Free Russia Foundation Launches #NoToWar Campaign

Economic stagnation widens gap between Russian authorities and people

May 25 2018

On Friday, May 18, Free Russia Foundation and Atlantic Council organized an expert panel to discuss the politics and economics of Vladimir Putin’s fourth term as president. Experts expect further economic stagnation, with no structural economic reforms in sight, and discussed the growing gap between the Russian government and citizens.

The panel discussion included experts:

Vladimir Milov, opposition politician, economist, and energy expert and a Free Russia Foundation expert;

Anders Åslund, Senior Fellow, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council ;

Alina Polyakova, David M. Rubenstein Fellow – Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution; Adjunct Professor of European Studies, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Moderated by: Ambassador John Herbst, Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council

Inadequate system and stagnation

“Russia is going through the biggest economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Vladimir Milov yet “the government has no plan on how to address this.”  Living standards in Russia have decreased significantly since 2014 and the economy is dominated by ineffective state monopolies, a low level of entrepreneurship, weak growth levels and an absence of foreign investment, said Milov.

That the system is unsustainable was already clear in 2013 – a year before the war in Ukraine and political sanctions – when economic growth was just about 1 percent despite quite high oil prices at the time, said Milov.  “We built a paternalistic economy of redistribution rather than an economy that encourages private initiative, investment, innovation and increased productivity,” said Milov.

“The inadequacy of the system is understood by pretty much everybody, including a lot of people surrounding Vladimir Putin,” said Milov. Yet there is now “too much power centered around this particular figure,” who is not interested in real economic reforms.

Alina Polyakova said that despite the recent “lofty promises” of the Kremlin to focus on domestic and economic issues, it is unlikely that economic reforms are to be carried out since it “would undermine the regime itself.” “I think there is a linchpin here – for the regime to stay in power, for the Kremlin elite to stay in power, they have to maintain this patrimonial paternal system they have established,” said Polyakova. “If you think about self-preservation, which is the number one priority of Putin’s regime at this moment and for the foreseeable future, why would you do that [pursue economic reforms]?”

Anders Aslund also ruled out the possibility of any significant economic reforms in the near future. With an average of 1 percent growth over the last nine years, Putin didn’t have an economic plan before the elections, mainly running on the issue of Crimea, now in its fourth year of annexation, and after the elections he issued just “one tiny decree” with vague promises of improving the economy, with no concrete numbers, said Aslund.

Russia suffers from a steady capital flight of $30-40 billion a year – about 3% of GDP, with approximately $10-20 billion taken offshore, mainly illegally, by Putin’s cronies, according to Aslund. Russia has very little investment considering the level of its economic development, he said. Many innovators are leaving the country and the sanctions discourage Westerners from lending to Russia, whereas the country’s defense spending has increased from 3.3% of GDP in 2008 to 5.3% in 2017, and this in an economy with almost no economic growth, said Aslund.

And if one looks at the composition of the new government, which is headed by the same prime minister, who is himself suspected of corruption, and surrounded by technocrats mainly from the same inner circles, it is clear that “this is going nowhere,” said Aslund.

He added, “What we can say for sure is that there will be no reforms because Russia is a kleptocracy and it works for its rulers – it doesn’t work for its population.”

Priorities: geopolitics not living standards

While the government is occupied with geopolitics, ordinary Russians are faced with declining living standards. “We have a really huge gap between authorities and the population,” said Milov.

The majority of people support Putin’s current foreign policy initiatives – largely due to pervasive propaganda – but it is not on the list of their priorities, said Milov.  People want the government to re-focus on domestic, social and economic issues, yet this not a priority for the government.

State TV continues to talk about Ukraine, Syria and Trump, said Milov. It says that people “have to suffer” because Russia is doing great geopolitically; people “should be patient” and in some time “things are going to get back to normal by themselves,” said Milov.

People are not given the real economic picture and perspectives, and the voice of the opposition is also unable to reach the majority of the population, said Milov.  Yet people do feel there is a problem

“because of their [empty] pockets” and the opposition is working hard to reach out to them. There is a need to explain to people the link between Russia’s foreign policy and declining living standards.

Milov said that the government has been successful in spreading the message that any alternative to Putin would create “total chaos.”  Also, given the historical experience, Russian people are skeptical of radical changes and are afraid of the unknown, said Milov.

“It is quite difficult to try to change the situation, but it is also very possible and this is something that the opposition has been doing,” said Milov.

Alina Polyakova said that the regime seems to be “nervous and anxious” regarding “its own ability to maintain control,” with the population “becoming more disillusioned with the system.” The previous social contract between the government and people – to provide economic growth in exchange for political rights – seems to have been re-written since 2012 into a new form which stresses Russia’s role as a “great power” and the Russian “people have to pay for this.”  Yet is questionable how long this new contract will be sustainable, said Polyakova.

It is also essential, said Polyakova, to directly link Putin with the government in the eyes of the Russian people. Despite the low level of trust the Russian people have in the government, Putin’s approval ratings remain high as if Putin were somehow “above” the government.

Anders Aslund said that although the regime doesn’t look sustainable, one has to be cautious in assessing the future since Soviet history shows the regime “can last for many years.”

What the West can do though, said Aslund, is to continue to reveal Russian kleptocrats and their hidden money abroad. The West should continue adopting legislation that would reveal the beneficial owners of the anonymous companies offshore that are together estimated to be hiding up to $1 trillion of Russian money.

by Valeria Jegisman

The panel discussion included experts:

Vladimir Milov, opposition politician, economist, and energy expert and a Free Russia Foundation expert;

Anders Åslund, Senior Fellow, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council ;

Alina Polyakova, David M. Rubenstein Fellow – Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution; Adjunct Professor of European Studies, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Moderated by: Ambassador John Herbst, Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council

Inadequate system and stagnation

“Russia is going through the biggest economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Vladimir Milov yet “the government has no plan on how to address this.”  Living standards in Russia have decreased significantly since 2014 and the economy is dominated by ineffective state monopolies, a low level of entrepreneurship, weak growth levels and an absence of foreign investment, said Milov.

That the system is unsustainable was already clear in 2013 – a year before the war in Ukraine and political sanctions – when economic growth was just about 1 percent despite quite high oil prices at the time, said Milov.  “We built a paternalistic economy of redistribution rather than an economy that encourages private initiative, investment, innovation and increased productivity,” said Milov.

“The inadequacy of the system is understood by pretty much everybody, including a lot of people surrounding Vladimir Putin,” said Milov. Yet there is now “too much power centered around this particular figure,” who is not interested in real economic reforms.

Alina Polyakova said that despite the recent “lofty promises” of the Kremlin to focus on domestic and economic issues, it is unlikely that economic reforms are to be carried out since it “would undermine the regime itself.” “I think there is a linchpin here – for the regime to stay in power, for the Kremlin elite to stay in power, they have to maintain this patrimonial paternal system they have established,” said Polyakova. “If you think about self-preservation, which is the number one priority of Putin’s regime at this moment and for the foreseeable future, why would you do that [pursue economic reforms]?”

Anders Aslund also ruled out the possibility of any significant economic reforms in the near future. With an average of 1 percent growth over the last nine years, Putin didn’t have an economic plan before the elections, mainly running on the issue of Crimea, now in its fourth year of annexation, and after the elections he issued just “one tiny decree” with vague promises of improving the economy, with no concrete numbers, said Aslund.

Russia suffers from a steady capital flight of $30-40 billion a year – about 3% of GDP, with approximately $10-20 billion taken offshore, mainly illegally, by Putin’s cronies, according to Aslund. Russia has very little investment considering the level of its economic development, he said. Many innovators are leaving the country and the sanctions discourage Westerners from lending to Russia, whereas the country’s defense spending has increased from 3.3% of GDP in 2008 to 5.3% in 2017, and this in an economy with almost no economic growth, said Aslund.

And if one looks at the composition of the new government, which is headed by the same prime minister, who is himself suspected of corruption, and surrounded by technocrats mainly from the same inner circles, it is clear that “this is going nowhere,” said Aslund.

He added, “What we can say for sure is that there will be no reforms because Russia is a kleptocracy and it works for its rulers – it doesn’t work for its population.”

Priorities: geopolitics not living standards

While the government is occupied with geopolitics, ordinary Russians are faced with declining living standards. “We have a really huge gap between authorities and the population,” said Milov.

The majority of people support Putin’s current foreign policy initiatives – largely due to pervasive propaganda – but it is not on the list of their priorities, said Milov.  People want the government to re-focus on domestic, social and economic issues, yet this not a priority for the government.

State TV continues to talk about Ukraine, Syria and Trump, said Milov. It says that people “have to suffer” because Russia is doing great geopolitically; people “should be patient” and in some time “things are going to get back to normal by themselves,” said Milov.

People are not given the real economic picture and perspectives, and the voice of the opposition is also unable to reach the majority of the population, said Milov.  Yet people do feel there is a problem

“because of their [empty] pockets” and the opposition is working hard to reach out to them. There is a need to explain to people the link between Russia’s foreign policy and declining living standards.

Milov said that the government has been successful in spreading the message that any alternative to Putin would create “total chaos.”  Also, given the historical experience, Russian people are skeptical of radical changes and are afraid of the unknown, said Milov.

“It is quite difficult to try to change the situation, but it is also very possible and this is something that the opposition has been doing,” said Milov.

Alina Polyakova said that the regime seems to be “nervous and anxious” regarding “its own ability to maintain control,” with the population “becoming more disillusioned with the system.” The previous social contract between the government and people – to provide economic growth in exchange for political rights – seems to have been re-written since 2012 into a new form which stresses Russia’s role as a “great power” and the Russian “people have to pay for this.”  Yet is questionable how long this new contract will be sustainable, said Polyakova.

It is also essential, said Polyakova, to directly link Putin with the government in the eyes of the Russian people. Despite the low level of trust the Russian people have in the government, Putin’s approval ratings remain high as if Putin were somehow “above” the government.

Anders Aslund said that although the regime doesn’t look sustainable, one has to be cautious in assessing the future since Soviet history shows the regime “can last for many years.”

What the West can do though, said Aslund, is to continue to reveal Russian kleptocrats and their hidden money abroad. The West should continue adopting legislation that would reveal the beneficial owners of the anonymous companies offshore that are together estimated to be hiding up to $1 trillion of Russian money.

by Valeria Jegisman

The Plight of the Kremlin’s Political Prisoners

Oct 23 2023

Please join us for an in-person discussion on The Plight of the Kremlin’s Political Prisoners on Monday, October 30 from 12:00 noon to 1:30 pm at the Victims of Communism Museum located at 900 15th St NW in Washington, DC. The event will give a voice for those who can no longer speak for themselves and will include an interactive exhibit featuring photos and quotes of prominent political prisoners held by the Kremlin.

Space is limited, RSVP is required. The conversation is public and on-the record, members of the press are welcome.

The event will mark the International Day of Political Prisoners and feature substantive updates by:

  • Sergei Davidis, Head of Political Prisoners Program, Memorial Human Rights Center;
  • Evgenia Kara-Murza, Advocacy Director at Free Russia Foundation;
  • Mariana Katzarova, the UN Special Rapporteur on Russia;
  • MEP Andrius Kubilius, the Standing Rapporteur on Russia at the EU Parliament;
  • Karinna Moskalenko, Russia’s leading human rights lawyer, Founder of the Center de la Protection Internationale; and
  • Vadim Prokhorov, lawyer for political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza.

Expert presentations will be followed by an extensive Q&A session with the audience. The discussion will be moderated by Natalia Arno, President of Free Russia Foundation. To reserve your spot, please register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/743473939567?aff=oddtdtcreator

Speakers’ Bios:

Andrius Kubilius is a Lithuanian politician and a Member of the European Parliament (MEP). He served as Prime Minister of Lithuania from 1999 to 2000 and again from 2008 to 2012. He was the leader of the conservative political party Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats. Kubilius became a member of the pro-independence Sąjūdis movement, which favored separation from the Soviet Union. He later became the Executive Secretary of the Sąjūdis Council. Soon after the re-establishment of Lithuania’s independence, Kubilius was elected to the Seimas (parliament). Since then, Kubilius has been an active figure in Lithuanian politics. Kubillius is the current Standing Rapporteur on Russia at the EU Parliament.

Mariana Katzarova (Bulgaria) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Russian Federation by the UN Human Rights Council on April 4, 2023. Ms. Katzarova led the UN Human Rights Council’s mandated examination of the human rights situation in Belarus in 2021-22. During the first 2 years of the armed conflict in Ukraine (2014-16), she led the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission team in Donbas as head of the regional office in Eastern Ukraine. For a decade she headed the Amnesty International investigations of human rights in Russia and the two conflicts in Chechnya. Ms. Katzarova founded RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in War) in 2006 after working as a journalist and human rights investigator in the war zones of Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya. At RAW, she established the annual Anna Politkovskaya Award for women human rights defenders working in war and conflict zones. She was Advisor to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on combating human trafficking, and a senior advisor at the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe).

Evgenia Kara-Murza is a Russian human rights activist and wife of political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza, the twice-poisoned Russian opposition leader, imprisoned since April 11, 2022 for speaking out about the war on Ukraine. She worked as a translator and interpreter in Russian, English, and French for pro-democracy NGOs including the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, the Institute of Modern Russia, and Pen America. She subsequently joined her husband Vladimir at Free Russia Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan international organization supporting civil society and democratic development in Russia. Advocating for human rights accountability and promoting civil society and democratic change in Russia, she serves as FRF Advocacy Director.

Sergei Davidis is Head of Political Prisoners Support Program and Member of the Council at the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, Russia. He was educated in Sociology at Moscow State University and on Law at Moscow State Law Academy. For many years, he was a participant and one of the organizers of the democratic opposition movement. His research interests are closely related to activities to support political prisoners in Russia, and he studies the sociological and legal aspects of politically motivated deprivation of liberty, in particular, in the context of world practice and international norms.

Karinna Moskalenko is Russia’s leading human rights lawyer. She was the first Russian lawyer to take a case to the European Court for Human Rights and won the first ever case against the Russian government at the court in Strasbourg. She founded the Center for International Protection in Russia in 1994. She is a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. While some of her clients are household names: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Garry Kasparov, Igor Sutyagin, Alexander Litvinenko to name a few, she has also represented countless victims of human rights abuses. She won more than 100 cases including AH & others v. Russian Federation where she was representing the rights of American families who were in the process of adopting children when Russia banned US adoptions with their so-called Dima Yakovlev law. Karinna moved her family to Strasbourg in 2006 where she founded the “Center de la Protection Internationale,” a human rights litigation NGO focused on litigating cases in international courts, which has filed and won more than 500 cases on behalf of its clients. For nine year, Karinna was a Commissioner for the International Commission for Jurists for which she is an Honorary member. Currently she is a head of the experts’ group, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council for the UN High Commissioner working on the UN mandated examination of human rights situation in Belarus. Vadim Prokhorov is a Russian human-rights lawyer who has defended critics of the Kremlin, including prominent opposition politicians and anti-corruption campaigners. He has defended many human rights activists, such as Boris Nemtsov, Ilya Yashin, Vladimir Kara-Murza and Vladimir Bukovsky. Prokhorov’s work as a lawyer has made him an important figure in the human rights field, as the Russian government has increasingly suppressed public dissent and oppositional work. This increase in governmental repression gravely impacted Prokhorov’s work, who has been representing human rights defender and opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza for the last ten years. Currently, Vadim Prokhorov continues his advocacy to protect the Russian opposition, political prisoners in Russian courts – online from abroad.

Free Russia Foundation Denounces the Verdict Delivered to the Participants of the “Ingush Case” as a Clear Mockery of Justice

Jul 28 2023

Free Russia Foundation, along with our staff, expresses our deep concern and indignation at the final verdict delivered today, July 28, 2023, by the Stavropol Court in the Russian city of Pyatigorsk, regarding the participants of the “Ingush Case.”

The verdict remains unchanged since December 2021 when Akhmed Barakhoev, Musa Malsagov, and Malsag Uzhakhov were each sentenced to 9 years in a general regime colony. Ismail Nalgiev, Bagaudin Khautiev, and Barakh Chemurziev received 8-year sentences each, while Zarifa Sautieva was sentenced to 7.5 years. They were all found guilty of using violence against representatives of the authorities, establishing an extremist group, and participating in its activities. 

The appeal trial lasted for over half a year, with the defense lawyers presenting their arguments for 12 days during the debates. In contrast, the prosecutor’s speech was remarkably brief, lasting only five minutes, where he simply read out the arguments from the objections, which were concise and fit on just a few sheets of paper.

This stands as one of the most significant political cases in Russian history. It all started on March 27, 2019, when a rally against the alteration of Ingushetia’s administrative border with the Chechen Republic in Magas led to a crackdown on the Ingush opposition. Consequently, administrative cases were initiated against hundreds of participants in the people’s protest, and dozens of them faced criminal charges.

The Memorial Center, an organization that monitors politically motivated cases, has officially designated all those convicted in the “Ingush Case” as political prisoners. According to Sergei Davidis, who serves as the co-chairman of the Memorial Center, this case stands out as one of the most unprecedented political cases in Russian history. He states, “Civil society leaders are being accused merely for being civil society leaders. There is no fabrication involved; instead, they are trying to twist perfectly legitimate actions into criminal acts.”

Free Russia Foundation shares the same perspective as Memorial and urges the international community to take notice of this blatant violation of human rights.

The verdict handed down to the participants in the “Ingush Case” is a true mockery of justice, primarily because the prosecution was unable to demonstrate that the oppositionists had actually formed an extremist group. Additionally, there was a failure to provide evidence of any criminal conspiracy to incite violence against law enforcement personnel. Throughout the indictment, words such as “probably,” “presumably,” and “maybe” were frequently employed, undermining the strength of the case. Notably, the word “approximately” was used more than ten thousand times

A few years back, Ingushetia demonstrated to the entire nation that it was possible to conduct multi-day protests with thousands of people in a peaceful manner, without jeopardizing law and order. However, the Kremlin viewed this as a display of free thinking that clashed with the current regime’s control, leading them to take punitive action against the organizers of the peaceful protest. This move was intended to send a warning to residents of other regions in Russia, showcasing the potential consequences they might face for seeking justice.

The criminal case brought against the organizers is undeniably politically motivated, with the aim of maintaining power and suppressing public activism from critics of Putin’s regime. The verdict delivered today represents yet another step in the direction of quashing constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms of not only the people of Ingushetia but also citizens across Russia as a whole. It highlights the authorities’ attempt to curb any form of public activism and dissent.

Free Russia Foundation calls for the immediate release of all individuals unjustly convicted in the “Ingush Case.” Furthermore, we demand that the officials responsible for their unwarranted persecution be held accountable and brought to justice.

We urge the international community, human rights organizations, and all those who stand for freedom and justice to demonstrate their solidarity with the participants in the “Ingush Case.” It is crucial to support their fight for justice and the protection of human rights. Freedom and justice are fundamental and non-negotiable values, and any violation of these principles demands a resolute response and unified support.

We cannot afford to remain indifferent to the ongoing situation, and by coming together in solidarity, we can work towards fostering a truly democratic society.

Free Russia Foundation Statement on the Situation in Russia

Jun 24 2023

Free Russia Foundation is closely following the news surrounding the activities of the Wagner Group inside Russia with grave concern.

The events themselves, the diverging agendas advanced by various Russian power groups, and how they may unfold in the coming days are highly dynamic and uncertain. What is clear is that the political situation in Russia is extremely unstable and volatile, with the potential to escalate quickly and posing risks far beyond Russian borders.

This development, however, is a logical evolution of the lawlessness, violence, and corruption purposefully harnessed by Putin in order to remain in power and brutally wielded against Russian civil society in the form of repressions, and against the people of Ukraine in the form of military aggression.

Free Russia Foundation calls on the democratic world to provide Ukraine with all it requires for a decisive victory on the battlefield against Russian forces and to strengthen its commitment to pro-democracy Russians, both in-country and those forced into exile—as the two prerequisites for peace and stability in the region.

“We are agents of change.” The speech by FRF’s President Natalia Arno at the European Parliament

Jun 05 2023

On June 5-6, 2023, the European Parliament in Brussels at the initiative of Lithuanian MEP Andrius Kubilius and others, hosts a two-day conference “The Day After”, with the participation of over 200 representatives from Russia’s anti-war and opposition groups, journalists, prominent cultural figures, as well as European politicians.

On June 5, 2023, Natalia Arno, President of Free Russia Foundation spoke at the European Parliament in Brussels. In her opening remarks to the inaugural session of the Brussels Dialogue— Roundtable of EU and Democratic Russia Representatives, Ms. Arno described the heroic efforts by Russian civil society to stop the war and stand up to Putin’s regime; and called for a closer cooperation between Russian and European democratic forces to support Ukraine’s victory and ensure a lasting peace in Europe.

Below is the transcript of her full remarks.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished members of the European Parliament and EU institutions, esteemed representatives from across the transatlantic community, and my dear friends and colleagues who are selflessly fighting for a free and democratic Russia, 

Thank you all for being here today. My special thanks to the MEP from Lithuania, Standing Rapporteur on Russia, Andrius KUBILIUS and to Shadow Rapporteurs – Messrs. CIMOSZEWICZ, GUETTA and LAGODINSKY – and their amazing teams who worked tirelessly to gather us all for this historic event. We are thankful for a very timely realization at the EU level that we, pro-democracy anti-war anti-regime Russians, are an important actor in efforts to stop the war and the key force in transforming Russia into democracy. 

The Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February shook the world with its brutality and aggression, wretchedly echoing World War II. This war has been the first war watched on social media, brought to our living rooms– with every brutal death, every destroyed hospital, every orphaned child—staring into our face, breaking our heart, hundreds of times per day. But it’s not something that only exists on a computer screen. The reality on the ground is both unspeakable destruction and human cruelty that defies who we crave to be as humans. This war is black and white. The fight between the evil and the good, between the dictatorship and the democratic world with Ukraine on the front lines. There are no half tones, no moral ambivalence. Just like Hitler, Putin is perpetrating a criminal atrocity not only against Ukraine, but against freedom, democracy and our civilized way of life. 

This war is a huge tragedy for Ukraine, but it is also a catastrophic disaster for Russia. It’s a tragedy for so many Russians who understand what this war is, and it’s a tragedy that there are so many Russians who don’t understand it at all. 

This war has forced the world to take a new look at Russia. What is this country and who are these people engaged in unspeakable acts of brutality? Who are these people who passively watch as their army kills and destroys without any reason? They must be pure evil reincarnated! 

As the world, in pain and anger, looked for ways to respond, some of your governments shut your borders to all Russian passport holders, cancelled air traffic from Russia, pulled out businesses, denied services to all Russians, equated all Russians to Putin. We understood the reason for this. 

But let me remind you something. The Russian civil society and independent media were the first victim of Putin’s regime. We were the first ones to warn about the dangerous, corrupt, criminal, murderous nature of Putin’s regime. We were those telling you that his internal repressions will lead to external aggression. We were those who exposed the Kremlin’s export of corruption, influence campaigns in Europe and elsewhere. We were those who discovered Prigozhin’s factory of trolls and other disinformation tricks. We were the ones pleading the West not to enable Putin, not to operate with “realpolitik” and “business as usual”. In Putin’s war against freedom and democracy, Russian civil society has always been one of his priority targets. Many of us have paid a terrible price ourselves – losing our homeland, in many cases losing our freedom to imprisonment and to some of us, losing lives or family members. 

While we often hear there are no good Russians, I know many. All of us who are here today were invited by the European Parliament for our merits. We and our colleagues have moved mountains. Hundreds of us here represent civil society organizations, media outlets, grassroots initiatives with dozens of thousands activists and journalists in our networks. We communicate to millions through our YouTube and Telegram channels, newspapers, programs, and events. All of us are in exile now.

Inside Russia, many keep resisting, too. According to OVD-info, a portal tracking activism inside Russia, since the full-scale invasion there have been only 25 days without arrests for anti-war protests. There is the story of a Siberian grandmother— anti-war activist Natalia Filonova from my native Republic of Buryatia, whose special needs son was taken away from her in retribution for her protests and sent to a remote orphanage, while she herself is in jail awaiting trial. Another political prisoner Ilya Yashin, has just published a story about Natalia Filonova. Yashin himself is in jail for 8.5 years for telling the truth about Bucha.

Another real Russian patriot is a dear friend and man whom most of you know personally— Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has survived two assassination attempts by Putin’s regime, two comas, and still went back to Russia to testify to what is right and what is true. He is now in prison on a Stalin-era 25year sentence. 

Yesterday it was the birthday of Alexey Navalny who also survived Novichok poisoning and is slowly being killed in prison. 

All these names and many others will be mentioned at this conference and shouldn’t be forgotten. There are tens of thousands of documented stories like these. Tens of thousands of “good” humans arrested and prosecuted for their anti-war and pro-democracy stance. 

Why am I telling you all of this? In hopes that you see that Russian civil society was the first front in Putins war on democracy and peace.  As Western leaders dined and shook hands with Putin for 20 years, as Europeans accommodated Putin’s regime in exchange for cheap energy, as they offered citizenships to his associates, Putin was busy eradicating the Russian political opposition, independent media and civil society. 

Today, we address a pressing issue that lies at the heart of our shared destiny and demands our immediate attention and decisive action. Through all this shock from the devastating tragedy that we are all experiencing, I want to bring to you a message of resilience, hope and an urgent plea for solidarity. We, pro-democracy anti-war anti-regime Russians, are not only first victims of Putin’s regime, and not only targets for friendly fire and problems for your governments because we need visas and bank accounts, but most importantly, we are agents of change. Not foreign agents or undesirables as the Kremlin labels us, but agents of change, agents of the Russian people and Russia’s future. We are the part of the solution. We are the ones who are willing to transform Russia, to make it normal and civilized.

No doubt that Ukraine will win, but after the war it won’t be easy. We understand doubts about Russia’s democratization prospects, but we, pro-democracy anti-war anti-regime Russians, can’t afford to believe that freedom and democracy is not possible in our home country. Democracy in Russia is the only guarantee of sustainability of Ukraines victory and a key factor of stability and security in Europe and globally.

Those of us invited to this event have been working tirelessly as supporters of change for years. Our collective resume includes rallies against media capture and Khodorkovsky’s arrest in Putin’s early days, election observation missions proving massive fraud in all levels of elections throughout the country, “Dissenters Marches”, rallies on Bolotnaya and Sakharova and many other squares throughout the country and throughout the years, against the annexation of Crimea and invasion to Eastern Ukraine then and the full-scale invasion now. Our collective resume includes advocating for sanctions, both personal and sectoral, advocating for enforcement of sanctions and for making it harder for the Kremlin to circumvent them. Our collective resume includes assistance to Ukraine – evacuations from the war zone, search for Ukrainian POWs, litigation and advocacy on behalf of Ukrainian hostages of Putin’s regime held in Russian jails, cooperation on international justice mechanisms including the Tribunal and on documenting war crimes, humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians including shelters, clothing, medication. Our collective resume includes huge efforts by Russian independent media, bloggers, influencers, grassroots initiatives to tell the truth about this brutal war, to disseminate the factful information, to counter Kremlin’s narratives, to influence public opinion inside Russia. Our collective resume also includes discussions on how to achieve political transition, how to conduct sustainable reforms, how to make deputinization and even desovietization of Russia. 

We are not Europe’s headache, we are your asset. We ask our European partners to use our expertise, because nobody knows Russia better than us. Nobody knows Putin regime and his methods better than us. Nobody knows the Russian people better than us. Individually we do a lot. Collectively as a Russian pro-democracy anti-war movement we can do even more. With your solidarity, with the support of the democratic world, we can win. Working together is a force multiplier.

When I looked on your website yesterday, the main stated aims of the European Union within its borders are: to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its citizens. 

How do we promote peace now? We do everything we possibly can to make sure Ukraine wins this war. But it is clear, that until there is a real political change in Russia, until democracy and civil rights are reestablished for the Russian people, until Putin’s regime is brought to justice, no lasting peace is possible. It’s very practical for the Western democracies to support, strengthen and grow us— inside and outside of Russia. 

I am here to call on the EU as a community— to give voice to pro-democracy anti-war Russians at European institutions. Regular sessions of this conference, new report on Russia by the EU Parliament, EU Special Representative for Russia and other working mechanisms are important to discuss plans on reconstructing Ukraine after the war, prosecuting war criminals, and reforming Russia after Putin. So that Russians inside Russia see that Putin is wrong— the West does not seek to destroy Russia, and that Russians who are for democracy are not outcasts but are embraced by the international democratic community. 

We need a coherent Europe-wide strategy on how to stabilize the Russian civil society— save us from peril, prevent us from quitting the fight, help us mobilize and engage Russian society. This means clear legalization policies; some standard approach to our ability to work and travel. That means the end of the punitive measures such as denial of services that are not only counterproductive but also are illegal under the EU law. That means judging us on the basis of our values and our actions, not on the basis of our citizenship and nationality. That means support of our programs and initiatives.

In this room there are Russians from different regions and organizations, of different backgrounds, with different opinions and you might see some debates and disagreement throughout the program, but we have one unified position: Ukraine must win the war, and Russia must change from the inside to be a reliable and stable partner for the democratic world. Russia must return to its fundamental values of producing great poets, composers, physicists, and philosophers instead of being hackers, invaders, and war criminals. We in this room are here to join hands with our European partners and work with you to make this happen.

From the Board of Free Russia Foundation

May 18 2023

While traveling abroad recently, Free Russia Foundation’s president fell ill under circumstances that cause great concern. The matter is under investigation.

The health and safety of our staff and beneficiaries are our paramount concern.

Free Russia Foundation continues its work for a free, democratic, peaceful and prosperous Russia, reintegrated into the international community as a constructive and positive actor.