‘Foreign agents’ confound Putin
Russia’s elections are less than a year away. Vladimir Putin has yet to declare if he will stand again, but no legislative stone has been left unturned in maintaining the president’s grip on power during his most recent term in office. The most casual of Putin-watchers will have noted this. Less well understood outside Moscow are new techniques being exploited by an increasingly defiant civil society to empower and protect protestors on the ground.
The Sakharov Centre embody the current resistance. Originally founded by Nobel peace prize winner Andrei Sakharov’s widow in 1996, this year the centre’s skeleton staff began training ordinary citizens in the realm of ‘public defending’. It’s a previously little-explored space in the judicial system whereby ordinary Russians can use lawyer privileges to defend or counsel friends and relatives that have either been arrested and detained without charge or face spurious charges against them. There is surging demand, particularly as conventional free legal aid is considered by many to be bogus and partisan in favour of the state. Their initiative is timely. Hundreds were beaten or arrested for protesting at the start of June, Amnesty International say.
Already this year 165 confidants of people detained without charge – or at risk of – have signed up to the centre’s new workshops. Attendees are informed of the avenues they can follow to get access to the police station or prison where their contact is detained, what documents are needed, and how they can appeal against detentions, treatment and conditions. As a public defender, you have virtually the same rights as a defence lawyer, with the biggest privilege being the almost 24/7 right to visit the cell, the centre claim.
Its courses in public defending represent ‘one of our biggest education projects, though we’re not allowed to call our services educational,’ explains Polina Filippova, who has led the centre’s efforts to raise awareness of the course’s availability among young Muscovites. ‘To describe yourself as an education provider you need to be registered by the ministry of education and you can be fined and prosecuted if you’re caught providing unlicensed education. To get around this we have to describe our programmes as “informational enlightenment” rather than education.’
The state’s efforts to silence
It’s a serious business, but when Filippova dryly jokes ‘we’ve been checked once and thankfully they didn’t find any traces of education on us,’ she reveals the growing sense of confidence within Moscow’s various upstart organizations. They are beginning to feel they have the means to hold off the state’s efforts to silence them.
It hasn’t been easy though. When the Kremlin passed its foreign agents legislation in 2012, arguing that it was needed to protect Russia from outside attempts to influence internal politics, there were fears that the legislation could translate into a harshening crackdown on dissenting voices in Russia. The law banned all non-profit organizations which receiving donations from foreign sources from operating unless they applied for a new license declaring themselves ‘foreign agents’.
Many organizations critical of the Putin regime believes that the government would reject their application for the licence. But even if they could get it, few were willing or able to invest the time, money and human resources required to complete the burdensome paperwork.
The Sakharov Centre fell into this latter category. ‘We didn’t do it,’says Filippova. ‘We are an understaffed team and in the time it would have taken us to have attempted that process we could have created and delivered two new courses. The only two organizations in the whole country to comply were two groups in the south of Russia and they only did it to show they were not afraid of the government.’
But the government soon came calling on the Sakharov Centre. It fined them 300,000 roubles (USD$5,000), far more than they had in their reserves. At their annual birthday event in memory of their late founder they managed to raise the funds from their supporters. They were then hit again with a bigger fine: 400,000 roubles (USD$6,670), this time for not labelling themselves as foreign agents on their website, or ‘wearing the yellow star’ as local NGOs have taken to calling it, a reference to the Nazi persecution of Jews in Budapest, 1944.
The centre had no choice but to turn to their loyal supporters again: ‘We were worried that people would be offended if we asked for money a second time, but we just thought we have to ask. If we don’t get the money, so be it, we’ll have to close down. That would just mean that it’s not what people need at the moment. But we did it. We appealed through our Facebook page this time and raised the money in one month and one day. It still feels great, like a miracle.”
Cyberwar on dissidents
The centre have had their battles on social media too: ‘When we do Facebook advertising, we receive a lot of negative comments from accounts that don’t have anything on them, suspiciously empty-looking accounts. Accounts that have been created just to make one post.’ Reports suggest that the Kremlin occasionally deploys armies of professional trolls to attack opponents online.
‘I wouldn’t say there’s a state budget for writing shit about Sakharov Centre for five hours a day, but sometimes when we hit the spot, on a crucial social issue, we get social media attacks of that kind.’ The human rights hub appear to be winning most of their brushes with authority, but there’s still one shadow hanging over their future. A photo competition their exhibition space held last year featured a picture of Ukrainian soldiers in action during the ongoing conflict over the disputed territory of Crimea: ‘To us it was very clearly a picture illustrating an anti-war message, but to the state duma who wrote to us it represented pro-Ukrainian propaganda. An investigation began into incitement of religious hatred. We still haven’t heard the outcome of that and we suspect we won’t until we do something that really pisses them off.’
The Sakharov Centre continue with their work in the spirit of their late founder’s values of peace, progress and human rights. Filippova says that they have also been galvanized by the success of protest group Pussy Riot: ‘It’s important to get people into the police cells and prisons early enough for the media to hear about false charges that are being levelled against people before it gets to court.’
Pussy Riot were given the dubious charge of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ for challenging Putin’s connections to the Russian Orthodox Church. The charge was dropped on appeal following pressure from international media outlets that the Sakharov Centre believe was key. ‘Putin doesn’t want Russia’s courts to experience that attention from the press again.’
‘There are still people in cells in St Petersburg following the protests at the start of June,’ Filippova claims. ‘Some of these were people who attended the rallies, others were people who were simply walking past who were then charged with disobeying a policeman. Sometimes this was a different policeman to the person who arrested them.’ Perhaps if their personal confinement stories get out it will trigger greater scrutiny, certainly that is the aspiration for many opposition groups and NGOs in Russia.
Putin’s approval ratings remain stubbornly high at close to 90 per cent. Whether this is because or in spite of his approach to dissent is open to interpretation. The Sakharov Centre are equipping the next generation with knowledge of legal loopholes to prevent state-silencing regardless. Their mission is concerned with protecting human rights, not overturning governments. Filippova says she is no more encouraged by opposition leader Alexei Navalny than she is by Putin, but believes hope is to be found among candidates standing for regional offices. This parallel election is now growing in stature due to devolving autonomy, closer contests and truer diversity of candidates. Polling for both will take place simultaneously next spring.