19 December 2020
By Lev Ponomarev, executive director of For Human Rights, Valery Borshchev, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and Svetlana Gannushkina, chairman of Civic Assistance Committee
The latest events around Aleksei Navalny have shaken the entire country. Millions of people have come to realize that a mighty terrorist organization is operating on the State level in Russia: the FSB [Federal Security Service]. This is a reality from which it is no longer possible to hide; it’s all too simple, blatant, conclusive, and … monstrous.
These events did not come as a total surprise for human rights activists, though. We have watched in real time as the scale, brutality, and absurdity of political and nonpolitical persecutions in Russia have mounted in tandem with FSB influence.
Back in 2017, the FSB publicly stated that it was marking its centenary. Bortnikov, its director, recounted in detail the traditions that existed in the VChK-NKVD-KGB and that the FSB is carrying on. He mentioned “certain excesses,” but without any assessment of the scale of the repressions in which Chekist butchers destroyed millions of lives.
Therefore, there is nothing surprising in the fact that young antifascists in the Network (an organization deemed terrorist and banned in the Russian Federation) case have been tortured with electric shocks or that in the New Greatness case agents provocateur have been planted with the young people to do everything possible to knock them together into an “extremist organization.” The persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses (an organization deemed extremist and banned in the RF) for “continuing to pray” is perfectly logical; after all, they were imprisoned for that back in the Soviet Union. Muslims who have committed no actual violence and planned no terrorist acts have been sent to prison by the dozens for 20 years and more on charges of terrorism, and they are being sentenced to these terms by closed military courts, without the right to a jury trial. These same military courts are convicting both people who have made incautious comments on social media and journalists for their texts. The number of espionage cases is growing, and criminal accountability has been introduced for “foreign agents.”
All of this is a part of those same “traditions” which gain strength and currency every day and whose victim anyone can become. Right now, a 14-year-old schoolboy is sitting in a remand centre, threatened with 20 years’ prison, because he wanted to “blow up the FSB building in a computer game.” He didn’t really want to, he and his friends simply discussed the idea, which they thought was cool. Right now someone is being squeezed out of his business or is being forced under torture to slander himself and someone else. And meanwhile the FSB is an extrajudicial organization. Human rights activists have more than once encountered the following: “The court does not have the right to give an evaluation of, or examine the expediency of, the decisions of the Federal FSB Administration.”
We are constantly working with all this and attempting to convey to people the full horror of what is happening.
On 14 December 2020, in the space of a few hours, millions of people learned what the FSB represents. Who carried out the attempt on Aleksei Navalny’s life? An organization whose constitutional purposes are to fight terrorism and to defend our national security and Russia’s constitutional order? Obviously, the FSB today is addressing very different purposes, seizing key State posts and declaring itself the “new nobility.” Its actual goals, like the goals of its predecessors from the VChK-NKVD-KGB, is the persecution of dissent, political repression, provocation, and finally, the murder of the State’s most vivid critics and political opponents. All this constitutes a true war against our citizens, and it is exhausting Russia, not allowing it to develop, and ultimately leading it to disaster.
What is to be done in this situation? It looks almost hopeless, but we’re certain there’s a way out. There is always a way out, but there are no simple solutions. In order to avoid chaos and a bloody development of events in Russia, we must go to great lengths and work long and hard: tell the truth, unite, and, of course, make our demands making full use of all the possibilities publicity offers.
For a start, demand that a criminal case be opened against the FSB agents and their unidentified accomplices involved in the attempt on Navalny’s life. Every public reference to the facts of this investigation should be viewed as a crime report.
Demand they be paid a visit at home, as Irina Slavina was. And if they don’t open up, saw down their door. Confiscate all their technology and other possible “instruments of crime,” handcuff them, take them to the investigations department, and interrogate them formally within the investigative framework.
The Federal Security Service should be eliminated in its present form, and its activities over the entire period of its existence should be studied closely. Russia needs modern, professional, and newly shaped special services that obey the law and are subject to society’s oversight.
These demands must be the majority’s demands. And obviously they can’t be met until the current State’s paradigm is replaced. The situation in the country has become so difficult that only a nationwide campaign, a broad front of citizens, politicians, and public opinion leaders, can provide the impetus to change it. A top-down coup or a reshuffling of cadres cannot solve the problems that face the country and that have pushed it to the brink of survival. Russia must be freed from the criminal legacy of Soviet Cheka-ism, and this is its sole chance of rescue.
Russia faces a task of unprecedented scale.
We must counter State terror with a broad association of people and the broad public support of politicians speaking out for democracy, the supremacy of law, and human rights. The earliest this could happen is the 2021 election. It is impossible to steal the votes of millions of people, just as it is impossible to paralyze hundreds of thousands of observers. Our task consists in ensuring that there really are hundreds of thousands of observers and there really are millions of votes. This we can and must accomplish.
Translated by Marian Schwartz