Infected with a ‘foreign agent’ paranoia, Russian state machine has been diligently trying to beat down its civil society, economically and mentally, for several years now. In the upcoming 2020, will its flagitious actions come home to roost?
As the State Duma approves of the controversial amendments to the Media and Information Law, Russia’s major historical and human rights society Memorial keeps struggling against prosecutions, court calls and fines.
Since September, Russian Historical, Educational and Human Rights Society Memorial has been, perhaps, one of the most regular guests at Moscow courts. 28 protocols in total have been filed against the NGO and its chairpersons within the past five months, with fines exceeding three million rubles.
The protocols target Memorial’s online educational and informational sources, such as the projects “1968. The year of the human rights” and “This is right here: Moscow. Topography of terror” (soon available in English) as well as the social media accounts of both the International Memorial and the Human Rights Center. Each case comes in two editions and thus addresses both the natural and the legal entity.
It all began in late July when the UFSB, the Federal Security Service Directorate of the Republic of Ingushetia, North Caucasus, lodged a couple of complaints with the Roskomnadzor, Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, against Memorial acquising the latter of not having indicated the status of the “foreign agent” on its social media accounts on Vkontakte, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
Included in Russia’s notorious ‘foreign agent’ list by the Ministry of Justice on October 4, 2016, Memorial is still appealing the verdict aiming to reach the ECHR in the worst case scenario. The reason for labelling Memorial as foreign agent was its stern statement from September 2012 regarding the “lawless and immoral nature” of the ‘Foreign Agent’ Law, which drew the historical parallel with the years of the ‘Great Terror’, 1937-38 (available here in Russian).
December 25 will mark Memorial's last court session for 2019, yet no one knows how many courts the new year brings.
“Our next steps are quite obvious”, explains Alexander Cherkasov, the Chair of the Council of the Memorial Human Rights Centre. “We get to hear the verdicts and we appeal. Our first appeal is to be reviewed in mid January 2020. The initial verdict will most likely be kept unchanged, which means we would have to pay the fines within the two months. What’s then? Our planning horizon is limited for the political landscape in Russia is changing all the time. We should neither be too optimistic, nor too fatalistic about it. We need a compass like the one that Captain Jack Sparrow has, which points out to the thing we want most. Our strategy is to stand up for the values”.
Alexandra Polivanova, one of the Board members of the International Memorial and coordinators of its research projects, believes that combating fines is a challenge worth taking. “Whether we make it through or not is a litmus test for our relevancy as the organization and for the maturity of the civil society in Russia. Personally, I feel the public support, and I feel that people need us”.
To pay off the fines, Memorial recently launched a fundraising campaign, which has already brought around 1 800 000 rubles.
An unpleasant yet not a big surprise
The protocols did not come out of the blue, however. The political pressure towards NGOs intensified after the civil crisis in Ingushetia and the summer protests in Moscow.
The crisis in the Republic of Ingushetia broke out in late 2018 following the controversial statements regarding the planned revision of the border between Ingushetia and Chechnya. In April 2019, the crisis drastically escalated when several protesters and human rights defenders were violently detained by the police and imprisoned for several months.
July 27 marked one of the largest protests in Moscow in recent years, both in terms of its scale and in the number of arrests (2700 people were detained during the three days of the Moscow rallies in late July - early August, compared to 3700 for the whole year of 2012). Fueled by the ban of several oppositional candidates from the election to the Moscow City Council, the protests resulted in mass arrests of young activists and sparked a hard-line response of the Russian civil society.
The protocols against Memorial were compiled just several days after the protests, on July 31”, says Alexandra Polivanova. “Instead of trying to find the real reasons behind and solutions for the crisis, the authorities decided they would rather report to the president by compiling hundreds of new protocols and increasing the number of detentions.”
The recent searches in Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation as well as in the Justice Initiative Fund (or Stitching Russian Justice Initiative, SRJI), the latter included in the list of NGO foreign agents on December 13, gave a clear hint that the state authorities were deliberately stealing up on Memorial.
“The search in Memorial would trigger a huge public response and spark off an unwanted reaction. Thus, the fines are the means to buy time and to crush down the organization financially. Yet, it’s not our personal issue or the issue of our organization only - it is, first and foremost, an act of exerting pressure on the whole Russian society. We are like a mediator between the people and the state violence. Nowadays, power authorities in Russia have only one interest, that is to hold onto this power, because they understand that if they lose it they will inevitably face the trial”, notes Alexandra Polivanova.
Russia’s civil society deadlocked, surviving on its own
According to the latest studies by the Levada-Center, presented by Lev Gudkov at the conference on the Russian civil society at the Sakharov Center in Moscow last weekend, most of the people feel a “chronical” mistrust towards authorities and try to minimize any contact with the state relying on their own means and networks. No more than 20% are politically engaged, whereas only 3% are ready to participate in actions and protests. The permanent “core” of protesters is thus around 200.000-300.000 people country-wide, which is obviously not enough to trigger any structural changes. When most of Russia’s population does not believe in a slight possibility of economic and social improvements and alienates itself from the political life, the potential to resist the regime stays low.
“Protests are meaningless without decent organization, which in its turn demands certain political culture, solidarity, visions of the future and sheer belief in the possibility of changes,'' says Lev Gudkov.
Yet, as Leonid Drabkin from OBD-info, another human rights NGO, points out, “Moscow protests did not only trigger further state prosecutions and violence, but they also resulted in an exponential increase in the number of volunteers and encouraged youth participation in the human rights movement in Russia”. Moreover, Such actions of civil solidarity as open letters, for instance, written in favor of illegally arrested persons and signed by thousands of people of different professional and social backgrounds, have become a wide-spread practices in 2019 and do signal a growing public awareness of the maleficence of the current regime.
Historical memory and (in)justice
The recent grandiloquent celebrations of the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Northern Norway by the Soviet Army in Kirkenes and commemoration of victims of World War II is but one part of a bigger picture of reconceptualising the post-war history. For the Russian state though, historical memory has over the past decades become a matter of power struggle and an essential tool for manipulating public opinion and resetting the quasi-patriotic mood.
In this regard, International Memorial, as one of the major organizations working with the most sensitive pages of the Soviet past, acts in a way like a red flag to the current regime. Advocating for open access information and liberalization, Memorial keeps on revealing the crimes of the repressive Soviet regime and its victims and sustains commemoration practices, at the same time actively pointing out to the clear and alarming historical parallels between the two regimes.
Almost thirty years after the fall of the USSR, there is still a long way to go to unscramble its past for the lack of self-reflexivity sucks the Russian society back into the same unlucky swamp, infested with foreign agent bloodhounds, no matter all the achievements of the Soviet era.
“The inability to reassess the Soviet past is one of the key problems of contemporary Russian society”, argues Lev Gudkov, and the audience at the Sakharov Center nods assent. It is not only the inability though - often, it is a conscientious refusal to embrace the painful revelations of the Soviet past, which derives from the very physical and emotional vulnerability of people living in contemporary Russia, where violence and neurosis have become integral parts of everyday life.
“And even though foreign agents nowadays are not being caught the way they were caught in the Soviet Union, the fact of their affiliation, be it direct or not, with an “unwanted” organization, might trigger political prosecution”, notes Alexander Cherkasov.
“The very existence of the institution haunting down imaginary foreign agents, with its own funding and its own action plan, leads to fake court cases. It happens, when states dispose of money and securocrats and worship state security. In short, it happens when no one learns the lessons of the past and no one understands their dangers”