Watch the interview on YouTube (in Russian)

Dmitri, thank you very much that you have found time for this interview for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. The International Youth Human Rights Movement (YHRM) has its headquarters in Voronezh but you have worked a lot in Moscow, Belarus, or Crimea. Can you please reveal how the idea of establishing the movement evolved and why Voronezh was chosen as its main location?
Well, now it is difficult to say that this is the only place of location, because the network has truly become international, how it has been thought from the very beginning. Our activists are located in various countries, especially in the post-Soviet territories (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus) but also in Central Asia and in Western Europe. Here in Berlin I am also meeting YHRM members and correspondents. The idea came to our minds in 1998. It was an attempt to start a new generation of human rights defenders and civil society activists, who are inspired by the ideas of the Helsinki Movement, which we have discussed a lot about in recent days and years, but relying on a new reality, new language, new people to build new human rights civil activity in their respective countries.
Speaking about educational programmes for the new generation of human rights defenders, I might mention that you are one of the organisers of the International School of Human Rights and Civic Activities, which takes place in different regions of Russia. Can you please tell us more about this project?
The school was founded by the YHRM – along with the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Centre for Civil Liberties from Kyiv, and others. This is international project and the events of the school took place from Vilnius to Vladivostok and from Arkhangelsk to Osh. Within the school programme, we are trying to carve this new language of human rights, the ‘old new language’ as well as the common understanding of the processes, which are happening now. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, it turned to the format of open schools for human rights aimed at reaching the possibly largest interested audience. For us, it is an important part of our educational mission, the dialogue with representatives of society as well as search for like-minded people, with whom we can launch various initiatives – those proposed by them, those planned together as well as those that are to come later on.
How far are young people interested in human rights and your schools?
I would carefully say that the interest is there. Open schools in both Russian capitals – Moscow and St. Petersburg – are visited by somewhat 200 people per semester. In other regions, there is an interest as well but there are fewer opportunities to run large-scale programmes. Again, it all depends on the resources, especially human resources. We have been currently educating a new team of facilitators, who would work along with the current team of facilitators to conduct such seminars on a broader scale or on bigger territories, so-to-say. Therefore, the interest is there, the request is there, but the format requires a lot of work. As I can see, people, who come to our activities, have been searching in the human rights and the dialogue with the human rights activists for the answers to the questions that arise when they critically access what is happening around them. And this is very important, this is an indicator of the interest we are talking about.
Here at the conference dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group, much has been told about the fact that human rights crossed the borders and therefore it was impossible to engage with human rights in one country only. And I know that currently you are dealing with human rights in Crimea and Belarus, why you personally were banned from entering Belarus. Do you continue to monitor the situation in the country?
We assume that the reason behind was our human rights activities in 2010-2011. In the times of rising crackdown on opposition circles and civil society, they banned me from entering the country, but formally the state did not give any explanation, so we can only assume. Nevertheless, we have been going on with our work in Belarus as a part of the Committee of the International Control over the Human Rights Situation, which was set up then. We have been trying to work there with our friends and colleagues, with YHRM activists, who stayed there. They just recently organised a Peace Week and raised the question: ‘How can it be that there is already the second war running in the last decade within the OSCE space?’ The first one was Georgia and the second one Ukraine now. There is no answer to that among peacebuilders. Civil Movement in Belarus continues to raise questions that go beyond the country itself. As for us, we have been supporting them and trying to propose joint initiatives. A very important statement to us is that human rights are not a matter of a single state and the violation of human rights is a subject of direct legitimate concern of the world community as a whole. In my opinion, this is the statement the Helsinki movement was born with. Well, we will deal with Belarus further on, because that country has consistently been sending signals in recent years that human rights are its sovereign field. And Russia, Kazakhstan, now also Poland and Hungary have followed it. Therefore, the human rights community should seek together an answer to this harmful statement that violates the very principles, to which the same states have committed themselves.
Currently, there is another discussion among human rights defenders on the status of Crimea or – better – work in Crimea. And I know that some human rights activists believe that it is not justified to work on the peninsula, at least when this work has been done by Russian organisations. On the other hand, the Crimean Field Mission on Human Rights has been even regarded as a candidate to join the list of “undesirable” organisations by Russian senators, although it is an absurd: An “undesirable” organisation might be a foreign one only, not to mention the fact that this is a repressive legislation per se. Why did you decide to work in Crimea, and what are the results of your activities?
We decided to work there as the Crimean Field Mission in March 2014. At that very moment, it was a request from Ukrainian colleagues, and the Mission was founded under the auspices of the International Group of Human Rights Defenders on the situation in Ukraine. There were attacks on individuals, abductions, enforced disappearances, and massive clashes between different groups of citizens happening, and a human rights response in the form of a constant monitoring was needed. Afterwards, this constant monitoring has taken shape of the Crimean Field Mission. In my opinion, the fact that leading international organisations from the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe to the UN Mission referred to the data collected by this informal association of experts is an important indicator. We know that this information is in demand in Ukraine, as our colleagues do not have their own sources of information there. We know that this information is considered by Russian structures and this is also an indication that the independent monitoring on site is important. Therefore, I find it hard to understand those ones, who say that there is no need to go there. In my opinion, the isolation of Crimea is the worst thing we can think of, both as regards people in Crimea and the situation with human rights in general. Therefore, my personal position is that the international presence in Crimea is exactly what is needed to somehow resolve that situation somehow.
The International Youth Human Rights Movement is a member of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Why is it important for your organisation to be in the Forum, and what directions of development do you see as the most relevant ones for us?
YHRM was one of the founders of the Forum. I remember quite well discussions around the Forum and my criticism towards the idea, because I thought it would be better to talk about an all-European forum and not to make an EU-Russia opposition. But it ended up like that, and I think it is an important platform for a dialogue of Western and Central European colleagues with those from Russia. Such platforms are necessary for new ideas to be born, positions to be shared, and I think it is important to continue with this.
Which insights would you bring back home from this event in Berlin marking the 40th anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group?  
I find it difficult to point just a few things, because it seems to me that a lot of points, which have been discussed already in various closed circles, were finally spoken out loud. The crisis the human rights movement is facing now is not a problem of a single country but has extended on the whole perception of human rights, on the ways international and intergovernmental organisations are able to respond to the challenges. Thus, we live in a post- and even a post-post-Helsinki world now, because the annexation of Crimea has violated a key principle of the inviolability of borders. It is not clear in general how much the tools that had been in place for forty years are still in demand. These discussions, which were heard here in a succinct form, should be continued. And it is another way, where the Forum’s contribution is welcome.
Much has been talked here not about the past but about the future of the Helsinki Movement. How do you see this future? And in which way can the Forum congtribute to shaping this future?
Of course, it is a very complex issue but I will try to formulate three points. The first one is internationalisation. The second one is to get away from the politics, I mean, no misuse of human rights as a tool of revenge against political opponents. And the third point, which intersects with the second one, is that there needs to be a conversation about common standards, on the one hand, and common values, on the other hand, because the human rights combine these two things. The values ​​of freedom, justice, equality, that many people are willing to use are not only abstract arguments about some good practices but specific standards that are exemplified in the documents that we can put in use through legal methods. In my opinion, the human rights movement should remain with idealists and lawyers, or defenders of the rights per se.
This year, we have been celebrating the 5th anniversary of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. What would you like to wish to the Forum members, to your colleagues?
Well, first of all, I wish all of us not to lose optimism, which I can hear here in spite of all rather gloomy predictions. Secondly, we should seek possibilities to continue to work together while not only discussing common problems but also acting together to resolve them.

The interview was shot on 31 May 2016 by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum in Berlin.