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Arseny Roginsky: "A government inspection in the form of a police round-up"

23 March 2013 

Source: (info)
Arseny Roginsky, historian, chair of the board of the International Memorial Society: "This has nothing whatever to do with the rule of law…"

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Svetlana Reiter: — Is this the first time that you have had an inspection by prosecutors?

— Several years ago we had the same thing, prosecutors came and inspected Memorial. But then it was all on a small scale, it wasn’t at all so serious.

— And now?

— Let me tell you to begin with what I’ve been thinking, and I’ll try to be brief. In the first place, for the second day in a row am experiencing a feeling of awkwardness: I felt it yesterday and today I feel more strongly.

They sent me a list of media publications there have been about the inspection that we are having, and there are a great number of them. There have been even more letters and calls. You know, you always feel awkward, when people are talking about what you have done, and what they are doing to you. There is an iron logic to this, of course. I understand this is a ‘news item’ and so on..

But I perceive things like this with some pain: over the last three weeks there have been two publications which involved Memorial. I have them here on my desk: ‘Lists of Those Shot under Stalin’ – this is a vast history about the lists of those shot, lists personally signed by Stalin – and the book ‘The Great Terror’ that has come out in Paris. These events  are part of a life’s work, and I understand what needs to be said on such occasions.

But we turn out to be at the centre of attention not because of the good things that we do, but because the ‘bosses’ have visited us with their threats.

— When did they come?

— The bosses came yesterday in the morning, and are still here today, and will be here for a very long time. The question is: why is this happening? I think there are two parts to this question. The first is about the meaning of this inspection. And the second is about the possible practical consequences for us.

The second part seems somewhat petty, and subsidiary to the first. If we talk about the first, what the inspection mean, then of course it is connected with something that has always been with us, something that in the Stalin years reached a peak, and in the new millenium took on new strength: a stereotype of mass consciousness generated by the authorities – the notion of a Great Power surrounded by enemies who always want to do something bad to us. And inside the country, the notion of a fifth column which is working in the interests of these enemies.

This is the basic stereotype of Stalinism which survived after the death of Stalin, somewhat weakened in the 1990s and has returned in a powerful way from the year 2000.

What have the authorities done with this stereotype? They could fight against it, if they wanted to create a democratic country, or they could support it. Our authorities has chosen to support this stereotype. The West is the enemy, the USA is the main enemy, and in the role of the fifth column a number of social groups have been chosen. Most recently this has been NGOs receiving funding from abroad.

This is the basic theme, and on this basis we get today's hysterical laws: amendments to the law on treason, the law passed in response to the Magnitsky list, and the amendments to the legislation on NGOs.

— Could you be more specific about how you yourself view the Magnitsky Act?

— I would view it very positively, if it was not solely concerned with Russia. If a law like this was designed to take in a large number of countries, then this would be a real victory for the idea of human rights in government policy. And if other countries passed similar laws, it would really be an excellent thing.

But to go back to our laws, no one knows how to implement the law on foreign agents.

— So far as I understand, legally it is practically impossible.

— Not at all, nothing is impossible! If you don’t give a hang for the law and are ready to just ignore it, to destroy simple logic, to say black is white, then of course they can do exactly as they want. But to do all of this, nonetheless, is not quite so easy. In the atmosphere of general hysteria of recent months you can hear all the time: 'what’s going on, the law has entered into force, but it is not being implemented!' 

The passing of this law itself created a certain atmosphere in society. The law is intended to break up society, to divide it, and it creates hostility on the part of the public towards various NGOs. And the term, which is simply name-calling, ‘foreign agent’ appeared.

Some deputies of the State Duma jump up and shout: ‘Those are the agents – and those, and those over there as well!

The purpose of the law on foreign agents is to frighten people, to set one group of people against others.

And in the middle of February Putin said something at a meeting of the leadership of the FSB about the fact that laws are not being implemented, and everyone knew what law he was talking about. And after this we see what has happened: the prosecutor’s office has issued instructions to all regions, and mass inspections get underway.

You must understand that this is not just Memorial, there are very many of us! A great many NGOs are being inspected, and these inspections take various forms. In some places the inspection begins by the inspectors studying the literature that stands on the shelves behind the desk of the director of the group they have come to visit. They are looking for ‘extremism’. Some are asked to provide copies of chest x-rays of the staff on the grounds that 'You meet with the general public'. To others they say: ‘We’ll start by viewing the premises’.

There have been no searches as such anywhere, and the reason for that is clear: procedures of that kind can only take place after a criminal investigation has been opened. And the main question, is what will be the impact of these inspections on the NGOs?

— What does an inspection consist of?

— Yesterday the representatives of three government agencies came: prosecutors, the Ministry of Justice and the tax inspectorate. They said that they had come to inspect an organization by the name of the International Memorial Society. They demanded a great many different documents – from the founding charter and minutes of board meetings to personnel appointments, the list of staff, and the schedules of salary payments.

The record book of financial advances, budgets for all years, decisions taken by internal review commissions, audits, and some documents about which I have never heard before: the journal for the transfer of employees’ labour records, for example.

— Could you refuse to give them the documents?

— I asked our visitors the following question: ‘Why have you come?’ They told me: ‘The General Prosecutor’s Office has ordered inspections in the regions.’ In other words three important government agencies turn up and the unprecedented nature of this event lies in the fact that these agencies come at the same time, together.

We have always been subjected to inspections, but this inspection is comprehensive, unscheduled, no one told us that it was going to happen. It is the first time in almost 25 years that we have been working that something like this has happened. What is the reason?

We know that prosecutors work in response to information they receive. For example, if I report that you are hiding drugs at your home, the prosecutors must react. All they are doing is demanding that we give them documents to check. But it is such a headache.

Since 2000 the authorities have made NGOs meet a whole host of new requirements as to documentation. They say that commercial organizations could never imagine such an improbably vast amount of documentation.

All together, we collected three copies of all the documents for the three agencies, and of course each particular document we first had to find, then stamp, check and tie up. Awful!

Eight hours I talked with the inspectors. To every question they answered in the same way: ‘We haven't the faintest idea'. But one gets the impression that what they are most concerned about is foreign funding.

— Are there time limits to the inspection?

— When they come on a planned inspection, in the official paper they bring with them the time limits are set out very clearly. But an inspection by prosecutors in the form of a sudden raid can last forever.

You understand what is absurd about all this: every year we submit to the Ministry of Justice our reports about our activities, and we publish them on our website. And financial documents we submit to the tax inspectorate. In these documents every source of funding is given, all the figures are set out, and from the time of the latest report nothing has changed.

Let’s imagine that having looked over our reports, they come to the conclusions that we are engaged in political activity. And since we receive foreign grants – we receive them and do not intend to refuse them, and, I can add, I told the inspectors to which foundations I have sent new applications – then they will come to the conclusion that we must register as a ‘foreign agent’. That is one possible outcome of the inspection.

Another outcome could also be quite unpleasant. In all our vast documentation it’s of course not impossible that there will not be some mistakes and various kinds of oversight. If they find something like this, they can do whatever they like: from ordering us to correct the mistakes, to getting a court order to close our organization. And various kinds of compromising situation are possible.

— Yesterday a camera crew from NTV came.

— Yes, at the same time as the inspectors. Crudely speaking, on the backs of the inspectors. We were shocked by their nerve, which until then I had only seen in the Anatomy of Protest TV documentary: they push their camera at you, asking questions. We thought at first that it was prosecutors who had brought their own camera crew along to film their work, and not journalists.

The prosecutors said: ‘No, they have no connection to us’. We told the film crew: ‘Guys, you have to go.’ But no, they carried on, they burst into one of the rooms, until one of the prosecutors said: ‘The Moscow Prosecutor’s Office has not given you permission to film’

Then they left the office where we were sitting, and, though it took a long time, they were taken out of the building, with the help of the police.

— And did you tell them: ‘You are Surkov’s propaganda machine’?

— It seems funny to say it, but those times, though they were very recent, seem now to be relatively easy to understand. And calmer. And there was no hysteria of the kind we are seeing today, and it was clear where all of it was coming from.

You understood, that if they came to an organization such as Memorial, then of course it was because of Surkov. But now, who knows who and what is behind these people? And who is going to make the final decision. Of course it can't be excluded that the decision in our case has already been made, it's just that we don't know yet what it is. 

— If you are told to register as a foreign agent, will you agree to do it? 

— No. For us it is impossible, do you see? It is not just because it would be a lie. And that this has has nothing whatever to do with the rule of law. After all, we are Memorial. We know how many people, in what year, admitted under torture that they were spies and foreign agents. We know how  these 'confessions' were forced out of them.

In our historical consciousness, the phrase 'foreign agent' has only one meaning. We are intrinsically unable to give ourselves such a branding, and I would not be able to sleep at all if I agreed to it.