Ms Shakhova, thank you very much for agreeing to give an interview for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. “Citizens’ Watch” is one of the oldest human rights organisations in St. Petersburg. What current projects have you been implementing? What challenges does your organisation face?
“Citizens’ Watch” was established in 1992, i.e. 24 years have passed since then. When the idea for the organisation arose, we believed that Russia had become a member of the international community, had accepted its obligations to defend human rights but the officials hadn’t changed. We suspected – as we can see now, this suspicion was correct – that they were unlikely to work within the new democratic system. Thus we founded an organisation targeting at conducting civilian oversight, as the Russian government has the responsibility to fulfil its obligations in the field of human rights.
Around 2000, we realised that we would like to focus on one fundamental right – the right to fair trial. We are convinced that as soon as Russia has an independent professional court, the other problems in the field of human rights – sooner or later – will be solved, thus, this instrument will help to solve other problems.
As of today, we are still focusing on the same subject, though it became quite hard. We are trying to work more with lawyers, journalists, who write on legal topics, and young activists, who are interested in human rights work and want to be professionals in this field. We offer our expertise providing independent monitoring of courts, hearings, and court’s websites. I have to admit that to carry out work has become more difficult than it was in the 2000s. We are trying to continue our work, complete our mission, and, certainly, not to reduce its scope. Now the major task and simultaneously challenge for us is to keep all kinds and scopes of our activities, to carry on the mission of the organisation in the same form we had implemented before the start of repressions wave against NGOs in Russia.
Let’s talk exactly about your interaction with public authorities. Recently, elections to Public Oversight Commissions (POCs) were held. You are a part of the Project "The Citizen and the Police", which has been overseeing the operations of the police and the way it treats citizens. Has anything changed in this area recently?
For us, many things changed at the end of 2014, when our organisation was included in the list of "foreign agents" on 30 December. Starting from that moment on, almost all cooperations with governmental agencies, officials have been ceased. With various polite excuses, our appeals and letters were ignored, all joint projects, which were carried out in collaboration with the Judicial Council, were also stopped. Because of this, we have been forced to find other ways. Some civil servants continue to cooperate with us, but on a personal level, and, of course, in a more unstable and uncomfortable way than the authorities used to do that before. Participation in the campaigns – such as "The Citizen and the Police", which had taken place in summer for the past several years, is almost the only opportunity to interact with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This project has been steered centrally, and we have to be thankful to the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), which was able to negotiate with the Ministry of the Internal Affairs to conduct such campaigns in many regions of the Russian Federation.
In such inspections, we can only participate as an organisation invited by the MHG. When we try to cooperate with the Main Directorate of Internal Affairs of St. Petersburg, which we have been seeking for, we have to fight behind the closed doors – and no cooperation is possible. This last example shows that those who are in power do not want to see independent civil society organisations in any entities and committees or let them participate in the elections to the POCs. With the commission composition, which is set up at least in St. Petersburg, it is clear that no candidates from organisations registered as "foreign agents" were included in the Public Oversight Commission. I must admit that there was a draft law proposing that organisations registered as "foreign agents" would be excluded from nominating candidates for membership in the POCs, but this law was not approved. Thus, what is happening now is self-censorship, in this case – within public chambers: For them, it is not necessary to have such a law to exclude unwanted organisations from taking part in the POCs.
This means that stigmatisation of so-called “foreign agents” is in place? Where else do you feel it?
Our accountability to the public authorities increased eight-fold. Earlier, when we were not yet listed as "foreign agents", we had to submit only one report per year, but now we must prepare eight different reports. Furthermore, we are constantly checked by various regulation bodies – from the Prosecutor’s Office to the fire inspector. I am happy that we could fend off being subject to fines. And, of course, the propaganda campaign, which was unleashed by media against us. We were visited by the representatives of a highly biased senders, whose purpose was to shoot compromising videos. The visits of these journalists become more frequent after our meetings with our foreign partners. It is a bit frustrating, but gradually we have been adjusting to the situation, getting used to everything.
We are talking on 21 November 2016, exactly four years after the adoption of the "foreign agents" law, which has been used for repressive purposes now. What are your predictions for the future? What will be happening with the law? What is your organisation going to do?
As an organisation, we continue to fight and work. We believe that this law cannot be and should not be changed. We are convinced that the very fact of its existence violates rights, likewise the law on "undesirable organisations" aimed against our partners abroad traditionally supporting human rights defenders in Russia. The government makes a big mistake by unleashing a war against civil society. Exactly amid deteriorating socioeconomic situation in the country, civil society organisations may be mediators who are able to defuse tensions and resolve conflicts. When a war is unleashed against these organisations, it is very difficult to advance, and – as a matter of fact – we are not able to resolve tensions and conflicts that will inevitably lead to a confrontation between the government and the citizens.
“Citizens’ Watch” is one of the oldest members of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. What reasons prompted your organisation to join the Forum?
Indeed, we have been Forum members for quite a long time. I personally was present at the Founding Meeting. From the very beginning, I very much liked the mission and the organisations, which were involved in the Forum, promoted the idea of its establishment. Now the principle concern is about the attempts to enact laws similar to the laws on "foreign agents" and shut down the organisation – not only in Russia but also in other countries, especially those countries, which were steadily moving toward democracy, and Poland in particular. So, the existence of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum is quite natural in an environment, when civil society representatives from different countries can gather together to solve common problems. Human rights have no borders, and the organisations, which are engaged in their protection, should work together, communicate without any restrictions – and this is the value of the Forum.
You have already mentioned some challenges faced by the EU and Russia. Do you observe some other important topics, which are relevant for the dialogue between Russia and the European Union?
Yes, of course. First of all, migration. This topic is extremely important – and discussions at General Assembles of the Forum confirm all concerns about this topic. Furthermore, the issue of preservation of historical memory, sharing historical experience, development of democratic institutions are obviously in a state of crisis today… There are lots of topics.
What would you like to wish to the Forum members?
I would like to wish enough time for discussions, for the whole work – planned as well as spontaneous one – and not to let break our connections.
The interview was shot by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum on 21 November 2016 in St. Petersburg, Russia.