Mr Orlov, thank you very much that you agreed to give an interview for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum under such challenging conditions for both Russia and the Russian civil society. Not once and not twice, your colleagues received threats or were persecuted, the Human Rights Centre “Memorial” was named a “foreign agent”… But it is the first time, when your organisation was blamed of ‘ruining the foundations of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation.’ How do you assess these new developments?
Certainly, I can assess those negatively It is clear that there is a new level of pressure on Russian NGOs. How are we ruining the foundations of the constitutional system? The inspection report by the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation states that we were ‘calling to mount a coup d’etat.’ Where and when were we calling for that? There is no any verification for this. We still don’t know, what is happening. Probably, it is a test step to find out the reaction from the Russian and international human rights community to that unprecedented political accusation. Perhaps, that is the beginning of a new pressure campaign. We still don’t know. There may be another assumption that the perpetrators overleapt themselves, ie the inspection group didn’t understand some details, went too far, etc. To tell the truth, it is hardly to believe in this, as long as because such an accusation could not be brought in without having had an approval from the high level officials of the Ministry of Justice.
Anyway, for the moment, the campaign of public support against such a political accusation towards us has played a significant role. Anyway, in the warning document, which we received as a follow-up of the report by the Ministry of Justice, there were no political accusations anymore. There are only references to doubtful changes there, which we should include in our Charter. But these are not political accusations anymore. What it is, we still don’t know. And it is not clear, whether it is a step back or the Ministry of Justice, as it has already declared, just forwarded the report as it is to the Prosecutor’s Office. So, the ball is on their side of the court – and we will soon know, how they are going to act towards our organisation.
You mentioned that it might have been a test on reaction by the Russian civil society and the international community. Do you feel support from both of them in this case?
Yes, we feel that support, actually. Signatures were gathered in support of us. It was claimed by many organisations, politicians, and Council of Europe bodies that the actions towards a legally operating organisation were inadmissible. That’s why we felt the strong support in Russia as well as from abroad. Presumably, the government has noticed that support in some way as well.
Let us go back to 2012, when you said in one of your speeches that there had been no progress in the development of the Russian civil society before but it happened in 2012 and you could look into the future with optimism. From today’s point of view and your human rights work as a Coordinator of the Programme “Flashpoints” in the North Caucasus and in other conflict regions, how much has the situation changed over the last 3 years since your speech was told?
Mid-2012 was a critical time. Since then, a new – I emphasise – much more intensive crackdown on human rights in Russia has started, including NGOs and human rights organisations. Actually, that crackdown has been extending in very different directions. It entails not only the question on “foreign agents” and now “undesirable organisations”. No, it all is much more worse. We observe suppression of freedom of expression, protests, demonstrations, marches. De facto, the right on implementation of these legal actions and free expression of opinion was abolished. Just one example: The new Paragraph 3 in the Article 212 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation is there for the criminal prosecution for the order violation in street protests. Note that criminal charges may be applied as a follow-up of administrative violations – repeated or accomplished administrative violations. And we all know, how administrative violations work in Russia. Large-scale arrests, virtually not provoked by demonstrators themselves, happen at the demonstrations, protests, and pickets, also at single pickets, when provokers come into play. This all is a usual practice in Russia. Violations of the freedom of speech or the freedom of associations, implementation of the new range of repressive articles, which allow to start repressions in this country, – these are realities of present times.
To which extent, are these realities being reflected in the operation of “Memorial” in flashpoints, especially in conflict regions such as North Caucasus?
First of all, we are concerned about new harassments towards our staff members in the North Caucasus. I don’t want to mention the specific republic, but it happens not only in one republic. Intimidation is basically directed against our human rights work. The message is to stop our activities here and there regarding legal assistance to the people. Otherwise, it would turn bad, as we are warned by our “friends”. At the same time, there is a pressure on our lawyers, who cooperate with us, – through their republican legal associations. The main goal is to force them out of the interactions with the Human Rights Centre “Memorial”, because it is known, as they say, that we are ‘foreign agents’, why it is problematic to communicate’ with us. And, of course, sometimes interactions with the government are brought to naught – and that is disappointing. We always believe that human rights advocates should find common language with governmental officials, when it is possible, and to find common ways for easing the situation with human rights. In some cases. the things, which were possible before, may not happen now anymore. In single republics of the North Caucasus, such interactions are discontinued.
You have already said about support from the international community. Your organisation is a member of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. What kind of support and assistance are you excepting from this Forum?
Virtually, we are expecting support that was granted to us before already. These are, of course, public statements and actions in support of the Human Rights Centre “Memorial” as well as any other human rights or civil society organisations persecuted in Russia – environmental or educational ones. The support is also about interaction with governments of different countries. It seems to me very important that the European civil society should take actions for changing the views on Russia not only from the point of view of the Ukrainian crisis or actions in Syria. The situation in Ukraine is very important, and we constantly talk about that. By the way, this is one of the reasons, why we ‘have been ruining the foundations of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation.’ That’s why the tough stance towards Russia that depends on its behavior in Ukraine is correct. But it is not the most comprehensive approach to the relations with Russia. It is very important that European institutions and states could be more attentive to the internal situation with the human rights in Russia in very different fields. This point should not be forgotten. Unfortunately, we can often hear that once the solution for Ukraine is found that in Russia will not be important anymore, that Russia may be ‘cut off with a high wall.’ I suspect that in this sense the policy of not paying attention to Russia, not trying to influence the implementation of the commitments by Russia itself is a short-sighted policy. Without any efforts and actions, it would be hardly possible to enhance European security because of the fact that human rights and security issues are mutually inter-related aspects.
As of today, there are 150 organisations in the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Over 80 of them are from Russia. A plenty of Russian NGOs have been persecuted, like it is the case with the Human Rights Centre “Memorial”. What would you like to wish to them in light of recent events on-going in Russia and in the world?
To remain fresh, not to lose the presence of mind and optimism. All in all, we are on the right side!
The interview was shot on 24 November 2015 via Skype by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.