Inna Sangadzhieva: Civil society under pressure (Speech given at presentation of the Rafto Prize to Russian human rights organisation Agora)

posted 6 Oct 2014, 12:11 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 6 Oct 2014, 12:19 ]
30 September 2014

Inna Sangadzhieva

Inna Sangadzhieva, Norwegian Helsinki Committee. Speech given at the presentation of the Rafto Prize to the Russian human rights organisation Agora.

Russia has never in all of its history had a civil society capable of opposing the authorities by peaceful means. Yet since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 we have started to see a gradual self-organization of civil society, whether through spontaneous protests in response to failures by the authorities to heed citizens’ interest and wishes for one reason or another, or as a result of the rise in non-governmental organisations which, over time, have grown able to promote democratisation and respect for human rights.

The Russian public is placing ever more trust in these organisations. After Vladimir Putin was re-elected president in May 2012, however, there have been moves to put a stop to these developments, inter alia through tough laws and legal practices aimed at weakening and controlling civil society. The Kremlin hopes in this way to cement its power and to remove any opportunity for citizens to express their opinions.
On 31 August 2014 the following was published in the leading Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten: “The annexation of the Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine have boosted Putin’s rankings to record levels. As many as 84% of Russians support Putin according to the monthly survey of social trends carried out by the Levada Centre, and a broader analysis of the situation in the country also reveals a significant increase in approval.”

It would however be remiss of us not to look more closely at what is hidden by these statistics. The Russian public’s expressions of support for Putin stand in contrast to their levels of trust in the country’s power structures, which are very low. The Russian people have never really trusted their authorities, and in return the authorities have never really trusted the country’s citizens. The relationship between society and the state is one of mutual mistrust, and this is why Russia's history is littered with uprisings and crises.

How can Putin enjoy such high approval ratings when the Russian public distrusts the power structures at whose head he stands? The answer to this question lies in Putin’s ability to position himself above the country’s governing bodies. He is well aware that no one trusts the authorities, and so he publicly criticises his inferiors. If anything goes wrong, someone can be found to shoulder the blame. Yet opinion polls reveal that in spite of Putin’s high rankings, people do not want to send their children to fight in the war he has started in eastern Ukraine – their trust in him only goes so far.

The Norwegian authorities and public institutions enjoy a reliably high level of public trust, whereas support for the Conservative Party, for example, fluctuates up and down. Exactly the opposite is true in Russia; President Putin enjoys a consistently high level of support, but no one trusts the authorities. People know from their own personal experience that the authorities, which are there to help them solve their everyday problems, whether large or small, often just make matters worse.

The Russian authorities believe that they have the right to adopt laws which restrict civil liberties. This assumed “right” is what civil society is attempting to challenge.

Civil society in Russia is not weak; on the contrary, civil society is doing its best to force the authorities to comply with the country’s constitution. It is doing so at various levels, in particular through proactive and direct recourse to the courts and use of the opportunities made available by the Internet. For the first time in Russia’s history, a civil society has emerged which allows people to insist by non-violent means that the state respect their rights.

Glorification of the past

In an authoritarian society there can be no such thing as genuine “public opinion”. The 84% of Russians who allegedly support Putin have expressed this support under the influence of the voluminous propaganda churned out by the central television channels, made up of conspiracy theories about traitors to the nation, the fifth column, fascists in Ukraine and enemies in the West.

The authorities want to modernise the country by building on the past and past victories. They cite the good points of the Soviet Union, its victory in the Great Patriotic War, economic growth during Stalin's reign, the vast size of Russia’s territories, the friendship which existed between the various ethnic groups, the stability which allegedly reigned and the fact that everyone respected the country and the authorities.

Putin talks about the collapse of the Soviet Union as a tragedy. For many Russians, the collapse of the Soviet Union was indeed a tragedy. Yet the Russian authorities are reluctant to talk about the price which was paid for the Soviet Union's victories. They avoid talking about the fact that the authorities terrorised the population and sent millions to the GULAG, that they used capital punishment and torture, that they deported entire ethnic groups and that they sent young people to fight in bloody wars.

A country which is yet to become a democracy

In the 1990s the West believed that Russia was on the road towards democracy. Yet the reforms were carried out on a top-down basis, and the necessary substance was not given to concepts such as "the division of power", "president", "parliament", "constitution" and so on. The fact that the head of the country is directly elected does not mean that he will rule according to the principles of democracy. Fundamental rights such as the right to life were formally guaranteed by the constitution even back in Stalin's time, while in practice a very low value was set upon human life. The majority of the population remained completely unaffected by the "democratic reforms" embarked upon in the 1990s, and most Russians simply experienced this period as one of chaos. President Boris Yeltsin was weak and ill and the oligarchs were dividing up the country's riches among themselves while the economy crumbled and Russia was close to collapse.

Society was disorientated, and people watched in fear as their traditional and familiar ways of life were destroyed. They were forced to hear ever new revelations about the crimes committed by the totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union, and they were afraid of changes over which they had no control. The researcher Tatyana Vorozheikina believes that this fear of change can be attributed to past experience, since changes or "progress" formerly cost millions of human lives. A fear of change promotes the conservative attitude which has been exploited by the incumbent authorities.

When the quite unknown KGB agent Vladimir Putin came to power in autumn 1999, his popularity ratings were low. Putin was hand-picked for the role rather than being elected. His popularity jumped to 52% following the “anti-terrorist” (i.e. military) operations in Chechnya announced in autumn 1999, despite the heavy civilian losses.

The period of the anti-terrorist operation was marked by violence, torture, humiliating treatment, kidnappings, summary executions, trials and disappearances. Ramzan Kadyrov, President of Chechnya since 2007, continues to rule the region with an iron hand, even though the journalist Anna Politkovskaya told the world in great detail about the human rights violations being committed in Chechnya.

She called on the West to protest against the unchecked power given to Kadyrov by Putin and the gradual infiltration of Russian government bodies by representatives of the special services.

She warned that the gradual erosion of human rights and the West’s realpolitik approach would have fatal consequences, not only for Russia but for the West as well. Anna Politkovskaya was killed on 7 October 2006. She is merely one of the most famous of the many journalists and human rights activists killed in the North Caucasus and Russia as a whole during Putin's rule.

The anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya did not officially stop until 2009, but the conflict is still far from over. It has spread to neighbouring regions, and the separatist movement has become radicalized and now represents a serious threat. Far from being effective, the methods employed by Putin and his team to resolve the conflict have exacerbated the situation and extended its reach. Yet Russian soldiers are now again arriving home in coffins, just as they did during the conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia.

Unresolved conflicts have a human cost in terms of both civilian and military lives. They cause suffering not only for those living now, but also for future generations.

Nevertheless, there are signs of incipient democracy and civic action

Even in the Soviet Union, people expressed their discontent. One of the most famous demonstrations, involving thousands of workers, took place in Novocherkassk in 1962. The protests were brutally suppressed and 27 were killed. Another famous protest whose size belies its huge significance took place in 1968 when eight people demonstrated on Red Square in protest at the incursion of troops into Czechoslovakia. In 1976, following the signature by Leonid Brezhnev of the Helsinki Final Act, dissidents formed the Moscow Helsinki Group, and for many years thereafter found ways of telling people what was really happening in the country. Solidarity grew in the West, and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee was founded in 1977. Russian activists protested at the incursion of troops into Afghanistan, and many were arrested.

The real breakthrough in the growth of civic activism came during the perestroika of the Gorbachev era. Russian citizens came together in thousands of associations and organisations dedicated to various causes including those concerned with environmental, historical, gender and human rights issues.

Some of these organisations became well-respected forces to be reckoned with.

  • One of the first non-governmental organisations to be founded in Russia was the Memorial Historical, Educational and Human Rights Society, famous for its research into records of human rights abuses during the Soviet terror. Memorial is one of the few organisations which is monitoring and documenting human rights violations in Northern Caucasus. 
  • For the past dozen or so years, the organisation Golos has monitored elections of various types, including both municipal and federal. By uncovering cases of electoral fraud, the organisation also highlights why elections are so important. The Golos team has recruited and trained thousands of volunteers to monitor elections, and in 2012 the organisation was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. 
  • Hundreds of organisations in Russia are working to provide alternative sources of information on the political and economic situation in the country, on the situation in the prisons and other closed institutions, on manifestations of nationalism and on the rights of minorities and the discrimination they suffer. 
  • Thousands of people and organisations have been given legal advice by lawyers who attempt to enforce the provisions of Russian legislation despite the ever new challenges standing in their path. The Committee against Torture has played a pioneering role in Chechnya with its Joint Mobile Group, which provides legal assistance to victims of abuses of authority by law enforcement agencies in the face of huge risks and problems. 
  • Memorial and the Russian Justice Initiative have lodged hundreds of appeals with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Under the leadership of the experienced lawyer Pavel Chikov, Agora enforces the legal rights of organisations wherever possible, through both the national courts and the ECtHR. 
  • Thousands of Russians have taken part in rescue actions in connection with missing persons, fires and floods. Doctor Liza (Elizaveta Glinka) rescues orphans and seriously ill children from the conflict zones in eastern Ukraine, and saves their lives. Mitya Aleshkovsky, Valery Paniushkin and Chulpan Khamatova provide support for terminally ill children who can no longer be helped by the state healthcare system. Echo of Moscow journalist Irina Vorobeva works on a voluntary basis for a group which searches for lost and missing people. 
  • The anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny has become a popular opposition politician who investigates cases of corruption along with his team. This is what Russian politicians promised to do themselves, but never quite got round to doing. 
  • Hundreds of protests are held across the country, against electoral fraud, bureaucratic despotism, the involvement of Russian forces in the conflict in eastern Ukraine and so on. 

Russia is more than just the Kremlin

Russian civil society is gradually growing stronger and learning to challenge the ruling conservative elite. It is gaining ever more support from the Russian people. For the first time in Russia’s history, people are rising up in opposition to the authorities, unarmed and with a constitution in their hands, driven by a belief in civic activism.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Russia’s cities following the announcement made in September 2011 that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev would swap roles at the next elections, and many of them were arrested.

After the violent breaking up of the Bolotnaya Square demonstration in May 2012, the participants in which were protesting at Putin’s third re-election as president, the Russian authorities decided to crack down on civic activism.

Ever since June 2012, dozens of laws restricting the activities of non-governmental organisations, the media, bloggers, activists and volunteers have been drafted and adopted. For example, it is thought that the “Foreign Agents Act” was initially targeted at Golos and intended to damage the reputation of the large number of organisations which receive foreign funding.

The authorities continue to adopt laws which violate the principles of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of movement, even though these rights are enshrined in the Russian constitution. This is an indication of the level of fear among the ruling elite. They are aware that no one trusts them, but attempt to stifle any manifestation of this distrust instead of working in a positive manner to overcome it.

This is why the authorities need conflict, in order to mobilise people against a common "enemy". Non-governmental organisations and opponents of the authorities are dubbed internal enemies, while the West plays the role of an external enemy.

Civil society in Russia has never been as powerful as it is today, but it is under a huge amount of pressure. At the same time as the West concerns itself with matters of pragmatism, national interests and realpolitik, Russia’s civil society is engaged in a battle against an authoritarian regime and is fighting for the democratic values upon which modern Europe has been built.

We should not leave them to fight alone. We should support them by every means we can.

Inna Sangadzhieva, Norwegian Helsinki Committee. Awarding of the Rafto Prize to the Russian human rights organisation Agora.
Photograph by the Chair of the Rafto Prize Committee, Margit Paulsen.

Translated by Joanne Reynolds