Ilya Yashin: ‘I am asking Moscow City Court to be guided above all by the Russian Constitution’

20 June 2024

Ilya Yashin’s speech this day in Moscow City Court

Source: Facebook

Your honor! 

The State Duma passed the first version of the law on foreign agents 12 years ago. At the time, it did not give rise to the kind of mass protests we have recently observed in Georgia, for example, where tens of thousands of citizens literally besieged the local parliament. The point is, first of all, that Georgians have already seen on our example how these kinds of laws function and obviously do not want to divide society into “them” and “us.” Secondly, Russians were initially persuaded that this law was utterly inoffensive and did not restrict anyone’s rights. To many it seemed a formal declaration bearing no real threats. 

I well remember how in 2012 I debated on radio with one of the foreign agent law’s authors, a deputy from the United Russia party. His peaceable tone was striking. The United Russian swore that no one intended to suppress the opposition or civil society, that there was total freedom in our country, a freedom nothing was threatening, but the law was needed in order to regulate relations between the state and NGOs. 

Not taken in by this, I explained to the audience that this law was an instrument for fighting dissent, that with each new amendment it would restrict citizens’ rights more and more drastically and intimidate anyone who dared criticize the regime. We would wind up with the legalization of frank impunity, and many people would become pariahs in their own country. 

Unfortunately, time has confirmed my fears. Today, hundreds of our fellow countrymen have been added to the register of foreign agents on absolutely invented pretexts, even without a court decision—by a simple flourish of the pen by anonymous Justice Ministry clerks. These people are then forbidden to teach or publicize anything, their books are removed from stores and libraries, and their names are deleted from theatrical posters. Apart from the effective ban on their profession, they are required to add the disgraceful stigma to any public statement they make and to account for every kopek they spend on food at the supermarket. And now President Putin has signed another amendment to the law wholly forbidding foreign agents from being nominated for elections at any level…

What do we have as a result? Through the Justice Ministry he controls, the president can declare any opponent of his a foreign agent and in this way strip him of the right to participate legally in the struggle for power. Very convenient. A prospective candidate shows up and with a click of the fingers he is a foreign agent who is barred from elections. He doesn’t even have to be killed. 

The cynicism of this kind of law enforcement practice also lies in the fact that the Putin propaganda is constantly shouting about the negligible public influence of those who are declared foreign agents—but at the same time he bans these people from participating in elections, obviously fearing competition. Although, one wonders, what is there to fear if they are so unpopular? But this is the whole point of the foreign agent law. It was created to preserve Putin’s personal power by artificially excluding any possibility of competition. 

It is perfectly obvious that this law is patently unlawful and discriminatory in nature. Therefore, I refuse on principle to carry out the Justice Ministry’s demand and do not recognize myself to be a foreign agent. 

At the same time I understand that in issuing their decisions the courts are required to be guided specifically by the laws, however harmful and barbaric they may be. In this sense, the presiding judge’s position at today’s session is unenviable. However, I see a sensible solution. 

I am asking the Moscow City Court, upon examining the case before them, to be guided above all by our country’s Basic Law, the Russian Constitution. In recent years, of course, it has been subject to violence and right now is not in the best shape. As before, though, the Constitution guarantees citizens fundamental rights and freedoms. It guarantees me as an opposition politician the right to criticize the regime, to freely express my opinion, and to disseminate information. There is not a word in it about foreign agents or restrictions of their rights. 

If any federal provisions contradict the Basic Law, the courts are required to apply the direct constitutional provisions. This is exactly our case, and therefore I ask that I be judged according to the law, according to Russia’s Basic Law, your honor. Respect your Constitution and do not cater to the obscurantists in the Kremlin. 

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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