Nikolai Kavkazsky: “Opportunities for lawful political action have been severely curtailed … but as long as such opportunities exist, I’ll be here. If they start shooting us and imprisoning us by the thousands, then I’ll be forced to leave.”
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25 May 2022

Olga Allenova interviews Nikolai Kavkazsky for Novaya gazeta. Evropa

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [Original source: Новая газета. Европа]

Following the death of human rights defender Andrei Babushkin, the Committee for Civil Rights that he headed for many years, will be unable to carry on working. Politician, lawyer and civil activist Nikolai Kavkazsky, who worked alongside Babushkin on the Committee for 12 years, spoke of how this would impact upon the lives of Russian prisoners and also of how activists who have not broken the law in any way are being arrested on the Moscow Metro. He talked about why opposition politicians are not leaving Russia and whether a mass exodus of activist citizens would be a social disaster for the country.

“Many human rights defenders are leaving Russia today”

— You spent 12 years working on the Committee for Civil Rights which was headed by Andrei Babushkin. Recently, the Committee suspended the work of half its staff. In what connection?

— There was nothing to pay staff with. A total of 16 people worked for the Committee. On 5th May, the work of eight members of the organization’s staff, my own included, was suspended but Babushkin extended my work for a week although even then on half-pay. As of 12th May, I was no longer working for the Committee. On Thursday, 12th May, we had a meeting. Andrei Vladimirovich was very worried. He said that in a week’s time it would be necessary to suspend the work of the Committee’s remaining staff. He couldn’t see what other measures could be taken for even a few members of staff to stay on. And I think that both that situation and the problems with the office contributed to the deterioration in Babushkin’s health.

— Is the Committee’s lack of funds connected to the events of recent months or is it a long-standing problem?

— The past three months really have seen a sharp decline in donations. But for several years now the Committee has had no support from grants. We have been in this unstable situation since November 2015. It hasn’t improved since. Recently, the Committee has been simply surviving. In October 2021, the Moscow City Department of Municipal Property ousted the Committee from the office where we’d worked for many years. This was because we couldn’t afford to pay the lease. Part of our organization’s property was seized. 

For a while we were offered an office by human rights defender Valentina Chupik. She runs an organization that provides legal protection for migrants from Central Asia in the Russian Federation. Valentina herself was expelled from Russia in 2021. Then a structure linked to the Ministry of Justice offered us premises in Koptevo but two-three months later it asked us to vacate the property. After that, Andrei Vladimirovich rented a small room in a building in Otradnoye, a very long way from the Metro. The Committee is there at the moment but the premises are only paid for until the beginning of June.

We all looked for some means of maintaining at least some of the Committee’s work because thousands of people across the country depended on it. 

On the evening of Friday, 13th May, I rang Babushkin about this very matter. His assistant picked up the phone and said that Andrei Vladimirovich was being taken to hospital. I wasn’t able to speak to him. Shortly after he was hospitalised, his heart stopped. 

Background information

The Committee for Civil Rights helped prisoners and their relatives by investigating complaints from places of detention, providing legal advice, lodging complaints in court, working to improve the living conditions of detainees, visiting police stations in Moscow, and checking the detention conditions of detainees. Ninety-five percent of the written complaints received by the Committee were from prisons and detention centres. Prisoners mostly complain about cold in the cells, bad food and meagre portions, and slave labour (working 12–16 hours a day, seven days a week, for 200 roubles a month, and being denied days off). They aren’t taught about safety, so prisoners are often injured at work. Under the Penal Code, prisoners’ wages must be no lower than the national minimum wage, but only if they fill their quota. So the colonies’ administrations set unachievable quotas and the prisoners who are unable to meet them get paid 200 roubles a month for their work. The Committee for Civil Rights argued for years that this is in violation of the Russian Constitution and international law.

— The Committee’s lawyers often complained to the prosecutor’s office about the slave labour of prisoners in the colonies. Were they able to get justice?

— The prosecutor’s office was never interested in working on violations of prisoners’ labour rights. The colonies benefit from not giving prisoners days off or holidays; they take advantage of the forced labour. It’s a systemic problem. Although the number of our complaints accepted by the prosecutor’s office in the last two years increased from 6% to 12%. But they were mostly complaints about violations of prisoners’ rights to send correspondence. Such violations are common and they’re not difficult to prove. By law, a letter must be handed to a prisoner within three days of it arriving at the colony. The prosecutor’s office also often finds violations of detention conditions: insufficient lighting, low temperatures in the cells, failure to comply with the law when punishing prisoners.

— How does the prosecutor’s office respond to reports by human rights defenders of torture in prisons?

— Most often, prosecutors overturn refusals to initiate criminal proceedings in torture cases, but then, two or three months later, the same refusals to initiate criminal proceedings are issued again. The red tape can go on until the statute of limitations expires. It is almost impossible to get criminal cases opened into instances of torture. Torture, humiliating prisoners – these are also a systemic problem. It is also mentioned in Kolyma Tales and The Gulag Archipelago. I think that the criminal subculture, the so-called AUE (recognised as an extremist organisation in Russia), is used by prison administrations to control prisoners, including through torture, humiliation, and social castes based on homophobia and sexism.

— What will happen to the Committee following the death of Andrei Babushkin?

— Andrei Vladimirovich played an enormous role in Russia’s human rights movement. If any oppositionists or activists were arrested, we knew that Babushkin would get involved. When there were rallies, our organisation would put Plan A into action – working with police stations holding detainees, going out and checking police stations where detainees were being held. All the prisoners knew Babushkin. I was imprisoned in the Bolotnaya Square case – for many of the prisoners and their relatives, Babushkin’s books were indispensable. In Moscow, he was involved in monitoring healthcare facilities and public transport, so for Moscow alone he was an iconic figure. For the country, he was a great defender of prisoners’ rights.

The Committee helped ordinary prisoners massively. It’s not clear who will do that now. And today, many human rights defenders are leaving Russia.

“It is necessary that people see that there are opposition politicians in Russia

You yourself don’t plan to leave?

– No, I don’t plan to. I am engaged in the protection of rights as a lawyer, but my main occupation is politics. And for me, as a politician, it is important to stay here and continue to wage a political struggle, as long as there is at least the slightest opportunity for legal politics. I believe that there still is. I plan to participate in municipal elections in the Basmanny District in September for the ‘Yabloko’ party, which I have been a member of for 15 years. We want to lead the team to these elections and fight for victory. There are also other political activists in Russia, for example, the left-wing Social Democrats, who also engage in political activity, and other organizations. And as long as we have not been banned, as long as ‘Yabloko’ exists, we will fight here.

– And do you think that today you have a chance in this election?

– After the start of the ‘special operation,’ ‘Yabloko’ participated in elections in Novgorod with the slogan ‘For peace!’

– And didn’t win.

– I don’t know whether someone from the opposition will be allowed to win, but I believe that it is necessary to fight. It is necessary so that people will see that there are opposition politicians in Russia and that any vote is important.

– But with the introduction of electronic voting it is generally impossible to trace who actually received how many votes.

– Based on the paper protocols from the PECs, where good monitoring is organized, it can be seen who really won.”

– Are you satisfied with the way the party is working now?

– Yes, and now many people want to join ‘Yabloko.’ Since February 24th, the only registered party that opposes the ‘special operation’ has remained in Russia. Well, there is still PARNAS, but there are de facto very few people left.

As regards the development of ‘Yabloko,’ so far I like how the party works with people who want to join ‘Yabloko.’ Yes, I advocated for a mass party, but in ‘Yabloko’ a decision was made on a probationary period of two years. I did not vote for this, I abstained. Nonetheless, many people come to the party, meetings are constantly held with them, this is live politics.

“The main question is what these people who have left will do

– In connection with the ‘Bolotnoe case’ you spent more than a year in jail, and then another several months under house arrest, after which you were granted amnesty. What is a Russian prison for you?

– Russian prison is a shower once a week, and that if you have no court hearing on that day. Walking in a pen the size of a cell. When I was in prison, there was still independent media, that is, it was possible to receive objective information. Now it is more difficult. There were 12 people then in shared cells, now there are 20, Butyrka is overcrowded.

– On February 25th you were detained and sentenced to six days of arrest for protesting against the ‘special operation’…

– Yes, I was arrested for six days, deputy chairman of Moscow ‘Yabloko’ Kirill Goncharov for ten days. Authorities deemed us organizers of the act of protest because of Kirill’s post on social media and my repost of his recording.

— On May 9th you were detained by police in the Moscow metro system, then you were released a few hours later. Several other opposition activists were detained that same day. What motivated these detentions? 

— On May 9th, I took part in a memorial action at Preobrazhenskoe Cemetery to mark the anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War [World War II] together with some folks from Yabloko. The party stages such events on a regular basis. Afterwards, we decided to go into the centre to hang out. A police officer approached me in the metro and said he was detaining me. He showed me his telephone, which had two pictures on it: one was my passport photo, and the other was from a surveillance camera. He couldn’t tell me anything else. District police officers came to collect me from the transit police station; they couldn’t give me an explanation either. They even started speculating: “Maybe you’re in a banned group that has something to do with the special operation?” Later, it turned out that the only reason for my detention was that I had been flagged by the metro’s facial recognition system. A few other people were detained on May 8th and 9th for the same reason. I wasn’t issued a record of my detention or transfer, despite the fact that the Administrative Violations Code requires that such records be drawn up and issued at a detained person’s request. I was held at the Preobrazhenskoe Police Station for three and a half hours before they let me go. The activist Yulia Perevedyonnaya was brought to the station at the same time as me. A lawyer from OVD Info (an organization that appears on the register of foreign agents) was allowed in to see me, and Yulia was waiting for us to finish The police investigator who spoke to me was just stalling for time – he asked meaningless questions, sat there in silence. And when I left the police station and the lawyer went to see Yulia, he was kicked out. We were all issued warnings on the impermissibility of committing unlawful activities, as well as activities that could facilitate unlawful activities. The old Stalinist formulation. 

— So now any person who has attended a protest and been held in administrative detention at any point could be detained again if they trigger facial recognition technology. 

— That’s right. 

— But still, you’re not planning to leave the country, even though many already have. It’s hard to understand your motivations. 

— I believe that emigration is a personal matter. Repression is getting worse in this country, and everyone has to make their own decision whether to stay or go. I’m not about to judge anyone’s actions. Personally, I’m staying. Yes, opportunities for lawful political action have been severely curtailed, even in comparison to where we were three months ago, but as long as such opportunities exist, I’ll be here. If they start shooting us and imprisoning us by the thousands, then I’ll be forced to leave. For the moment, people are being imprisoned by the dozens for criticizing the ‘special operation’ and there are hundreds of political prisoners, but we haven’t gotten to the level of mass repression yet. And for the time being it’s still possible to engage in political action under the Constitution. 

— What will the emigration of civic activists and socially active citizens more broadly mean for Russia?

— The biggest question is what the people who have emigrated will choose to do. You can emigrate and still help Russian civil society. Or you can emigrate and choose not to help, distance yourself from Russia, live your life, assimilate into another country,  adopt its way of life, its culture. The former option wouldn’t be so bad for Russia; the second would have terrible consequences. 

Translated by Melanie Moore, Nicky Brown, Alyssa Rider and Sarah Vitali

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