Watch the interview on YouTube (in Russian)
Dmitri, thank you for having agreed to give an interview for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. You represent the PILnet Association. Can you please tell us more about its work?
Sure. We are a relatively small international non-profit organisation that was established more than 20 years ago – originally as a project at the Columbia Law School in New York, and now operating as an independent association. As of now, we have offices in New York, Budapest, Moscow, Hong Kong and Beijing. PIL stands for Public Interest Law, ie the work of lawyers and legal institutions for the public good. What our organisation does is helping lawyers and legal institutions in various ways to do it. We have historically dealt extensively with issues of subsidised legal aid and the development of this institution in different countries. In other words, this is the legal aid that the state guarantees to low-income and other socially vulnerable groups. We have dealt with various issues of legal education helping to make it more practical and socially oriented. In the last 12 years, we have been intensively developing pro bono services, when commercial law companies, often practising lawyers, counsels, etc. providing free-of-charge legal assistance on a voluntary basis.
Has this practice proved itself in Russia?
I believe it has been proved to work very well, though, of course, I cannot say that all lawyers and counsels in Russia are providing pro bono legal assistance. However, compared to what we had ten years ago, in 2007, when we have just started developing this topic in Russia, the overwhelming majority understands now what pro bono is about and why it is needed. Not everyone does it, but those who do not understand, why they prefer not to be involved. All in all, there is awareness about this topic, even at the level of law enforcement bodies, in the regions and at the level of the Federal Chamber of Lawyers. Since 2007, we have been implementing the “Pro Bono Clearing House” Project. Basically, this is a virtual stock exchange, where supply and demand meet – those who need help and those who are willing to provide it. As practice shows – and not only in Russia – it is at times quite difficult for these two groups to find each other. I see a certain value in their cooperation. It is not just about commercial lawyers assisting non-profit organisations but also about them becoming engaged in the work of civil society. Thus, not only the result is valuable but also the process itself.
Can you tell us about any interesting successful case?
I will share a rather old case, which I still like the most. A few years ago, the so-called “Dima Yakovlev Law” was approved in Russia banning the adoption of Russian orphans by foreigners. There was a big scandal in the press around it. Unfortunately, the law was adopted, but one of the unexpected positive consequences of this story was that the Russian government decided to address issues related to this domain. It is, firstly, the simplification of certain procedures for adoption and guardianship by Russian foster families. Secondly, the state decided to take a look at everything that was happening in this area. At some point, it came to SanPiNs – very detailed documents that regulate a variety of sanitary and hygiene norms, in fact, the whole life in institutions where there are underage orphans – from state to small family orphanages. At the time, the operating SanPiNs were the ones adopted back in Soviet times. Despite the fact that they had been amended, it was a rather useless document. The Ministry of Healthcare decided to adopt new SanPiNs and turned to the most well-known organisation that has been dealing with orphans and social orphanhood – “Volunteers Helping Orphans”, or Otkazniki.ru. The Ministry of Healthcare officials announced that they would hold a round table and would like to hear suggestions on what should be included in the new SanPiNs. Back then, there were no lawyers in this organisation, and, although the staff understood what needed to have been done and what they wanted to see as a result, they did not know how to put it in such a language that could be copied directly from their proposals into the bill. They reached out to me – and one law firm decided to help. I was told that 80% of what they had developed was included in the adopted document. There are often examples of valuable assistance that relates to the day-to-day work of NGOs – labour relations, taxes, contracts, registration, real estate, intellectual property, personal data, etc. Such cases are certainly valuable as well, but the example I cited illustrates precisely the joint work of NGOs and professional lawyers not related to this domain, aimed at achieving an important social goal.
PILnet, at least for now, is not a member of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Nevertheless, we are now speaking just before the start of the Forum General Assembly in Sofia. You came here as the editor of the “Legal Dialogue” Journal. Tell us about your work with this programme, please.
I do edit the “Legal Dialogue” Journal, although now it would not be quite right to call it a journal, because we have moved away from the model of periodical issues. Right now, during the General Assembly, we are re-launching the journal. We have changed the design and some approaches already. For instance, now the journal will be more actively promoted through social media. The journal has a rather interesting target audience, which we ourselves could not immediately define: On the one hand, it is clear that we do not write for professional lawyers but rather for ordinary people; on the other hand, we try to write about what happens in civil society and how non-profits and lawyers in this domain react to what is happening. Still, since it is an online print issue of the Forum, we find topics that would be of interest to all: Each of our materials is published simultaneously in Russian and in English. At the moment, we experience unpleasant topics for the non-profit sector becoming common ones. Earlier we could say that the EU had its own problems and Russia other ones, but now the problems are becoming more common. This concerns not only the shrinking space for the civil society but also refugees or people who seek asylum from conflicts or wars. This applies in many ways to freedom of speech, including digital freedoms.
What are your favourite pieces that have been published throughout this year?
My favourite piece came out just yesterday. It is about four refugees coming from different countries. Because of a combination of accidental circumstances and the actions by the authorities of the Russian Federation, they were trapped in the transit area of the Sheremetievo Airport in Moscow and spent several months there. One of them stayed there for 23 months! Furthermore, those people did not have access to showers or other amenities, and they were fed by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Russian lawyers of the “The Right to Asylum” Project, Eleonora Davidyan and Daria Trenina, helped those people. First, they tried to submit an appeal against a negative asylum decision, and then appealed on behalf of the refugees to the European Court of Human Rights and won the case. As a result, it was recognised, in particular, that those citizens had been unlawfully deprived of their liberty: On the one hand, they were not allowed to leave the Sheremetievo terminal; on the other hand, they could not fly out anywhere. The EctHR acknowledged that their rights had been violated, but the Russian Federation asked the court to review the case in the Grand Chamber. Hearings were held recently. There is no final decision yet, but the public hearings, in which lawyers and representatives of the Russian state participated, were quite interesting. In general, I care about all the topics we tackle, but, first and foremost, freedom of speech, in particular when it concerns history and its interpretation. Again, for a while it seemed to me that these problems were more typical to the post-Soviet countries, but now we can see what is happening in Poland, and I think that such a turn in Hungary is likely to be just around the corner.
How do you see the development of the “Legal Dialogue” Online Portal?
We do not have the goal of making “Legal Dialogue” super-interactive. Besides, only three people work at the edition, and for all of us this activity is only a part of our work. However, we have managed to find an interesting audience and our niche. Even although there are many journals and resources in this field, our difference lays in the fact that we try not to write in official parlance, and we talk about the essence and practical things. In particular, we publish many interviews with different people working in this field, place non-trivial analytics … I hope we will continue to move in the given direction.
What would you like to wish members and supporters of the Forum?
Optimism. I doubt that a sudden “dawn” is on the horizon, rather, there will be even more conservative initiatives directed against civil society. But I would like to wish that this would not make us depressive but, on the contrary, promote our creativity. At least that is what I see happening now.
The interview was shot on 15 May 2018 by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum at the General Assembly in Sofia, Bulgaria.