.
OK: How deep is the fragmentation of power?
LP: It is hard to say now—the authorities are clearly maneuvering. Maybe Putin will try to implement a scheme where he renews his power. He might go for early parliamentary elections to get rid of United Russia and form new political groups based on three political forces: “patriotic” (Rodina [Motherland] party has already been registered), labor (the Labor Party is being created), and a peasant party that is being built as well, as far as I know. In these early parliamentary elections, the authorities can win over the opposition.
OK: How long do you think this system will last?
LP: I think that in an optimistic scenario, it will last three years, but in a more realistic one, five years. In any case, I’m for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. I’m against destabilization in the streets, even if the opposition initiates it, because in Russia, unfortunately, revolutions cannot be bloodless.