Vera Vasilyeva: Why is nobody listening to Khodorkovsky?

posted 6 Sep 2015, 06:56 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 6 Sep 2015, 07:09 ]
2 September 2015

By Vera Vasilyeva

At the end of August, the following statement appeared in an article published on the website of the civil society movement Open Russia by its founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “The citizens of Russia have every right to disobey unlawful laws".

Despite the fact that the article sets out what are essentially axiomatic facts, it has sparked a flurry of criticism from every side. Some have accused the former CEO of YUKOS of pinning his colours to the mast of the Russian elite, while others have come close to calling him an extremist.

Yet it seems to me that many of these critics – some of whom, tellingly and sadly enough, actually share his views in general – have simply not listened properly to what he is saying.

Let us first of all consider the formal accuracy of bold headlines such as "Khodorkovsky urges Russians to disobey unjust laws".

What Khodorkovsky actually said was; "The citizens of Russian have every right to disobey unlawful laws".

Can this – or any other of Khodorkovsky’s statements – really be considered a summons to action?

Article 27(2) of the Constitution of the Russian Federation reads as follows; "Everyone shall be free to travel outside the boundaries of the Russian Federation”. Based on the logic followed by Khodorkovsky’s critics, this would be equivalent to an order to leave the country!

Moving on to matters of substance; Khodorkovsky discusses very specific statutory instruments and their real-life application.

These include the Law on Foreign Agents, with the particular example of Dmitry Zimin’s Dynasty Foundation, which has provided funding for scientific research in Russia for many years but has now fallen victim to the new law.

The perversity of this particular piece of legislation has been highlighted on many occasions by a wide range of human rights organisations, for example in a special statement by the International Memorial Society: "The idea of a law “on foreign agents” is by its very nature alien to the rule of law. There is not a single problem solved by this law; its authors were motivated purely by political and populist considerations, and its wordings were intentionally chosen to create flagrant legal uncertainty. The truth of the matter is that the law “on foreign agents” introduces a presumption of guilt for an artificially selected group of organisations."

Well-known Russian NGOs including the Sakharov Centre, the Russian branch of Transparency International and many others prefer to pay huge fines rather than suffer such a degrading title.

Surely this type of non-violent resistance is what the former political prisoner is talking about?

Society has a moral imperative – and more importantly a legal right – to shake off its indifference when it is prevented, for reasons that cannot be satisfactorily explained, from accessing modern means of mass media to find out what is happening in the rest of the country. As noted by Khodorkovsky, the right to obtain information freely is enshrined in the Constitution.

Internet providers, acting on the instructions of Roskomnadzor, have blocked access to, and from Russia. If the providers were really told to block access to specific publications, which specific statements in which specific articles can be deemed an “incitement to unlawful actions and involvement in illegal demonstrations"? If not, what possible grounds could there be for inconveniencing their authors and readers?

Civil society has the right to demonstrate its support for the publications which have been bullied in this way. Authors continue to contribute articles, and readers continue to read them. It’s not impossible that the recent attempts to ban Wikipedia would have succeeded by now if the public backlash against these measures had not been so loud and unanimous.

Finally, the director of Open Russia talks about “Basmanny” justice, citing the rulings handed down in the cases of Oleg Mironov and Oleg Sentsov at Moscow’s Basmanny district court as examples. There are regrettably many more such examples, since the number of unlawfully sentenced or political prisoners in modern-day Russia is rising inexorably.

Yet our government, represented by Vladimir Putin and others, has stated on more than one occasion that the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation does not recognise the concept of “political crime”, and that there is no political repression and are no political prisoners in Russia.

Does this mean that we should recognise the sentences imposed on Oleg Navalny, the former YUKOS employee Aleksey Pichugin, the professors accused of spying and the Bolotnaya Square prisoners as legally binding, and that we should stop referring to them as unlawful? That we should follow the state in calling these people ordinary criminals rather than calling for the release of those who have been unlawfully imprisoned? Not at all.

Mikhail Borisovich then makes specific reference to the release on parole of Yevgeniya Vasilyeva, reminding us of the meaning of the word “mercy”.

This take on the latest developments in the Oboronservis case has for some reason drawn particularly harsh criticism, even from supporters of democratic values and a more humanitarian penal system.

There is nothing wrong with being outraged about the fact that there are two systems of justice in the country – one for those in power, and one for everyone else. Yet the woman in question has already paid back the money she took, and poses no harm to anyone. Can we really consider ourselves superior to the representatives of this ruling elite if we want to return her to prison merely because we don’t like her?

If truth be told, I do not believe that we can. Things might start to change for the better in our country if Khodorkovsky’s suggestions were adopted en masse. Yet we are unable to listen and hear one another. Many people have failed to listen to Khodorkovsky himself, and there is a grievous lack of mercy.

This is why the propaganda which spews forth from television screens, sowing intolerance and bitterness, is taking hold even amongst supporters of human rights and freedoms. Future developments lie in our own hands.

Translated by Joanne Reynolds