Summing up the results of 2019, Memorial Human Rights Centre has published fresh but “сertainly incomplete” lists of Russian political prisoners. The list consists of 314 names, of which 250 people have been imprisoned “for exercising their right to freedom of religion or religious affiliation” and 64 were convicted for political reasons.
Two months ago, political prisoners numbered 305. “The real number of political prisoners and other persons incarcerated for political reasons in present-day Russia is undoubtedly substantially greater…” human rights activists have pointed out.
Vyacheslav Bakhmin, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, shared his impressions of 2019.
Viktor Vladimirov (journalist, Voice of America Russian Service): What sticks in your mind about 2019 with respect to the human rights sphere in the country, what kind of trend are we seeing?
Vyacheslav Bakhmin: The entire second half of 2019 very much confirmed the old trend that the present state has long followed. This is the trend toward prohibitions, repressions, and suppression of independent human rights organizations. Some NGOs have already been shut down, for example, the For Human Rights movement led by Lev Ponomarev. Others, including Memorial and Public Verdict foundation, have been subjected to tremendous fines in the hope that they won’t be able to withstand them and will be forced to cease their work. On the other hand, this tendency is linked to the fact that people have stopped meekly tolerating the authorities’ tyranny as they consistently deprive citizens of fundamental rights and freedoms. It is already clear that Russians are badly irritated by the consolidation of this practice. The active portion of the population protests actions by the authorities that are not only anti-human rights but also anti-popular in nature. Falling under the wave of repressions, in particular, are ecological organizations and individual fighters for ecology. We know what is happening in the context of the garbage problem—in Shiyes, the Moscow area, and so forth. Resistance is mounting, but the forces are as yet unequal. Society is still not united or mobilized, while the state has the resources and is prepared to use them.
Viktor Vladimirov: Last year, an avalanche of fines came crashing down on the leading Russian human rights organizations, as well as, in fact, a number of activists and oppositionists. Can an NGO survive in this situation?
Vyacheslav Bakhmin: It seems to me that it is those organizations that will continue their work in any case, whatever their status, even if they are stripped of their status as a legal entity, that are being subjected to especially strong pressure. Quite a few activists and volunteers who are not abandoning their activities have gathered around them. Yes, their work is going to be much more difficult, nonetheless, I don’t think it will stop. The fines, of course, are terrible for the nonprofit sector. 3.9 million rubles (the total fines levied on Memorial in 2019) is a tremendous amount of money. NGOs in principle do not have funds like that. Because they receive earmarked money for specific projects, it can’t be spent on paying fines. So apparently there is nothing left but to collect money through crowdfunding.
Viktor Vladimirov: They can’t count on donations from businessmen?
Vyacheslav Bakhmin: This is not a simple matter. Understandably, for any businessmen, to say nothing of those on the Forbes list, these sums are small change. They can easily part with that money without any special loss to themselves and at the same time save one or several NGOs at once. It’s another matter that so far Russian businessmen are not burning with this desire. Most of them are probably not capable of such a step in principle. However, it is possible that at least some of them will wake up to some degree of sympathy, conscience, and solidarity and will come to our aid. Such businessmen do exist, or so I believe.
Viktor Vladimirov: But for them there is the risk of themselves falling into disgrace by helping human rights activists. Isn’t that so?
Vyacheslav Bakhmin: Yes, that is in fact one of the reasons why business tries not to advertise acts of this type. But with crowdfunding, when you collect money in some account, the donations can be anonymous if they’re not too big. Therefore, one could make ten or hundreds of small contributions, say, so that they don’t stand out. In short, there is always a solution. It’s another matter that we have here rather a question of civic maturity and of the understanding of the human rights movement’s role in a country where people who have fallen on misfortune often simply have no one else to turn to for qualified help.
Viktor Vladimirov: Do you place any hope in the European Court of Human Rights?
Vyacheslav Bakhmin: The machine in Strasbourg works very slowly, unfortunately. An NGO in Russia can get crushed before the ECtHR makes its decisions and probably assigns compensation. I’m afraid that will be too late for some organizations.… All these years we have been unable to obtain any decisions on the law on NGOs as foreign agents. Since 2012, the ECtHR has not come out with anything on this subject. Therefore I have no great hopes for the Strasbourg court, unfortunately.
Viktor Vladimirov: How do you assess the changes made in the Presidential Council on Human Rights and the discussions in United Russia on the subject of creating some kind of human rights organ attached to the party?
Vyacheslav Bakhmin: This tendency was noted long ago. It’s aimed at replacing human rights organizations that are actually functioning and defending goals and values of general utility with other organizations that formally have the same goals and objectives but by their very essence are shams. In this way, the authorities think, a kind of pluralism is achieved. There are human rights organizations that are in favour of the government, and there are those that criticize the government. It’s another matter that all NGOs that come out on the government’s side are most often created with the help of that government. By the way, a similar tendency can be observed in virtually any sphere of public life.
Viktor Vladimirov: What are your expectations for the new year?
Vyacheslav Bakhmin: I think the dominant trend today will be maintained. How far it will go is hard to predict. I think the protests will also continue with various degrees of intensity. Because the general irritation is superimposed on a difficult economic situation, the situation is becoming especially gloomy. The frustration of people and representatives of the nonprofit sector obviously might lead to excesses connected with protest activity becoming more frequent. But now any easing up of pressure by the authorities, to say nothing of repealing odious laws, is unlikely. All previous experience points to this. The authorities do not want to yield their positions. They have no instruments other than repression and tougher punishments. Evidently they don’t understand how else they might interact with society.
Translated by Marian Schwartz