22 March 2020
By Jens Siegert
Is Memorial in danger? Yes, probably. At the end of last year, the Moscow city prosecutor’s office filed a total of 28 administrative fines against the umbrella organisation Memorial International and the Memorial Human Rights Centre. The chairs of these legally independent, but politically related organisations who share strong personal connections, Yan Rachinsky and Aleksandr Cherkasov, were also fined. In the meantime, large fines have been imposed by first instance courts in 26 cases, totalling 4,700,000 roubles (about €60,000 at the exchange rate on 13 March 2020). A regularly updated overview in Russian is available here.
In all cases, the allegation was that publications were not appropriately marked as originating from ‘foreign agents’. In recent years, about 20 of the approximately 50 Russian Memorial member organisations have been declared ‘foreign agents’ by the Ministry of Justice. This imposes a legal requirement to label all ‘public statements’ with the declaration that the NGO is a ‘foreign agent’. As well as the additional effort required to carry out this obligation, the most significant real-world consequence of this is the damage it causes to the NGO’s reputation. Upon failing to do this, NGOs are threatened by fines and closure.
Memorial has, albeit reluctantly, fulfilled this obligation on its website. It now states at the bottom of the page that on the 4th October 2016, the Ministry of Justice made Memorial International, which is officially responsible for the website (along with Memorial Human Rights Centre and other legally independent Memorial organisations), a ‘foreign agent’, but that Memorial does not agree with this and is taking legal action against it. This statement is apparently considered sufficient by the judicial authorities. In any case, there have been no objections to the website. The current accusations mainly relate to Memorial’s social media accounts, such as Twitter, Facebook or the Russian vKontakte, and to websites of special projects, such as ‘This is right here…’. [Это прямо здесь…’], the site of the school history competition ‘Man in history. Russia in the XX century’ (https://urokiistorii.ru) or the database with names and short biographies of ‘Victims of political terror in the USSR’.
These proceedings were all initiated by the regional department of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in the North Caucasus Republic of Ingushetia. This brings me to the question of what lies behind these (and other) attacks on Memorial. The regional origin is rather interesting, as it suggests that this is not an attack conducted from above. It also indicates that, since the levying of the administrative fines at the end of last year, there have been no further proceedings. Despite this, the Kremlin-affiliated press have continued with their usual verbal attacks on Memorial and its activities. In recent months, hostility towards Memorial’s history competition for high-school students had also increased and was only eased slightly after the government reshuffle in January.
Therefore, it seems to me more likely that these attacks are a part of a more general series of attrition tactics commonly used against NGOs in general (and Memorial in particular), as opposed to a concentrated attack on Memorial. These tactics have been one of the instruments used by the Russian state for many years. Dozens of laws, of which the so-called ‘foreign agent labels’ for NGOs are the most widely known, are designed to make their (everyday) life difficult. The laws restrict and use up their most valuable resources, they wear down the NGOs and force them to give up, making them sacrifice, as a minimum, their legal status. However, this legal status is necessary, or at least helpful, in many areas.
There are many reasons why Memorial does not want to move into the informal sphere. I would like to highlight two of them here. Firstly, given its size, themes and structure, Memorial has acquired great symbolic importance for the Russian NGO sector. In sociological terms, Memorial is systemically important. This becomes clearer when you look at the Memorial network structure. Moreover, both regional and thematic Memorial organisations are often front-runners in their respective fields. I won’t elaborate further on this here, but those you want to can find out more in my 2014 expository piece titled ‘How does Memorial work’. Should the state succeed in getting Memorial to give up, almost no other NGO would be safe. If the state decides to close Memorial (which it undoubtedly could do at any time), this would be a very clear sign of a further authoritarian hardening of Russia.
Secondly, Memorial’s invaluable work on remembrance, like much of the political work today, could not continue without the infrastructure built up over the past 30 years. In addition to offices, Memorial’s premises in Moscow house an event hall, a museum, a library and above all a unique archive on political persecution in the Soviet Union. Apart from these rooms, of all the independent NGOs in Moscow only the Sakharov Centre has its own function rooms. In times of recurring state pressure on universities and private cultural and event centres to refuse to make rooms available for politically unapproved events, Memorial is an important focal point. There are only a few other cities in Russia that still have similar facilities, such as the NGO floor on Ligovsky Prospect in St. Petersburg or the Yeltsin Centre in Ekaterinburg, although this has already been restricted. In many cities, such centres have now also become points of contact for young people and new activists, who receive support and advice for their (mostly informal) initiatives and projects. Some, such as those from OVD-Info who monitor the police, have been taken under Memorial’s wing. Others work in close partnership and can rely on getting support whenever necessary.
What is Memorial doing now to survive? How does the organisation deal with the huge fines? As mentioned above, the first important step has already been taken: Memorial rejects the ‘foreign agent’ label and has, together with other Russian NGOs, brought a case against the law to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). All penalties, which have so far been exclusively fines, are also being challenged in higher courts. The results are not very promising, as recent cases show, but these can, if necessary, also be brought before the ECtHR. Not all hope is lost. Fines based on entirely absurd constructions have already been challenged at first and second instance. For example, the Moscow prosecutor’s office claimed Memorial should pay a fine for the fact that the radio station Ekho Moskvy (which incidentally belongs to Gazprom) copied texts from Memorial’s websites to its own. Even a Moscow court found this to be a far-fetched idea and dropped the case.
However, Memorial cannot simply ignore the fines. Failure to pay would give the Ministry of Justice the opportunity to legally dissolve the organisation and dispose of Memorial’s property, premises, archives and library, as it sees fit. For this reason, Memorial initiated a crowdfunding campaign at the end of last year. To date (15 March), 4,730,000 roubles (around €60,000) have been collected from more than 3,000 individual donors. Memorial responded to the objection that money was only being collected in order to give it to the state by affirming that they would fight until the last instance, i.e. the ECtHR, to get back the fines paid in order to use the money to finance useful projects. The chances of this are quite high. So far, the Russian state has complied with the judgments of the ECtHR quite closely when it comes to matters of compensation and finance. Even the constitutional amendments now adopted should not change that. The political element of this fund-raising campaign should also not be underestimated. The attacks triggered a huge public and political response, showing just how widespread solidarity with Memorial is.
Translated by Beth Cosgrove