20 years under Putin: a timeline

In late December, Russian courts ruled to liquidate International Memorial and its human rights center, allegedly due to a systematic violation of the law on “foreign agents.” The IMR spoke with member of the Memorial Human Rights Center council and head of the political prisoners program Sergei Davidis about why this decision has been made right now, what will happen to the Russian human rights movement, and how the West should respond to repressions within Russia.

 

Sergei Davidis. Photo: Andrew Rushailo-Arno | Facebook via MBK-media.

 

Diana Fishman: The current attack on Memorial is viewed by some as connected not so much with its efforts to restore an “inconvenient” historical truth, but with its keeping of a list of political prisoners, which serves as an important indicator of the social and political situation in the country. How reasonable is this view? 

Sergei Davidis: I think there is a complex of factors involved. The state’s monopoly on historical memory is an important issue, but the list of political prisoners, which actually implies an accusation against the current government, not a 70-year-old one, of serious human rights violations is certainly a much more annoying factor. By the way, the current Russian government does not dispute the fact that the USSR engaged in mass repressions, and nominally condemns them. To be honest, I assumed that the attack [on Memorial] would be confined to the human rights center, which is indeed a kind of challenge for the authorities, and International Memorial would be spared at the last moment. According to the new rules, NGOs recognized as “foreign agents” are obliged to inform the Ministry of Justice about all planned programs and events, and the Ministry of Justice can prohibit their implementation under various pretexts. And I thought that, based on this law, at some point, we would be told that our activities to support political prisoners threaten national security and therefore should be banned. But the authorities took the simplest path.

On the other hand, I would not focus too much on finding a link between the decision to liquidate our organizations and any specific activity. The Putin regime tolerated our activities for 20 years and never said that they should be stopped based on some substantive reasons. 

DF: Nevertheless, there was an attempt to liquidate Memorial back in 2014, but then the Supreme Court rejected the Justice Ministry’s claim. Why was the political decision to shut down Memorial made right now? What is special about the current moment? 

SD: In 2014, the complaints filed against us were of a formal, technical nature. The situation was the result of a convenient pretext and the inertia of the bureaucratic machine. But then, under public pressure, the state easily and quickly reversed this drive. 

Clearly, Memorial has been under pressure for a long time: there have been various exposé films [about us], both organizations have been recognized as “foreign agents” and seen constant checks and dozens of fines for “non-marking” [failure to mark the organization’s materials as distributed by a “foreign agent,”—IMR], which now exceed 6 million rubles ($80,000). The current claims against us, both from a legal and common-sense point of view, are simply absurd. And the simultaneous attack on both Memorials suggests that [the regime’s] internal clock showed that it was necessary to finish it all by the end of the year, to crack down on everyone. With the complete destruction of freedom of assembly, an active attack on freedom of expression, the law on regulating educational activities, the blocking of this and that; with the defeat of the opposition and the next steps taken to rule out the possibility of participating in elections, it was quite natural to demonstrate that the sphere of NGOs is not protected either, that here, again, public expression of one’s opinion, administrative independence, and the existence of alternative centers of civic consolidation, such as Memorial, are inadmissible.

Therefore, the point is not that we have now done something special, recognized someone unpleasant to the government as a political prisoner, or spoken about historical memory in unacceptable terms, it is what happens in the decision-making center. The point is that the willingness to [liquidate] emerged there. And it emerged as a result of the regime’s internal evolution. 

DF: Where is the regime at in its evolution? 

SD: I’m afraid there is no direct answer to this question. It is obvious that the regime is at the point where civil society is severely repressed. Not as much, of course, as in Belarus, but our situation is different from Belarus: our country is much larger, society is much more heterogeneous, so a consolidated protest movement with uniform demands is completely unthinkable. But at the same time, any protest activity is difficult in Russia. In most regions, any public protest actions are effectively prohibited, even single-person pickets. There are very few opportunities for civil society to speak out publicly. 

Since late 2020, we have seen a sharp increase in the regime’s repressiveness, a tightening of the criminal legislation on “foreign agents,” “undesirable organizations,” hooliganism, libel, and so on. Moreover, all these norms are elastic, deliberately blurred—they imply selective application. 

The times when a vocal public statement in support of someone—as in the case of [journalist Ivan] Golunov or actor [Pavel] Ustinov—forced the state to retreat, are over. The state consistently acts in an exclusively repressive manner, ignoring public opinion and suppressing those who try to organize and broadcast this opinion.

 

“The Russian government is a black box. The only certainty is that it was not the judges who made these decisions, and even if they did, they were simply listening to the signals from above.” 

 

DF: Why should the authorities further ramp up the repressions against civil society? Does the system still see it as a real threat?

SD: All of this—the changes in the regulatory framework and law enforcement practice, the increase in the mass scale of repressions and their general primitivization—is clearly incommensurate to the threats the regime is facing. The ruling clan, which controls propaganda, financial flows, the security apparatus, courts, and election commissions does not need prohibitions and repressions on a mass scale to retain power; this is clearly excessive. The inertial scenario of the supposed power transit from Putin to Putin in 2024 doesn’t require this either. But there is a change in the design of the system where the security forces gain influence and dictate the rules to a much greater extent. 

Maybe this is the regime’s reaction to the Belarusian [protests]. The Russian authorities saw that a massive protest could unexpectedly emerge even on completely scorched earth, and concluded that there can never be too many repressions and bans. Perhaps they are preparing for some developments related to potential foreign policy crises, which will require more repressive power from the state. An irrational factor can play a role, for the repressive machine greatly distorts the feedback, as one can see in what the regime’s public speakers are broadcasting—Putin himself, [Investigative Committee head Alexander] Bastrykin, and [FSB director Alexander] Bortnikov. 

DF: The majority of violations of the law on “foreign agents” attributed to Memorial were reported to [Russia’s media watchdog] Roskomnadzor by the FSB’s Ingushetia branch. Did the Ingush security forces take revenge on Memorial for helping the protesters in the Ingush case? 

SD: This version seems quite plausible. Otherwise, why would the FSB for Ingushetia start monitoring all our websites and file so many complaints to the authorities? The massive amount of violation protocols and administrative fines imposed on Memorial in 2020 were indeed connected with the fact that the Ingushetia FSB took offense at the human rights center. That said, this could also be a coincidence. If the Ingush prosecutors hadn’t dug all this on us, Moscow would have found fault with something else, because the pressure on independent NGOs is constantly growing. Actually, Roskomnadzor itself could have drawn up these violation protocols, the Ingushetia FSB simply took the initiative. And the results were used to make repressive decisions. 

DF: Is the harsher sentence for Yuri Dmitriev [in December 2021, the Memorial historian’s prison term was increased from 13 to 15 years—IMR] part of the campaign against Memorial? 

SD: It’s hard to say: after all, this story has been unraveling for a very long time. I think that this specific episode—one of many in the long history of Dmitriev’s persecution—is not directly related to Memorial’s liquidation. But his persecution per se is, of course, connected with his work, which is unpleasant for the local authorities. The motives of the people who made the decision to add two more years to Dmitriev’s already lengthy sentence are not entirely clear. The Russian government is a black box. The only certainty is that it was not the judges who made these decisions, and even if they did, they were simply listening to the signals from above. 

 

“The idea of ​​solidarity, helping victims of repression, has spread in Russian society over the past few years. In addition to the established NGOs, today there are numerous communities, groups, and initiatives that effectively organize such assistance within for specific criminal cases or specific people.”

 

DF: It seems that in 2021 the human rights movement in general became a target of the state. Among its victims, in addition to Memorial, were the OVD-Info human rights project, whose online resources were blocked by a court decision, the legal defense group of the Open Russia movement, and the Team 29 association, which were forced to shut down. The head of Team 29 Ivan Pavlov himself became a defendant in a criminal case and was forced to leave Russia. Dozens of human rights organizations and their leaders were declared “foreign agents.” Does this mean that the authorities aim at destroying the institution of human rights protection in Russia?

SD: I would put the question a little differently: the attack on human rights defenders is an organic part of the attack on civil society as a whole. The top-level officials sent their subordinates a very clear signal: all these independent NGOs that criticize the government, and even receive foreign money, are enemies, petty traitors who stir up the situation in the country. Apparently, this is how they actually see it, and it is this message that is broadcast from the top down. And the lower-level officials are looking for ways to please, to demonstrate their usefulness and effectiveness.

In this sense, the Open Russia’s Legal Protection group naturally fell victim to the campaign targeting the entire Open Russia movement [founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky]. This is about the Russian government not allowing anything that is not under its control. And it is especially intolerant of those who claim to participate in politics understood in extremely broad terms. As for Ivan Pavlov, his case is the result of the direct pressure he put on the FSB by speaking out in treason cases. The FSB, apparently, puts itself above everyone else in the system, claiming a kind of exclusive status. The fact that someone decided to oppose it seems outrageous to the FSB. At the same time, in the regions, lawyers are often pressured by law enforcement and are criminally persecuted due to conflicts of interest between local authorities and security forces.

Most of all, the authorities are embarrassed by the publicity that human rights organizations draw to their work: both Open Russia’s Legal Protection group and Team 29, as well as Memorial, regularly appealed to the public. Clearly, we are moving towards uniformity [in the public discourse], full agreement with the state propaganda, and impossibility of objecting to authorities on substantive issues, especially public ones. And this will certainly complicate human rights protection. It doesn’t mean it will completely stop, especially in its instrumental part—the provision of legal and humanitarian aid. The idea of ​​solidarity, helping victims of repression, has spread in Russian society over the past few years. In addition to the established NGOs, today there are numerous communities, groups, and initiatives that effectively organize such assistance within for specific criminal cases or specific people. Surely, all this can be rolled into concrete, as it was done in Belarus, but we are not there yet. 

DF: What will happen to Memorial’s political prisoners program if the liquidation takes place? In what format will this work be carried out? 

SD: Formally, our structures have not yet been liquidated; the deadline for filing an appeal has not even been set yet. We still exist as a legal entity and, naturally, will continue our work. But, by and large, liquidation would not pose a big problem, because we can build administrative and organizational structures in any way. We can do what we have done so far without a legal entity. However, according to the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office, in addition to technical violations related to our alleged non-compliance with labeling and reporting [requirements of the “foreign agents” law], we are accused of violating article 6 of the federal constitutional law “On the judicial system of the Russian Federation,” because we argue with court decisions on recognizing certain organizations as extremist or terrorist, and challenge sentences in specific criminal cases.

In the government’s opinion, the law obliges us to agree with all court decisions, which, of course, is absurd. In reality, the law obliges court decisions to be executed, and, of course, it is possible to criticize them, to argue with them. Nevertheless, this very notion is now being questioned, and we are told that our questioning [of court decisions] actually justifies the activities of international extremist and terrorist organizations. 

This is a clear manifestation of the trend towards narrowing the scope of acceptable public discussion. For 20 years we have been challenging court sentences. We did not say that members of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Hizb ut-Tahrir are great guys, did not sound the call to join these organizations. We only said that these people are being persecuted, that their cases do not contain corpus delicti, that drinking tea in the kitchen and discussing an abstract religious doctrine are not terrorist activities. Now, by challenging court decisions in such cases, we have become criminals in the state’s view, for allegedly justifying and encouraging criminal activity. The statement by the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office contains practically the same terminology that is used to substantiate charges in cases of justifying terrorism. And this is a serious problem not only for Memorial Human Rights Center: everyone who is engaged in human rights activities risks this kind of persecution.

All this makes us think about reformatting our activity so that it does not lose quality and credibility, and, at the same time, we can minimize the risks for those involved. While we have not been closed yet, there is no point in discussing purely technical aspects. One thing I can say without doubt: we will continue our work. And if the Russian authorities do not listen to the European Court of Human Rights [the ECHR demanded that Russia suspend the liquidation of Memorial’s structures pending a decision on the complaint of a group of Russian NGOs regarding the law on “foreign agents”—IMR] and Memorial is still liquidated, then another entity will continue the work using the same methodology and trying to offer the same authority.

DF: Can Russia comply with the ECHR’s demand? 

SD: It is impossible to say whether Russia will ignore it—as it did in the situation with Alexei Navalny. This could go either way. 

 

“Today, not only members of the political opposition, but also many Russian independent journalists and human rights activists are in exile. In fact, Russian civil society is being built in exile, and it seems to me extremely important to provide them with all possible assistance.”

 

DF: Compared to last year, the number of political prisoners in Russia, according to Memorial Human Rights Center, has grown to a record 426. This is more than 60 people more than in 2020. What factors explain this increase and what patterns can you see in politically motivated cases?

SD: We have been seeing an increase in the number of political prisoners since 2009—that is the entire time that we have been keeping records. In 2013, before the Sochi Olympics, there was a short period when the number of political prisoners significantly decreased due to mass amnesty, pardons, and releases on other grounds. But since 2014, after the aggression against Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and the accompanying tightening of the screws, the number has crept up and been growing ever since.

The crucial factor behind this growth is repressions against religious minorities, which is easy to carry out. We actually consider people persecuted based on their religious affiliation separately. First, their number is significantly higher and their persecution is like a conveyor belt; each case usually features several defendants, and for regional FSB branches this is a very convenient way to generate reports on [successful operations against] extremist and terrorist crimes. Second, in the case of Hizb ut-Tahrir, there are lengthy sentences. If someone gets two years in prison for violence at a rally, after they do their time, they are dropped from our list of political prisoners; those who get 20 years, as some members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, remain on the list for a long time. Another significant growth factor is persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses: several hundred have already been persecuted, and increasingly more people are being sentenced to real and lengthier terms—up to eight years in prison. In recent years, we have seen the persecution of another religious organization—Al-Takfir wal-Hijra, but apparently it is simply fictitious. It existed in the 1970s in Egypt and had no traces in Russia. Nevertheless, several group cases have been initiated, the defendants are accused of participating in an extremist organization, although they did not conduct any activity at all, simply prayed.

Slightly over 80 people from our list are persecuted unrelated to religion, for example, in connection with exercising their right to freedom of assembly. In the so-called “palace case,” initiated after the January-February 2021 protests, more than 150 people across the country were brought to court, and we recognized as political prisoners a fairly large number of people convicted under the article on violence against police officers. The persecution of the defendants in the Magas 2019 protest [the Ingush case—IMR] is part of the same trend. 

Persecution under the unlawful article 212.1 of the Criminal Code [on repeated violations of the established rules of holding mass events—IMR] continues: Vyacheslav Yegorov is another activist who received a real prison term under it, and several more cases were initiated. Another significant trend last year was the attempts to prosecute people who announced they would run in the elections. Among the defendants are [Moscow City Duma deputy] Yulia Galyamina, many employees of Navalny’s regional election offices, and the communist [activist and videoblogger] Nikolai Platoshkin. The right to freedom of expression continues to be suppressed, and last year the most dangerous instrument for this was again the Criminal Code’s article 205.2 on the justification of terrorism. We also saw a surge in criminal and administrative cases against persons accused of denigrating symbols that the authorities declared sacred—associated with the Orthodox Church or the cult of victory [in WWII].

DF: Why, in your opinion, should the West react to the situation around Memorial and other similar showcases of the Russian regime’s repressive nature?

SD: First, compliance with human rights obligations is not the Russian Federation’s domestic business. It belongs with the international community and specific states that have relationships with Russia that allow them to demand compliance with these obligations. On the other hand, this is also a completely pragmatic issue: the more reckless and widespread the restriction of rights and freedoms in the Russian Federation becomes, the higher the risks for the rest of the world, because this unties the Russian authorities’ hands for foreign policy adventures. In addition, these undemocratic practices can get implanted by the authoritarian regime in other, democratic countries, creating uncertainty. And if these practices are tolerated, if the issue of human rights comes after security and economic cooperation, then, unfortunately, this means that bad behavior is contagious. In some European countries we already see examples of emerging authoritarian practices. And one of the reasons for this is tolerance for authoritarian regimes, for violation of human rights; it is the emerging public opinion that such tolerance is the norm that makes this possible. 

The point is not only that unhappy Russians suffer from human rights violations and the world community’s moral and legal duty is to speak up. This is actually in other countries’ pragmatic interests. Further suppression of human rights in Russia and other authoritarian countries is fraught with new difficulties, disasters, instability, unpredictability, and, ultimately, costs for the West. 

DF: What, ideally, should the Western response be?

SD: I do not think that it would be right to stop all cooperation with these regimes until they respect rights and freedoms. But it is quite reasonable to work out a roadmap of requirements regarding the observance of human rights and the legislation reform in the Russian Federation, and directly link their progress with cooperation in other areas.

Besides, these issues just need more attention and support. Today, not only members of the political opposition, but also many Russian independent journalists and human rights activists are in exile. In fact, Russian civil society is being built in exile, and it seems to me extremely important to provide them with all possible assistance. On the other hand, a response to Kremlin propaganda efforts is needed. Propaganda, directed at both the Russian population and the Western audience, significantly distorts reality, including on the human rights issue. It is crucial to respond to propaganda in a reasoned manner, to expose lies in the [propagandistic] media, and continue to develop these efforts. 

The main thing is not to assume that this will somehow resolve by itself, but to plan and implement measures to change the situation. It is clear that ultimately only the Russians can change the state of affairs in Russia, but it is possible and necessary to help them in this effort and call for such help.

 

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