Lev Ponomarev: What I hear from the real ‘agents’

5 January 2021

Lev Ponomarev, chair of the nationwide human rights NGO, For Human Rights, and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Эхо Москвы]

“THIS MESSAGE WAS CREATED AND DISTRIBUTED BY A FOREIGN BRANCH OF THE MASS MEDIA PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT AND/OR BY A RUSSIAN LEGAL PERSON PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT.”  This is the statement with which Roskomnadzor now requires me to head any of my publications.  The font size, let me inform you, is also specified in Roskomnadzor’s order.  Go figure!

The deeper Russia plunges into crisis, the louder the anti-democratic rhetoric of the authorities, already clearly demonstrating their totalitarian nature.  Rights and freedoms, peaceful change of those in power – these are all, in their opinion, “Western values” alien to Russians, and “a threat to national sovereignty,” while those who defend them in Russia are traitors, enemies of the people, foreign agents.  And this is not just rhetoric – it is politics backed up by laws and repression.

I am a human rights defender, and the essence of my work is to defend the rights of any Russian citizen that are violated by the state in any way.  This does not mean imposing values that are alien to Russian people, or carrying out actions in the interests of Russia’s enemies – though this is what we are being accused of, when we are labelled “foreign agents.”  On the contrary, human rights defenders in Russia, as in other European countries, proceed from the interests of their fellow citizens and depend on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Russia itself is signatory.  Let me remind you of the first words of the oath that the President makes when taking office: “I swear, while exercising the powers of the President of the Russian Federation, to respect and protect the rights and freedoms of man and citizen….”

Such is my daily job, and that is how it has been for the past thirty years.  Or, if you like, this is my vocation. I have never worked for a foreign government or corporation, and I have never promoted other people’s interests to the detriment of the people of Russia. I have never been any kind of “foreign agent” in the common or even the legal sense of the term, and I take such a label as a personal insult.  My goal is a civilised, democratic Russia, a successful, safe and comfortable country for the life and self-realisation of every citizen.  And I believe that that is how Russia will one day be. In my view, it is precisely those who believe that such a future is unattainable for the Russian people, and who do not want their country to prosper and flourish, who are Russophobes and agents of Russia’s enemies. That is what I hear from the real agents!

Human rights organisations in Russia have lived through different periods.  In the 1990s, when there was no money in the country, they completely freely received grants from international foundations, and this caused no surprise and provoked no protests from anyone.  In the same way, both the sciences and the arts were supported from abroad.  Later, many human rights defenders began to rely on domestic funding. For eight years, for example, I received presidential grants for two organisations.  But then there came a turning point, which was connected to a change in the political situation in the country.

Up to a certain point, the illusion persisted that the work of human rights defenders was useful for the authorities, since it helped to prevent human rights violations.  But, since the time when power in effect passed into the hands of the security services, who wipe their feet on the Constitution and human rights, human rights defenders have fallen into disgrace. An open confrontation began. What domestic grants can we count on now?

In European countries, human rights defenders are usually supported by business. This is due to respect for human rights and the recognition of the usefulness of human rights defenders in combating the abuses of the authorities. However, not in Russia. In our country, business is in awe of the omnipotent power structures and is ready to serve them, not the society.

At present, none of the most active human rights organisations can count on government grants or the support of business and have to apply for international funds. On the eve of the new year, the President signed a package of hastily concocted repressive laws, including one concerning individuals – foreign agents. They were in such a hurry to pass them as if they wanted to finish this leap year, which had already brought a lot of troubles to the country, with a bang.

The wording of the new law is so incomprehensible and confusing that neither I, my colleagues, nor even professional lawyers can understand how to implement it. And its application will inevitably result in difficulties in work, colossal fines and, ultimately, criminal prosecution of human rights defenders, journalists and public activists.

All this fits into a clear criminal logic, far from the protection of public interests. Elections to the State Duma and local legislative bodies are approaching this year, and it is in the interests of the authorities to remove everything that might prevent United Russia from maintaining control over parliament. This explains the attempt upon the life of Aleksei Navalny, the removal of Yulia Galyamina from political life and the attempt to neutralise the most active human rights activists, bloggers and journalists. Human rights defenders do not participate directly in elections, but advocate respect for the law, fair and free elections, publicly criticise the authorities, record violations and abuses and participate in election monitoring.

We are actually being destroyed. To survive, we must either try to comply with the absurd requirements of the new set of laws, or completely abandon foreign grants. The first seems impossible and the second depends only on the ability to find sources of funding in Russia.

I am grateful to all who have expressed their support and solidarity. There have been many such people, and many have even publicly stated that they are willing to voluntarily add themselves to the list of foreign agents, to form with me a community of foreign agents. This offer means a lot!

But the most difficult and disturbing issue for me is the ability to continue to work. The resolution of this issue depends not only on the moral but also on the material support of citizens. We know from the experience of charitable organisations that their stable existence is maintained not by one-off donations, but by small regular ones. If there are several thousand people in Russia who are ready to regularly transfer to our organisation sums of at least 300 roubles per month, this problem will be solved in my case. With thousands of people becoming involved in human rights activities, there is hope for a change in the situation in this country.

The authorities do not need human rights defenders. Inevitably, the question arises: do citizens need us?

You can  sign up for regular donations to the nationwide NGO “For Human Rights” here.

P.S. As of today, there are four more people on the same “honorary list” with me, and there is no doubt that it will be replenished. I promise that we will join forces to defend ourselves by all legal means available.

Translated by Elizabeth Teague and Ecaterina Hughes

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