Pavel Chikov: For the most part, people in Russia are wonderful and perfectly capable

23 October 2020

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новый проспект]

Not every citizen of the Russian Federation grasps the nature of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Nevertheless, Russia is a leader in the number of complaints submitted to this organ of justice. In 2021, the Russian judge at the ECtHR is to be replaced. The only applicant for this high post who has openly declared his ambition is Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group. In an interview with the Novy Prospekt media project, he spoke about Russia’s commitments to the Council of Europe, the prospects of a break in relations between the Kremlin and Strasbourg, and also about the main affairs of the Agora, the government’s reactions to the successes of independent human rights activism, compromises with the system and the assassination attempt on Navalny. Chikov is sure that changes for the better in Russia are inevitable, and the unhurried nature of these changes is all to the good.

Pavel, you have been nominated for the position of Russian judge at the European Court of Human Rights. Why did one of the main human rights activists of the Russian Federation decide to leave his homeland?

Firstly, you need to understand that the ECtHR today is the leading human rights court in the world in terms of its influence on national legal systems, in terms of coverage of territories. The 47 member states of the Council of Europe accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. And it is clear that for any lawyer, and even more so for a lawyer working on human rights issues, the ECtHR is a guiding light in their work, a beacon used to guide specialists at a national level, making decisions even on cases that do not go to Strasbourg. We examine what the court said on similar issues, we take action consistent with its position.

What’s more, it’s not only human rights activists who speak about the ECHR’s influence, but also statesmen like Senator Andrey Klishas. The co-author of Putin’s amendments to the Constitution said that “most of the decisions of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation are based on the decisions of the ECtHR”, and no one is going to deny this. That is to say, the importance of the ECtHR is recognised by both agents of the state and their opponents. Valuable solidarity?

Let’s admit that lawyers are all statesmen to a certain extent. We are all guided by the legislation that exists in this state, the institutions that operate here. It has to be understood that for lawyers to exist outside state institutions makes no sense. In this sense, we are very much like the temporary public prosecutors and Klishas. Yes, we can be opponents in specific cases, we may have different views on certain legal rules, but these are still legal rules. Moreover, in reality, state institutions and government officials, especially the judiciary, are very much inclined to listen to the position of the ECtHR today. Much more so than five, ten or even fifteen years ago. 

The Prosecutor General’s Office systematically assembles dossiers of the latest verdicts of the ECtHR, the Supreme Court compiles quarterly reviews of its main decisions, and all this goes down the judicial chain of authority. Yes, when it comes to a district prosecutor somewhere in Buryatia, he may not take it into account, but the prosecutor in the neighbouring area still reads it. Perhaps something of it will remain in his head. But even if it doesn’t, then the inspectors from Moscow will always have a reason to charge him with actions that do not comply with the recommendations and methodological explanations issued on the basis of the ECtHR decision. It all really works. The fact that state propaganda exploits the terminology of sovereignty, patriotism, Russland über alles, and so on, should not mislead us as to what real systemic and structural influence the ECtHR and the Council of Europe have on the Russian law enforcement system and on real life as a result.

But what exactly is forcing the guys in the courts to change for the better, as you say? 

There are many factors involved. We need to understand the judicial and law enforcement systems are very conservative and don’t strongly support any changes. There are years, even decades, where taking decisions in certain directions becomes difficult in practice. One occasion where this was reset was in 1917. In the modern day this is impossible to do. Changes happen gradually and slowly in our day. We all want rapid change, but in reality this rarely ever happens. The European conception of human rights has permeated into the Russian psyche gradually in the past 20 years (Russia ratified the European Convention on Human Rights on 30 March 1998, thus accepting the jurisdiction of the ECtHR – NP). This steady march of change often sidesteps the resistance of politicians, but really it is better if the changes happen slowly. This way, they can be much more stable and repealing them becomes more complicated. 

Do you have an example? 

There are features of the system that were introduced with the ECtHR and remain with us to this day. Firstly, the radical improvement in the pre-trial detention centres and prisons. The difference between 20 years ago and now, it’s absolutely enormous. It’s a change that affects half a million people at any one time, in fact it affects millions who have gone through the system for several years. In every sense the system has become better. 

The number of prisoners has been halved. Several articles of the ECtHR have allowed many to stay outside of prison. For example, there are practically no minors in the prison system. The penal colonies are closing and many of remand centres from the 1700s are still operating but under reform, such as the one in your wonderful city.

This whole system of executing the courts’ decisions de-facto did not exist in Russia 20 years ago. To be blunt, the courts would make a ruling that compensation had to be paid by the state, but this wouldn’t’ work. I began to work in the system around the time when the executive would just stop judicial decisions from being carried out. For years judicial decisions were not implemented at all. Today however, if you are in enforcement proceedings as the claimant and do everything right, it is impossible not to receive compensation from the government. It works like clockwork in fact, be it the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Prison Service, the Ministry of Defence, anything. This kind of problem has simply ceased to exist, thanks to the judgments of the ECtHR. And this is only one of many examples. 

And here the logical questions arises: why is the human rights activist Chikov trying to change his place of residence and the nature of his work?  Especially if he understands that the Justice Ministry will hardly include him in the final trio from whom they will choose in Europe?  None of the previous judges from Russia have been outsiders in the system, you often are like a bone lodged in the throat of the system. 

I put myself forward at the beginning of October.  Out of the 34 people who submitted their documents for the competition, seven were eliminated on technical grounds.  I am in the next round of 27 candidates.  And that is already the best result that there ever has been for a Russian human rights activist.  On top of that, for the first time, the procedure is more or less transparent and public.  Although there is still a lot that the public isn’t told.  Up to now, the names of the other candidates who have submitted their documents are not known.  And this, excuse me, is when it is required that all candidates have a high moral character and reputation. Meaning that they have to be, to a certain degree, public figures who can be googled–professors, teachers, people involved in the judicial system — and who are known, by reputation at least, among professional colleagues. But the list has not been made public. 

Nevertheless, in 2020, for the first time, the vacancy was announced ahead of time, the competition was announced, documents were accepted.  Next there will be a certain procedure — an interview or a test, I still don’t know.  But that’s already something that there hasn’t been before; participation is in itself interesting.  In addition, it is an opportunity to draw the attention of Russian society to the ECtHR as such, to our work at it, and to me as the head of a human rights organisation. Therefore, generally speaking, it is a win-win situation, as the Americans say.  I don’t lose, no matter what happens.  

For a human rights activist to make it to the final trio of candidates — it’s not impossible.  And when they have the final trio, the judge is not picked by the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation. Eight years ago, in the case of Karina Moskalenko vs. the Russian Ministry of Justice, she sued because the competition procedures were not transparent (as an applicant she was not able to submit documents).  The court said that, in the end, the President of the Russian Federation decides on the candidates for the position of judge.  This matter will be decided in the Presidential Administration.  And our ultimate goal is that a human rights lawyer or activist is among the three final candidates.  Not necessarily me.  The selection and the presentation of names to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe should be completed by 10 May 2021. 

But if all decisions, in general, are decided here by you know who, might it be convenient to get rid of Chikov?  Out of sight, out of mind. 

Yes.  And that is the totally deliberate argument that I came up with when I began making my decision. (Laughs.) 

But what does one specific person among the judges of the ECtHR give human rights in Russia?  There are 47 judges.  What can one judge from Russia, even the most remarkable, do? 

I am more interested in what it gives to the wider Russian public and to Russia itself in the international arena. Being named to such a position sends a clear signal of the country’s adherence to the basic values on which the postwar world stands, starting with the UN charter and ending with the Russian constitution. In which, by the way, in spite of all the rebalancing and amendments, a human being, his rights, and his freedoms remain the highest values (Article 2).

In this sense, becoming a judge of the ECtHR for a human rights defender is as cool as Senator Klishas becoming a judge of the Constitutional Court? He has repeatedly said that a chair in the Constitutional Court is every lawyer’s dream.

It’s actually difficult to compare. I’m fairly critical. Not of Klishas – he fulfills his specific role, and does it quite well. But the Constitutional Court has long been performing badly in every sense of the word. As an institution, this court has unfortunately gone downhill.

In this sense, are Putin’s amendments the final point? The judges were finally deprived of their independence and access to the public, because under these new rules they can’t openly express  dissenting opinions and can be removed from office by Putin at any time. Moreover, they shot themselves in the foot by recognising Putin’s draft law as constitutional back in March with a controversial mechanism for correcting the original law, which was directly pointed out by your then colleague on the Presidential Human Rights Council and co-author of the 1993 Constitution, Ilya Shablinsky.

I would say that, at this stage, the last nails are being driven into the coffin of Russia’s Constitutional Court. The weakening of constitutional justice in Russia began quite a long time ago and has continued without interruption. Honestly, you could say that the Constitutional Court was only independent from executive power between 1991 and 1993 – until the moment when the Constitutional Court took the side of the Supreme Soviet with Yeltsin and after the firing on the parliament. It was a long time ago. Over these 27 years, dozens of valuable decisions have been adopted and the influence of the Constitutional Court on the law enforcement and judicial system remained. 

And it’s worth remembering our own successes. When in 2015 the Constitutional Court recognised the law on the prosecutor’s office as being inconsistent with the Constitution, then it was possible to seriously reduce the arbitrariness of the prosecutor’s office in relation to checks of commercial and non-profit organisations. Then we can look at the resolution by which the Constitutional Court introduced a new procedure for searches of lawyers’s offices, a separate procedure was spelled out in the Criminal Procedure Code. That’s to say, it is impossible to devalue the Court completely. But it has not existed for a long time, at least not in the form in which it was conceived.

Would you be surprised to see Dmitry Medvedev in the place of the current head of the Constitutional Court?

In our country, nothing can surprise you. This appointment would lead to a greater politicisation of the judicial institution, an even greater weakening of the rule of law. With all due respect to Medvedev as a lawyer, he is still, first and foremost, a politician. The Constitutional Court should be headed by a respected lawyer, not a politician.

Is there any prospect of disconnecting Russians from the institution of protecting their rights through the ECtHR? Many are pushing for the supremacy of national law over international law as a means of preserving their sovereignty.

There is no chance. Period. it’s out of the question.

But now the Russian Federation has the right not to comply with the decisions of international institutions if those decisions are found to “contradict the [Russian] Constitution.”  That is how the Constitution now reads, since it was amended by Putin and by a nationwide vote on organised, not in the best way possible, by Ella Pamfilova [chair of the Russian Central Election Commission].  How will this veto mechanism work, and for what cases was it introduced?

In order to prove that a decision of the European Court of Human Rights contradicts the Constitution, the state authorities must submit an appeal to the Constitutional Court, laying out their argument openly and without personal opinions, in an impersonal manner.  No matter how sceptical or critical one is about the authorities, neither the Justice Ministry nor the Constitutional Court will be able to establish that white is black, however much they would like to and even though they will sometimes try to.  Nobody wants to become the object of ridicule.  Yes, there are borderline issues where the country can still choose in favour of, say, banning convicts from voting or outlawing same-sex marriages, restricting surrogate motherhood and abortion, but nowhere in Europe can the authorities justify the use of torture, domestic violence, imprisonment for expressing political opinions, or a ban on peaceful street protests.

How many cases from Russia does the ECtHR hear every year?

About 15,000 complaints went to Strasbourg from Russia in 2019.  The numbers vary widely from year to year.  According to last year’s results, the Russian Federation ranks first in the number of complaints.  Complaints about conditions under detention traditionally take first place.  Second place was taken two years ago by complaints from participants in peaceful protests.  And in fact this was thanks to only three or four human rights organisations from Russia.  At present, some 2,500—3,000 complaints are pending consideration.  The NGOs involved are Apology of Protest, Memorial, OVD-Info, and Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).  This reflects the influence of human rights organisations on the image of Russia that is taking shape in the ECtHR.

Am I wrong, or does all this work in the conditions of the Russian Federation merely end up in a tightening of the screws?  Where can we see positive changes brought about by ECtHR decisions that you mention in the observance of the rights to peaceful protest?  The Kremlin merely pays the fines imposed by the EctHR, but that’s all.

That’s not entirely true.  There have been changes.  As of 2010-2012, the authorities’ main way of responding to protest actions was administrative arrests for failure to comply with the “lawful demands of a police officer” or “violation of the regulations for organising a demonstration.”  But since 2012, arrests have been replaced by fines.  Yes, the fines have constantly increased.  But fines are better than prison sentences.

Secondly, we are witnessing, especially in the last year, a kind of rehabilitation of peaceful protests, if we go beyond the Moscow Ring Road.  We have seen protests in Khabarovsk for more than three months now.  Before that, there was a strong protest against plans to mine the Kushtau mountain in Bashkortostan, and a battle against plans to build a landfill in Shiyes in Arkhangelsk region.  In both of these instances, the protests to save the environment won: the authorities backed off and met the demands of the protesters.

Yet the reverse is also true. Both the Ossetia protests and the Ingushetia protests led to large numbers of criminal proceedings, from which no positive developments whatsoever have resulted. We should also remember the Moscow Case of 2019, which followed peaceful protests prompted by regional elections. Yet we should not expect rulings handed down by the European Court of Human Rights to bring about rapid change. The Court is at a very early stage of examining a significant number of these cases, and it is almost certain that the outcome of all of this will be the adoption of a new Code of Administrative Offences – a Code that includes a heavily revised section on protests.

It is clear that banning protests has been a fundamental cornerstone of the Kremlin’s domestic policy over the past 10 years. But mark my words, there will be far-reaching changes over the next three to five years. The tradition of peaceful protest in the Russian Federation will be rehabilitated and liberalised. It was literally last week that Aleksei Navalny published the first updates on the prediction he made back in March 2018, stating that 10,000 euros would be awarded to each of those arrested. And that is exactly how much the European Court of Human Rights has now decided to award each applicant – between 5,000 and 10,000 euros. The Russian Federation imposes a fine of 20,000 roubles, and the European Court of Human Rights awards a sum of 10,000 euros. I can’t imagine that the Russian authorities will be terribly impressed by this method of balancing the books.

And what about the United Russia members in the State Duma who are obliging enough to rubber stamp everything the Kremlin wants with the speed of a Burevestnik rocket – will they be able to stand in the way of this? What is to stop them from imposing harsher punishments on protestors?

I’m not an expert on the speed of the Burevestnik rocket, but I do know that the test flights were not terribly successful overall. The magnitude of fines is important, but the ease with which they can be collected is another key factor. The higher the fine, the fewer people will be willing to pay it, and the bailiffs are left with the task of enforcing court orders. That means an increasing number of people who are banned from leaving the country, and more people who start to squirrel away their assets. In the long term, the overall result is an erosion of rights and an attack on the rights of huge numbers of people. That aside, the fines that are imposed cannot equal the 10,000 euros awarded to protesters by the European Court of Human Rights, and so this is a race whose result is a foregone conclusion.

The threat of the “Dadin article”, which means that if you are arrested on three occasions for some fabricated violation of the rules on protests you can get a criminal conviction and a real term in prison for these misdeeds, still looms large over dissenters, now as it always has. Against this backdrop, is it really possible to find anything positive in the fact that people are not being immediately jailed for short periods under administrative law but are being instead ruined financially?

I can’t deny that it’s a depressing situation, and it’s true that there’s absolutely nothing good to say about Article 212.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. Yet the outcome that the authorities were expecting – if we put Ildar Dadin in prison, everyone else will stop taking to the streets – was not what happened in reality. And the same will be true in respect of the jailing of Konstantin Kotov. “Habitual offenders”, or in other words activists who have been prosecuted multiple times for taking part in protests, are fully cognisant of what they are doing. People like Yuliya Galyamina are not afraid of being labelled criminals, and this threat has no effect on large swathes of the population in Khabarovsk.

How many cases is Agora currently involved in?

Around 100 lawyers are currently working with us, in almost every major city in Russia, and we are defending clients in about 1,000 cases. Around half of these cases involve clients arrested on protest-related grounds, and these cases are handled by our group “Apologia of Protest.” Around 200 of the cases relate to violence perpetrated by law enforcement bodies or the police or to domestic violence, and these are handled by our group “Zone of Law”. Our lawyers are also representing 1,150 applicants before the European Court of Human Rights.

Most people have heard the news: Agora is a foreign agent. How does the organization survive? Where do the lawyers derive their enthusiasm?

The Ministry of Justice declared Agora a foreign agent in 2014. In 2017, the association was excluded from the foreign agent registry and ceased to exist. We haven’t been a foreign agent for more than three years now. Accordingly, the authorities can make no claims against us in this regard. On the other hand, we’re waiting for the resolution of a major case at the ECtHR, which involves almost 90 organisations that are recognized as foreign agents. Our lawyers are representing half of those there who are fighting against this status.

As far as funding goes, the story is not linear at all. As the leader of an international human rights group (and it’s an informal association of lawyers, not an organisation) I don’t handle any financial matters at all. Our lawyers and our projects have targeted funding sources. This is also the case when it comes to defending groups affected by domestic violence, protesters, those who are HIV-positive, and those working to defend human rights in the North Caucasus.

Support comes from both Russian and international organisations. There’s a fairly widespread practice of providing paid legal services. And our lawyers work on a fee basis, including at the ECtHR. But the lawyers aren’t salaried — they’re in fact legally prohibited from receiving a salary. So every professional who works with us has their own private practice. There are people who come prepared to pay for our help, even for human rights cases. This is our approach: if a person is able to pay, they should pay, because we can use the resources we’ll then have available to help someone else who can’t pay.

So in essence it’s volunteer work with the internal motivator of “a bright future for Russia”?

No, not just that. Legal work should be paid work. We have at our advantage a fairly steady stream of donations from individuals. Moreover, many people send money on a regular basis.

So it’s a story of reputation working for you?

Yes, it actually does work. The ECtHR also recovers expenses from the state for representatives. Our lawyers received €5-8,000 for their work on several cases. That’s pretty decent money.

But are these landmark cases? How many cases does the ECtHR need to process to get that €5-8,000?

Our lawyers are working on 1,150 cases. You can do the multiplication.

Let’s say this interview will be read by Yarovaya, or someone like her, and she will say that you are attempting to use Strasbourg to directly influence the sovereignty of the Russian Federation. In what conditions do you think you’re under government pressure and not your clients?

Defending people who have suffered at the hands of the authorities is a deliberate choice. There’s no government official anywhere in the world who likes this kind of work. You defend migrants in Italy and Greece, and you’re the main focus of the security forces. You defend protests and whistleblowers concerning wiretapping in the United States, and you attract interest to yourself. C’est la vie.

What have been the most important things in Agora’s history for you personally and why?

The Pussy Riot case in 2012 had the biggest emotional impact on me. It was a lengthy case. It was a year of intensive work from the Autumn of 2012 to the end of 2013.  It was a difficult year as Alekhina and Tolokonnova were imprisoned many miles apart in different regions of the country.  There was massive pressure on them, the ECtHR was doing simultaneous work on their grievances. Eventually we won, justice triumphed.  Their criminal prosecution was judged as a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.  They were released under an amnesty.

I was delighted, that things turned out so well for both Masha and Nadya.  They hadn’t disappeared anywhere.  It was a very emotional case.  There were a lot of factors, that they were both mothers and they both had children.

Last year we faced a strong challenge in the ‘Moscow cases’. It involved   hyper -intensive work for several weeks, from the end of July 2019 to the end of September. As a result, we were able to secure the full release and withdrawal of charges from several of our clients. In total, half of all defendants in the Moscow case have sought the help of our lawyers, and we continue to represent them. Last week there were two pieces of bad news and one of good news. Someone was sent to a penal colony, but Danila Beglets was released. I’m hoping that he’ll get home this week. And this struggle for people continues. We have referred to Strasbourg the cases of all of those remaining in prison. It was a difficult job: in the busiest periods we had 25 lawyers working on just one case. It was difficult from all points of view.

But, in comparison with the Bolotnaya square case, the Moscow case actually fell apart. The investigation withdrew the serious charges, sentences were fewer in number and not so harsh.

“The authorities had to retreat, yes. And that is a major victory. Apparently, this is the price that I had to pay for my membership in the Presidential Human Rights Council (Chikov was removed from the Council in 2019 along with Ekaterina Shulman, Ilya Shablinsky and the then head of the council Mikhail Fedotov.- Ed. NP 

Strasbourg’s hand was invisibly present in our success. The original charge under Article 212 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation ‘organization of, participation in and incitement of mass riots’ was retracted and did not progress precisely because the charges under this article violated the Convention, as it was a peaceful protest. And, as a result, the authorities shifted from a large group ‘severe’ cases to individual cases of ‘medium severity’ of violence against state agencies in cases where there were at least some tactile contacts between the accused and the police.

You don’t mention the case of Pavel Durov and Telegram Messenger because it’s not on your list of significant cases?

The case is two and a half years old. It began in the spring of 2018.  But actually, the story of the persecution of Telegram began 3 years ago. Facebook Memories just reminded me of it.  The first half year was very intense: it was clear right away that the FSB would not back down, it was a powerful clinch, and that in the end it would be necessary to resort to strategic resistance on the international level.  However, the tactical problem that Pavel gave me in the fall of 2017, to try to delay the decision to block the messaging app for at least 2 months, was solved successfully.  In the end we delayed the decision by 6 months, which made it possible for Telegram and its programmers to get ready for the decision. And the subsequent story proved to be a a failure for Roskomnadzor, which turned out not to have the capacity to implement the court decision to block.  Finally, in spring 2020, there was a full rehabilitation of Telegram. This is a beautiful textbook case of how lawyers and technical people, working together for the sake of progress, defeated the security men with all their authorisations. But we are still waiting for the ECtHR to review the case, which for the first time in the world strikes a kind of balance between the interests of national security and the private life of citizens. 

How would you answer those who say that they finally left Durov alone because he came to an agreement with the Russian special services?

I am not aware of even one case yet where private correspondence from Telegram has become public, with the exception of when hardware has been confiscated. There are no known other cases of access to the contents of correspondence. And not only in Russia, but anywhere else.  If Telegram were cooperating with the FSB, we would have already seen facts confirming that. 

What is the difference between the Human Rights Council under Fedotov and the Human Rights Council under Fadeyev?  For a normal person it was and remains a “meaningless institution.”  Do you, as a former member of the presidential council, see any substantial changes after the highly publicized change in leadership?

I cannot judge the Human Rights Council under Fadeyev simply because I don’t work there. From what I see from the outside, the council is noticeably less frequently seen publicly in connection with key human rights matters.  Although from time to time it tries to speak out, in my view, along the right lines.  Its influence has decreased, although this began, of course, not just a year ago with the arrival of Valery Fadeyev, but earlier, when I still worked there.

Traditionally the Human Rights Council was led by so-called “liberals within the system”: Vladimir Petrovich Lukin was one (ombudsman 2004–2014—Note ”NP”), and Mikhail Aleksandrovich Fedotov was one (head of the HRC 2010–2019 — Note “NP”). First they replaced Lukin, then Fedotov.

They were replaced with people whom it is impossible to call “liberals within the system.” (Ella Pamfilova became ombudsman in 2014 and was replaced in 2016 by Internal Ministry general Tatiana Moskalkova. In 2019 Channel 1 journalist Valery Fadeyev became head of the Human Rights Council. —Note “NP”)

A regular reset in a way being a higher priority than what is most important?

Let’s let that be your line, not mine.

That’s fine. Many people believe that the second half of the summer — after the highest-profile “zeroing” [of the presidential terms of office – ed.] in recent years — has shown that we already live in a different Russia. What changes have you noted? For me, the verdict against journalist Prokopyeva, the arrest of journalist Safronov, the significant increase of the historian Yury Dmitriev’s prison term — these are all events that happened precisely after Putin got the right to be president until 2036.

I think a much more significant event took place in the second half of summer 2020, which has a much stronger effect on changes in Russia from both the society’s and the state’s points of view. And this event, of course, is the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny.

Navalny is now an instrument of international political games. I meant the events and the fate of people remaining in Russia.

No. The poisoning of Aleksei Anatolyevich is much more about our internal affairs than about international politics. This attempted murder is much more important than any amendments to any Constitution.

Are the problems of politician Navalny more important than the problems of freedom of speech and specific journalists or the problems of revising history and censoring it in a society that wants to return to the USSR so much?

I am not very concerned whether my words offend someone. Ultimately, this does not deprive me of the right to express my opinion. The obvious murder attempt, which was orchestrated by the authorities (and I do not doubt that) against the main political opponent of the incumbent president Vladimir Putin, is a completely new reality in which we all now live. These are, of course, the next steps in the line of previous events, starting with the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov. However, in those stories, the “Caucasian trace” was evident.

Questions remained regarding the involvement of the federal executive authorities and the Kremlin in those events. People expressed different opinions, but the general public rather doubted the Kremlin’s involvement in those murders. However, in the case of Navalny, this distancing of the Kremlin has not happened yet, and it looks like direct causation. This is a powerful blow to all the basic principles enshrined in the Constitution, both before and after the amendments. This event hits the foundations of the relationship between society and the state much more strongly. You and I certainly live in a new reality, the outlines of which are not entirely clear, and in this sense, they are frightening …

To stop being frightened, would it be better for Navalny not to return to Russia?

It is certainly dangerous for Navalny to return to Russia, but Navalny will certainly return to Russia.

Putin saved Navalny; he admitted it. Although at first Peskov said the exact opposite. It turns out that it is Putin who is blowing up the status of an event that is more important to you than the murders of Politkovskaya and Nemtsov, right?

This shows the commotion and lack of a unified position within the government. It is an attempt to find a political solution in a complicated situation in which the authorities have put themselves.

What’s all the fuss about? Those who were hit with sanctions are individuals who have no reason to travel to the EU. Kirienko is the curator of domestic policy, and Bortnikov and Deputy Shoigu do not set foot abroad anyway.

I don’t think that the Kremlin is concerned because Bortnikov was included in the latest sanctions list. The reasons are, of course, quite different. Including the fact that the respected international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, of which every country in the world is a member, has begun an investigation into the matter. It is also looking into the story of the Skripals as well as the story of the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria with the participation of the Russian military. In any case, this is a very serious blow to the country’s reputation. Secondly, of course, there are Russia’s financial and economic interests, which will almost certainly suffer: following the embargo of ‘Nord Stream’ and ‘South Stream’, they will be exposed to new blows in Europe. Roughly speaking, the veil has been torn off. Everyone understands what to expect next from Russia. It will be more difficult to do bad deeds going forward.

Today, even cautious communists are talking about ‘monarchy’ at the podium of the State Duma. Why does the fight to protect citizens’ rights not have any correlation with these processes? Why isn’t it slowing the country’s slide towards dictatorship?

Why isn’t it slowing it down? Maybe if it weren’t for our persistent work these past 20 years we would have long since been living in Turkmenistan?

Do you have an idea of how to address the omnipotence of the security officials with respect to their persecution of those who are not willing to integrate into and negotiate with the system? Can the case of Irina Slavina be remembered as not having changed things for the better?

Irina Slavina acted deliberately — this was her choice, which must at least be respected and properly understood. For me, this is not a gesture of despair, but a clear signal that the pressure of the security forces began to go beyond the permissible limits. There is, of course, an idea of what can be done — we recently discussed this topic with Sergei Guriev, for example. And until there is an opportunity to implement these plans, we will need to talk about this and protect specific people.

I’m sure you are following the events in Belarus. How could one estimate the scale of citizens’ rights violations in numbers? Why can’t the European bodies prevent what is happening?

Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe: no European institutions have any legal force in this country. Only the UN structures have it, and these are several times less effective. The scale was best demonstrated by Mediazona’s investigation — more than 2,000 people have been beaten up by OMON officers. And more than 400 criminal cases were opened against the protesters.

Let’s go back to Agora. Did you know that not everyone likes you? Sociologist Dmitry Dubrovsky said that he does not think of your organization as one that people can work with going forward. He says that you are rude. Do you view sensitivity towards colleagues as something superfluous?

In general, I have to play the role of Baba Yaga quite often, simply because in a large organization — which Agora is today — someone has to do it. It is often the head of the organization who must. Everyone else wants to stay pure and innocent. In this sense, it happens that some people outside of the organization are offended by something … But there are no special grounds for this. There’s nothing that can be done about it.

They complain about your dreams of stardom, your oversized ego …

Everyone has the right to their own opinion about the various events happening around them, including in relation to me. I am absolutely not bothered by negative statements on social media about me as an individual or my work. There is nothing wrong with it. Please — by all means — continue to make negative comments about me.

What do you believe in? Is Putin not immortal? Will the great Russian Federation of the future manifest in our generation, or only in the next? 

All in all, I’m an optimist. I’m more inclined to see positive changes and not concentrate on negative ones. Nevertheless, a lot of knowledge breeds sorrow, as is known. So, the more you understand regarding what’s going on in your country, and also in the wider world that our country is part of, the less reasons there are for optimism. In the last decade, at least, the situation has definitely turned for the worse, with the exception of a few regions. But sooner or later, as history teaches us, the pendulum will swing in the other direction. I am convinced that changes for the better will definitely come, and will happen quite quickly, if not suddenly. Good times are ahead for all of us, and I even intend to participate in this process myself.

If the conditions for participation are compromises with the powers that be, is this an option for you?

The conditions are for the powers that be to be me, us, and other new people. This is not a question of compromise but of political changes which must precede reforms. 

Does it not scare you that society is incapable of a logical analysis of the reasons for its problems and its discontent? Or that it’s easier for people in Russia to agree to a new Tsar than to begin from themselves?

For the most part, wonderful people live in Russia – capable, educated, understanding and empathetic people. Look at the Belarusians out on the streets. Russia has people who are just as good.

Information from New Prospect:

Pavel Chikov is 42 years old. He was born in Kazan into a family of biologists. He graduated in Law from Kazan State University and has a PhD in Law. From 1997-2000 he was the head of the student group International Public Law in the department of Constitutional and International Law. From 1999-2001 he was a lawyer and manager of the public advice centre of the human rights committee in the Republic of Tatarstan. Since 2001 he has been a reader in the department of Constitutional and International Law at the University of Management “TISBI” in Kazan. In 2001, he cofounded and became the first manager of the Human Rights Centre of Kazan (now the Kazan Human Rights Centre). From 2003-5 he was head of the legal department of Public Verdict Foundation (Moscow). In 2006 he became the main specialist for the Program Directorate of the interregional organisation “Open Russia” (Moscow). Since April 2015 he has headed Agora, an interregional association of human rights defence organisations. In 2014 Pavel Chikov and the Agora human rights defence group were awarded the Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize, a prestigious award for human rights work. From 2012 to 2019 he was a member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. In 2017, the Prime Minister of Norway Erna Sulberg awarded the head of Agora, Pavel Chikov, with the prestigious Lindebrekke prize for his human rights work. In September 2020 he applied for the post of Russian judge in the European Human Rights Court. He is a member of the Agora mountaineering club and over a period of three years has completed ten ascents in six countries. He has two children.

Translated by Anna Bowles, Fergus Wright, John Tokolish, James Lofthouse, Elizabeth Teague, Joanne Reynolds, Nina dePalma, Graham Jones, Anastasia Kovalevskaya, Tyler Langendorfer and Cameron Evans.

Leave a Reply