Aleksandr Verkhovsky: We live in such times that liquidation of an organisation is not the worst thing that can happen

20 March 2023

Katya Orlova in conversation with Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Centre, laureate of a Moscow Helsinki Group prize

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

On 10 March the Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit to liquidate the Sova Information and Analytical Centre, which researches Russian nationalism and investigates violations of anti-extremist legislation. The formal reason is that the organisation held events, or participated in events, that were outside Moscow, where the office is registered. But Sova has been persecuted since last fall: pro-government organisations have written slanderous letters about the centre and it has been the subject of investigative reports on Russia 24. After the start of the invasion, Verkhovsky was actually expelled from the Human Rights Council, where he’d been a member since 2012. Novaya gazeta. Europa spoke with Verkhovsky to find out more about the lawsuit and the possible reasons for the pressure being exerted on yet another human rights organisation.

In a statement, the Sova Centre pointed out that you already knew about the liquidation suit filed by the Ministry of Justice as early as 10 March. How did you react to it?

At first we had an inspection, which happened out of the blue, as an inspection should. But when we got the report with the list of 24 events outside Moscow in which Sova had participated, it became quite clear what was going on. By that time the MHG and Individual & the Law had already been liquidated. Our liquidation was only a matter of time. But I must say that the Ministry of Justice was in no hurry. It waited to receive our response to the report, and then even took that response into account. Nevertheless, things took their course.

Did you expect that you would be closed down after the MHG was liquidated?

Well, no, we didn’t expect this before the inspections, because claims that people participate in events outside their region can be made, I suspect, if not about every regional NGO, then about every other one for sure. It never happens that people just don’t go outside their own region. That could only be a completely local organisation: one whose staff never travel anywhere to participate in seminars, for example. Inspectors [at the Ministry of Justice] have [never] made a fuss about this, and then suddenly they’ve discovered this method.

It is unpleasant when an organisation is about to be liquidated, of course. But we live in such times that liquidation of an organisation is not the worst thing that can happen.

Well, we shall challenge the decision in court. In any case, we believe that this method of liquidating an organisation – not even in relation to us, but in general – is very wrong. If this method enters judicial practice, then a great number of people will have problems. I am not only talking about organisations which are prosecuted for political reasons, but about all NGOs in general.

You were accused of 24 violations. What were they exactly?

They are practically the same: that we participated in an OSCE conference, or in a seminar in a certain city, or in a conference in a certain city. The Ministry of Justice even included one participation in an online event. Participation in all of these conferences can be easily confirmed by publications on our own website, so screenshots from the website are attached to our legal challenge. It’s funny, but the Ministry of Justice asked for help from Roskomnadzor [the Russian official media watchdog – ed.], which wrote a letter to their colleagues saying they had no complaints about the site, but they sent them the same screenshots of the same events and for some reason or other did some serious work as well. The Roskomnadzor staff identified the staff speaking at the OSCE conferences by their faces, by the video of these conferences and attached the screenshots. I do not understand why the law enforcers need all these espionage methods if we already have written in plain Russian that yes, such-and-such a person participated and spoke. As an exercise, perhaps, it is interesting, but what additional benefit did they get out of it? I honestly don’t understand.

Why do you think they decided to liquidate the Sova Centre now? It seems like there is a real wave of liquidations of human rights organisations: first the MHG and now you…

– To be honest, I don’t know. It is clear that in such a politically tense situation, the human rights sector cannot help but come under a great deal of pressure. Who exactly will be put under this pressure is decided by some people behind the scenes. We don’t know what they are discussing, we don’t know their reasoning, and we don’t know how these people choose their future targets. Why the Moscow Helsinki Group? And then why Individual & the Law under this scheme, and not some other organisations? There are so many organisations. Maybe there will be some more enforced closures? Of course, we can fantasize. The MHG is, of course, a very large and prominent organisation. Someone probably wanted to close it down immediately, although this is an unreasonable policy because after all the members of the Moscow Helsinki Group will not cease to exist.

But the liquidation of a legal entity makes the organisation’s work more difficult, doesn’t it?

I do not know about that. We have existed for 20 years in this legal form, so we do not know whether it is more difficult to work without it. If the organisation no longer exists, everyone has to decide for themselves what they want next and in what form it will take. So we’ll find out.

You told us that the attacks on the Sova Centre began back in September of last year. Do you think it had something to do with the lawsuit that was filed against you?

We didn’t put that in our statement for nothing, because there certainly are suspicions. Sova Centre has not often been the target of this kind of attack. But there were a number of attacks on us in a row, and they even showed a whole programme about us on Rossiya-24. It was about us and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, though probably more about them than about us. When I saw it, I thought that they were going to make the Norwegian Helsinki Committee an undesirable organisation. But after the broadcast nothing happened. I thought, you never know, a lot of the attacks are meaningless. We didn’t even understand what was the reason for it. Nothing took place for a while immediately after the story, and then all of a sudden things started to happen. Is there a direct connection here or not? There seems to be.

And what could have caused these attacks? Maybe your criticism of anti-extremist legislation or your research into Russian nationalism?

Anything is possible. But if we don’t know who really made the decision, then we even less know why they made it. The Ministry of Justice is officially acting at the request of the Moscow prosecutor’s office. And how did the Moscow prosecutor’s office get this idea? Probably they received a hint from someone. Say, Russian nationalists who are not happy with us, especially those of them who are loyal to the authorities.

Maybe it was the Veterans of Russia organisation?

The Veterans of Russia don’t seem to us to be very important people in this story. Some citizens like those in Veterans of Russia certainly could have written [statements] or copied them from someone else, because the primary source is still an anonymous website. But our criticism of violations of anti-extremism policy could after all have caused irritation in the prosecutor’s office itself, or in the FSB, or in the Interior Ministry. At the same time [before the moves to liquidate us], we received no complaints [from state bodies].

— Замечаете ли вы вообще, что за прошедший год как-то изменилось отношение государства к националистам?

Over the past year, have you noticed any change in the state’s attitude towards the nationalists?

No, everything has more or less stayed the same. And this is interesting, because there have always been opposition groups consisting of Russian nationalists in addition to loyal groups of Russian nationalists. This division has been preserved, only the proportion has changed, as since that very February, the loyal ones have become more visible and active, while those who have been in opposition have finally quietened down and gone into hiding – though the authorities do not authorise any political activity by the loyal groups either. Transport humanitarian aid to Donbass – please. If someone wants to volunteer to go to war – this is also possible. This is possible for everyone, not only nationalists. But it is impossible to hold a rally, for example, in support of the special operation. The state can hold such a rally, but independent groups cannot. The state does not allow this. We are not seeing much political activity in this regard. The authorities do not allow for it, as they are still aiming to keep everything under control even in such an unusual situation for the regime.

Could the participation of SOVA delegates in the OSCE conferences be the reason for the liquidation lawsuit?

You know, many organisations went to the OSCE conference. What’s notable, by the way, is that NGOs that supported the official Russian policies regularly participated in such events, they gave their own speeches there. The Russian authorities did not forbid anyone from going there. On the contrary, they brought people there who supported the government, and who did not criticize it. 

It is customary in the OSCE to reach a consensus among all the countries, and there are 57 of them. Last year, the Russian Federation did not approve the agenda. The annual conference was held, but it had to be renamed. And this last conference was boycotted by the Russian Federation. This really was the difference between this event and similar ones – such a thing had never happened before. But Russia is not withdrawing from the OSCE, and no one is expelling it. It is not yet clear to me whether there is any directive to completely break off international contacts of this kind.

Last November you were expelled from the Human Rights Council along with Nikolai Svanidze and other human rights activists. Do you think this is connected to the pressure against Sova?

It may not have anything to do with this whole narrative and the attack on Sova, but this is sort of an astonishingly well-timed coincidence. On 16 November, the prosecutor’s office sends a request to the Ministry of Justice with the demand to carry out an inspection, while also having already indicated what to look for. The prosecutors already knew the results, but since the Ministry of Justice was supposed to be the body to carry out the inspection, it was told to go ahead with all the procedures. And the next day, a presidential decree [regarding the expulsion of some members from the Human Rights Council] was issued in which I was also included.

And what was the reason for this kind of heightened interest in you?

It’s interesting, but I don’t know. Even guessing is impossible because there is no strong grounds that could clearly have been a reason. But I suspect that I simply offended some bosses with my critical remarks. Apparently, I got to them. And since there is a sort of tightening of the screws happening right now, why not tighten this one as well?

A bit of a naive question, but what outcome do you expect from the court regarding the lawsuit to liquidate Sova?

I think they will liquidate us and then they will uphold the liquidation at the end of the appeal process. But I have a small hope that someone will think better of it and decide against it. I don’t think we’re so important that someone will speak out for us. But the very idea that an organisation can be liquidated because its members went beyond the specified region is such a simple mechanism for liquidating public associations … If it is established in judicial practice, then officials will use it simply for their personal needs and close half of the organisations in the country not only on political grounds, but for a whole variety of reasons. Because in that way you can pick on anyone you want. And it’s a bad idea. Such precedents should not be established. But I don’t know if anyone is ready to think this idea through to the end and desist? I’m afraid that won’t happen. But then again, maybe it will?

Translated by Simon Cosgrove and Tyler Langendorfer

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