The Free Russia Foundation team condemns the crimes of Putin's regime against Ukraine

Election postmortem

Mar 22 2018

In the wake of the presidential elections in Russia, experts in Washington came together this week at the Atlantic Council and the Kennan Institute to discuss what the future may hold. While observers largely expect further stagnation, confrontation with the West and increasing authoritarianism, some believe Russia’s civil society may take people by surprise.

Views on the “elections”

All of the presidential candidates running in Russia’s elections understood exactly what kind of game they were playing – “Putin fighting with no one but himself,” said Lilia Shevtsova of Chatham House, speaking at the Atlantic Council on Monday.

With eight names on the ballot, said Vladimir Kara-Murza of Open Russia, “in reality, there was still the one.” “It is not difficult to win an election when your opponents are not actually on the ballot,” he said, referring to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny, who was banned from participating in the election.

While the true opposition candidates were kept away from the election, the alternatives offered to voters on the ballot could not be taken seriously, said Ekaterina Schulmann of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, speaking at the Kennan Institute on Tuesday.

Experts have widely said that voting fraud, such as ballot-stuffing and multiple voting, were commonplace in Russia’s elections, even if there were fewer reported irregularities than in previous years. However, as political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin noted, the tactics have changed, with less of a focus on the ballot box and more on the manipulation of people, which is very similar to Soviet methods.

There has been a “mobilization” of regional leaders and employers, said Schulmann, referring to pressure put on employees at both state and private companies as well as students to vote. This “dependent electorate” helped boost turnout, which was more of a concern for the Kremlin than the outcome of the election, added Schulmann.

Alexander Vershbow of the Atlantic Council said that although there is some genuine support of Putin, it remains “shallow” and this election wasn’t a “very impressive performance” in light of the absence of the competition, ridicule of other candidates and coercion to boost turnout.

A new level of dictatorship

Experts speaking at the Atlantic Council and the Kennan Institute this week agreed there haven’t been democratic elections in Russia since 2004, when Putin was re-elected for his second presidential term. The Kremlin has increasingly gained control over the country’s regional powers since then, said Oreshkin, with the regions beginning to compete for Putin’s favoritism. Oreshkin characterized the regions where local elites are highly supportive of Putin as “electoral sultanates,” with 19 such regions in this election, although in the USSR power was even more absolute. “What we have now,” said Oreshkin, “is USSR in miniature”. Looking ahead, the regime will continue using Soviet methods, including a confrontation with the West, he said.

Sergey Parkhomenko of the Kennan Institute described a process of “vote harvesting”. After delivering strong results for Putin, the authorities start to believe in their cause, reinforcing their enthusiasm, said Parkhomenko. “This enthusiasm,” he said, “will become an important factor for Russia after the elections […] The tightening grip that we expect from the Russian regime is to some extent rooted in this strange psychological feeling.”

Political analyst Kirill Rogov said Putin’s official election result of almost 77% is something new for Russia and reflects the degree to which authoritarianism has developed. Rogov said the Kremlin has reached “mature authoritarianism,” where institutions have become so entrenched that the role of a particular leader is secondary. Rogov said that one should look beyond the idea of Putin’s widespread popularity. “It is not about the popularity of one person – it is an institutional issue,” said Rogov.

From left to right: Matthew Rojanksy, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute; Ekaterina Schulmann, Senior Lecturer (associate professor) at the School of Public Policy of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA); Kirill Rogov, Political Analyst, Liberal Mission Foundation; Dmitry Oreshkin, political analyst and political geographer; Sergey Parkhomenko, George F. Kennan Expert.

The current political system depends much less on one person than it appears, said Schulmann. “The personalization of the regime, as it seems to me, is highly overestimated,” she said, adding that during the Medvedev’s time as president, there were no major changes to the “political machine”.

Kara-Murza said dictators are known for producing strong elections results, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu garnering 89 percent and 98 percent of the votes in elections. However, these numbers neither reflect the reality nor really help the dictators themselves, Kara-Murza said. The Kremlin appears to be terrified of mass protests on the one hand, and on the other hand they ironically leave their citizens no other choice but to take to the streets, he said.

What next?

The Kremlin has found a role for Putin as a “defender of the fatherland,” said Shevtsova, but it has created a conflict between Putin’s agenda and the system. This system is largely dependent on Western finance, resources and technology, and the system also consists of the cronies in the West and “Londongrad”. “Putin has started to undermine the key principles of the current Russian state and the system’s survival,” said Shevtsova. “I would say that President Putin will be presiding over his last chapter”.

Putin also cannot change this system, said Anders Åslund of the Atlantic Council, because the system, with $1 trillion of private money hidden offshore, supports him and those “lower down in the bread line” will stop supporting him if he tries to change it.

Rogov said that the assets owned by political and business elites close to Putin are not secured by anything but Putin’s power. However, Putin himself and his elite are also facing a generational shift, which further complicates the transition dilemma for Putin. Rogov ruled out the idea of a successor for Putin since “even a hand-picked successor such as Medvedev proved to be a difficult model because it provoked polarization among elites and society.”

It is also questionable whether the public’s acceptance of Putin’s role as “defender of the homeland” will prove sustainable, as the polls show a majority of people would like to see Russia as an economic power first and as a military power second, said Shevtsova. She said there are signs that society is fatigued with the regime and that a “regime without an idea, vision and mission cannot exist for a long time.”

Vershbow said that Putin’s policies will continue to exploit nationalism, at least in the short-term, which is still perceived as a “winning strategy,” based on the perception that Russia is a “besieged fortress” under attack by Western enemies. But, he said, people are becoming more “cautious” about the costs of this policy approach. “The Russian people may buy this in the short term, but I am not sure they are comfortable with this going forward,” said Vershbow. Although economic stagnation could also create public discontent, he doesn’t believe society will “boil to a degree of making changes.”

Kara-Murza and Shevtsova said Russia’s civil society should not be underestimated in their ability to respond to the current regime, although Shevtsova said that “people are demoralized in general after so many years of this zombie propaganda.” She expects political change could happen when the older generation of politicians retires and the Kremlin tries to “fill the vacuum”. A lot depends on the ability of civil society and the new Russian opposition to create resistance, she said.

Kara-Murza noted there are a lot of people, including the young generation, who reject the current regime. “Even if we forget about abuses and corruption, there are those who are tired of the same face on TV […] Don’t underestimate civil society,” he said, pointing to the protests of 2011. Russian history shows that changes may happen rapidly, said Kara-Murza.

By Valeria Jegisman

Views on the “elections”

All of the presidential candidates running in Russia’s elections understood exactly what kind of game they were playing – “Putin fighting with no one but himself,” said Lilia Shevtsova of Chatham House, speaking at the Atlantic Council on Monday.

With eight names on the ballot, said Vladimir Kara-Murza of Open Russia, “in reality, there was still the one.” “It is not difficult to win an election when your opponents are not actually on the ballot,” he said, referring to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny, who was banned from participating in the election.

While the true opposition candidates were kept away from the election, the alternatives offered to voters on the ballot could not be taken seriously, said Ekaterina Schulmann of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, speaking at the Kennan Institute on Tuesday.

Experts have widely said that voting fraud, such as ballot-stuffing and multiple voting, were commonplace in Russia’s elections, even if there were fewer reported irregularities than in previous years. However, as political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin noted, the tactics have changed, with less of a focus on the ballot box and more on the manipulation of people, which is very similar to Soviet methods.

There has been a “mobilization” of regional leaders and employers, said Schulmann, referring to pressure put on employees at both state and private companies as well as students to vote. This “dependent electorate” helped boost turnout, which was more of a concern for the Kremlin than the outcome of the election, added Schulmann.

Alexander Vershbow of the Atlantic Council said that although there is some genuine support of Putin, it remains “shallow” and this election wasn’t a “very impressive performance” in light of the absence of the competition, ridicule of other candidates and coercion to boost turnout.

A new level of dictatorship

Experts speaking at the Atlantic Council and the Kennan Institute this week agreed there haven’t been democratic elections in Russia since 2004, when Putin was re-elected for his second presidential term. The Kremlin has increasingly gained control over the country’s regional powers since then, said Oreshkin, with the regions beginning to compete for Putin’s favoritism. Oreshkin characterized the regions where local elites are highly supportive of Putin as “electoral sultanates,” with 19 such regions in this election, although in the USSR power was even more absolute. “What we have now,” said Oreshkin, “is USSR in miniature”. Looking ahead, the regime will continue using Soviet methods, including a confrontation with the West, he said.

Sergey Parkhomenko of the Kennan Institute described a process of “vote harvesting”. After delivering strong results for Putin, the authorities start to believe in their cause, reinforcing their enthusiasm, said Parkhomenko. “This enthusiasm,” he said, “will become an important factor for Russia after the elections […] The tightening grip that we expect from the Russian regime is to some extent rooted in this strange psychological feeling.”

Political analyst Kirill Rogov said Putin’s official election result of almost 77% is something new for Russia and reflects the degree to which authoritarianism has developed. Rogov said the Kremlin has reached “mature authoritarianism,” where institutions have become so entrenched that the role of a particular leader is secondary. Rogov said that one should look beyond the idea of Putin’s widespread popularity. “It is not about the popularity of one person – it is an institutional issue,” said Rogov.

From left to right: Matthew Rojanksy, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute; Ekaterina Schulmann, Senior Lecturer (associate professor) at the School of Public Policy of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA); Kirill Rogov, Political Analyst, Liberal Mission Foundation; Dmitry Oreshkin, political analyst and political geographer; Sergey Parkhomenko, George F. Kennan Expert.

The current political system depends much less on one person than it appears, said Schulmann. “The personalization of the regime, as it seems to me, is highly overestimated,” she said, adding that during the Medvedev’s time as president, there were no major changes to the “political machine”.

Kara-Murza said dictators are known for producing strong elections results, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu garnering 89 percent and 98 percent of the votes in elections. However, these numbers neither reflect the reality nor really help the dictators themselves, Kara-Murza said. The Kremlin appears to be terrified of mass protests on the one hand, and on the other hand they ironically leave their citizens no other choice but to take to the streets, he said.

What next?

The Kremlin has found a role for Putin as a “defender of the fatherland,” said Shevtsova, but it has created a conflict between Putin’s agenda and the system. This system is largely dependent on Western finance, resources and technology, and the system also consists of the cronies in the West and “Londongrad”. “Putin has started to undermine the key principles of the current Russian state and the system’s survival,” said Shevtsova. “I would say that President Putin will be presiding over his last chapter”.

Putin also cannot change this system, said Anders Åslund of the Atlantic Council, because the system, with $1 trillion of private money hidden offshore, supports him and those “lower down in the bread line” will stop supporting him if he tries to change it.

Rogov said that the assets owned by political and business elites close to Putin are not secured by anything but Putin’s power. However, Putin himself and his elite are also facing a generational shift, which further complicates the transition dilemma for Putin. Rogov ruled out the idea of a successor for Putin since “even a hand-picked successor such as Medvedev proved to be a difficult model because it provoked polarization among elites and society.”

It is also questionable whether the public’s acceptance of Putin’s role as “defender of the homeland” will prove sustainable, as the polls show a majority of people would like to see Russia as an economic power first and as a military power second, said Shevtsova. She said there are signs that society is fatigued with the regime and that a “regime without an idea, vision and mission cannot exist for a long time.”

Vershbow said that Putin’s policies will continue to exploit nationalism, at least in the short-term, which is still perceived as a “winning strategy,” based on the perception that Russia is a “besieged fortress” under attack by Western enemies. But, he said, people are becoming more “cautious” about the costs of this policy approach. “The Russian people may buy this in the short term, but I am not sure they are comfortable with this going forward,” said Vershbow. Although economic stagnation could also create public discontent, he doesn’t believe society will “boil to a degree of making changes.”

Kara-Murza and Shevtsova said Russia’s civil society should not be underestimated in their ability to respond to the current regime, although Shevtsova said that “people are demoralized in general after so many years of this zombie propaganda.” She expects political change could happen when the older generation of politicians retires and the Kremlin tries to “fill the vacuum”. A lot depends on the ability of civil society and the new Russian opposition to create resistance, she said.

Kara-Murza noted there are a lot of people, including the young generation, who reject the current regime. “Even if we forget about abuses and corruption, there are those who are tired of the same face on TV […] Don’t underestimate civil society,” he said, pointing to the protests of 2011. Russian history shows that changes may happen rapidly, said Kara-Murza.

By Valeria Jegisman

How the War in Ukraine Catalyzed a Re-awakening of National Identity Among Russia’s Indigenous Peoples

May 20 2022

Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine has now gone on for over three months. The Kremlin continues hiding the extent of injustice it is committing against the Ukrainian people, and it’s hiding the true cost of the war to the Russian people— including the number of those killed in action.

The official numbers that are released, however, indicate that ethnic minorities from economically disadvantaged regions of Russia are disproportionately represented among casualties. It was Christo Grozev of Bellingcat who was among first suggesting that losses among “non-Slavic” troops from remote regions were disproportionately high.

The Russian media outlet Mediazona, together with a team of volunteers, has examined more than 1,700 reports on the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, and it turned out, that, in absolute numbers, natives of Muslim Dagestan and Buddhist Buryatia are in the lead among the casualties. And if we compare these data with the population size of the Russian regions, the national republics are again the leaders: the top three in the number of killed soldiers per 100 thousand people are Buryatia, Tyva and North Ossetia. Residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg, which together account for more than 12% of the country’s population, are virtually absent from the casualty reports.

The Kremlin takes advantage of the fact that the national republics are some of the poorest and most socially and economically depressed parts of the country. In 2020, Buryatia ranked 81st out of 85 regions of Russia in terms of quality of life. The neighboring Irkutsk region was in 55th place. According to the republican statistics department, 20% of residents in 2020 had incomes below the subsistence minimum. In 2013, it was slightly better at 17.5%. In 2019, Ulan-Ude ranked last in quality of life among 78 cities with a population of 250,000 or more. In a region with a salary of 20 thousand rubles, young people have two choices: either go look for jobs in the harsh Arctic region or the bustling Moscow, or join the military as a contract mercenary. But even there, men from republics like Buryatia, Tuva, Dagestan, and Chechnya are at the bottom of the pay scale. Military insiders say that their salaries in warzones are set at about 250 thousand a month.

In the first days of the war, videos showing Russian prisoners of war with non-Slavic appearance began to circulate on social networks. Later — and even before the Russian Defense Ministry officially confirmed the first combat casualties — several regional governors announced the deaths of their fellow countrymen. In early March, when the first coffins arrived in Buryatia, the head of the republic, Alexei Tsydenov, attended several funerals. He was accompanied by TV cameras and journalists. The obituaries were published on the main pages of the regional media. Then the burials began to take place almost every day, and Tsydenov stopped going. Since mid-March, the names of those killed in Buryatia have been published only in provincial newspapers or on the social media communities.

Buryats make up only 0.3 percent of the Russian population, but among those officially killed they constitute 2.8 percent. Dagestan surpasses Buryatia in the number of war deaths, but Dagestan’s population is three times larger.

At the end of March, the head of Buryatia, Alexei Tsydenov, gathered artists at the Buryat Opera and Ballet Theater and delivered an address about the “special military operation.” After the speech, the Buryat Drama Theater spokesman Batodalay Bagdaev asked the official: “There is a guard of honor No. 1 on Red Square. Have you ever seen a ‘narrow-eyed’ person there? There’s a clear selection there — blue-eyed, tall, Slavic-looking guys. Our fellow countrymen with bowed legs and large cheekbones are barred from the guard of honor. And if they’re going to die, they’re going to die.”

As voices from the audience shouted, “Bastard!” he asked Bagdaev to turn off the microphone, and shortly thereafter Vladimir Rylov, the director of the Buryat Opera and Ballet Theater, took the floor. “I would like to respond to this scoundrel who humiliates the Buryat people in front of me at my theater. We are all Putin’s Buryats! We will not allow the country to fall apart. If we now reproach the country’s leadership with the fact that, yes, there are killed, there are wounded, there are casualties — we will betray those killed and wounded. Then they have died for nothing. Only victory will be their redemption!”

After February 24, many people of non-titular ethnicities in Russia began searching for their souls, connecting to their ethical roots and examining their identity— and felt compelled to disassociate themselves from Moscow, its war, and unite with their fellow countrymen in this stance. Several formal ethnic anti-war movements have emerged, such as the Free Buryatia Foundation, which aims at ending the war, combating Kremlin propaganda, and ridding the Buryats of the involuntary burden of being “the main mascots of the Russian world.”

According to Alexandra Garmazhapova, the president of the Free Buryatia Foundation and seasoned journalist, the Buryats have a bad reputation in Ukraine. When Putin unleashed the war in Donbass, soldiers from Buryatia were often sent there to fight under the guise of so-called local militiamen and miners. There was a notorious interview that Novaya Gazeta conducted with 20-year-old tank crewman Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, a young man who was badly burned in the battle near Debaltsevo and talked about how the Russian authorities had sent Buryat contract soldiers there to fight in secrecy. And in 2015, the “Network” movement (a branch of the pro-Kremlin “Nashi” movement) recorded a crass video entitled “The Appeal of Putin’s Buryat fighters to the panicking people of Ukraine.” In the video, which went viral, Irkutsk Buryats promised Ukrainians that their economy would “plunge into the crotch of Conchita Wurst.”

“Then the Ukrainian media started actively writing about the Buryats. They used the phrase “the Putin’s military Buryats.” This narrative was very much amplified, memes on the subject going viral. Already with the start of the current invasion, some Ukrainians began to say that they are prepared to fight Russia to the last Buryat. This is very upsetting. We have a small nation and it’s no good that it has such an image,” says Garmazhapova.

Soon after the massacre in Bucha, fakes began to circulate on the Internet that it was Buryats who committed the atrocities there, and these posts were accompanied by photos of Yakut soldiers with the flag of the Sakha Republic, taken in 2018 in the military unit in the Far East where they had served. Why would anyone want to shift the blame for the mass murders onto the Buryats? The answer may sound utterly cynical: it is convenient for the Russian propaganda to blame everything on the national minorities of the Russian Federation who went out of their way to obey orders. After all, it is so advantageous to convince Ukrainians that their enemies are not Russians, but Buryats (as well as Yakuts, Chechens, Dagestanis, and other peoples of the Russian Federation), and that they should fight not against Russia, not against the Russians, but against the peoples colonized by Russia.

The Free Buryatia Foundation came about quite naturally. Maria Vyushkova, a Buryat woman living in the United States, went to a rally in San Francisco on February 28 with a “Stop Putin” banner. She decided to come out in protest when she realized that there were many of her countrymen waging war in Ukraine — she had been receiving such news since the first days of the invasion of the neighboring country by Russian troops.

Her action was followed by several other events in other countries — held by representatives of the Buryat diaspora, who began to coordinate their actions. People came out with “Buryats against Putin’s war” posters and flags of Buryatia. “At the rallies we were constantly being asked what organization we represented. So we decided to make the Free Buryatia Foundation. War, like a vampire, sucks the young blood out of my people — and of course I have reconnected with my identity much deeper now. It has become very important to me to assert that I am a Buryat and I am against the war,” Vyushkova told “The Cold” media outlet.

Ten people are now on the team of the foundation, all outside of Russia. People from inside Russia constantly apply to the organization, but the foundation does not want to endanger their fellow countrymen and reminds them of the law on fakes about the Russian army, which can lead to up to 15 years in prison.

In addition to the publicity campaigns, the foundation provides legal advice, drafts instructions for military personnel who want to avoid being sent to war, and advocates for sanctions against regional officials, such as Buryatia’s head Alexei Tsydenov and deputies of the People’s Khural, who have expressed support for the war. Activists have released several anti-war videos: “We are triggered by the goal of ‘denazification of Ukraine. We ourselves constantly face discrimination in our country — where is the denazification of Russia?”

The organization asserts that the leaders of Buryatia are fully responsible for what is happening, because the function of the regional government is to protect its people. Alexei Tzydenov has clearly failed this function, and moreover, he contributes to the deaths. Free Buryatia Foundation is preparing sanctions lists, which it plans to submit to international institutions.

“We have an activist from New York, Tuyanna Lubsanova. She has mobilized, I think, her whole family and all her Buryat friends from there. We ended up with 19 people in the first video. We thought that would be the end of it, we had no far-reaching plans. But suddenly other Buryats, living in different countries — from Germany, from Poland, and from America as well, started writing to us. And we realized that we needed to make more videos. We’ve recorded four videos, and now we’re preparing a fifth,” says Alexandra Garmazhapova.

How are Buryats supposed to promote the ideas of the “Russian world” if they themselves, living in Russia, constantly are victimized by xenophobia and racism? According to Garmazhapova, a psychological factor is probably involved. “Buryats feel that participating in the war gives them an opportunity to ‘elevate themselves’ up to Russians. They are willing to forget this discrimination so that in the fight against the “bad Ukrainians” the Russians will recognize them as equals. I can’t explain it any other way,” she says.

In Russia, discrimination in one way or another affects everyone who does not meet the “standard of Russianness” on ethnic, religious, racial grounds. It is well known that the national question in Russia is a painful and unresolved problem. On the one hand, the Constitution was written in the name of “a multinational people, united by a common destiny in their land.” The authorities regularly cite this multinationality. Vladimir Putin at the beginning of the war, speaking about Nurmagamed Gajimagomedov, a Lak man from Dagestan who died in Ukraine, stated: “I am a Russian, <…> but when I see examples of such heroism, <…> I want to say: I am a Lak, I am a Dagestani, I am a Chechen, an Ingush, a Russian, a Tatar, a Jew, a Mordvin, an Ossetian.”

On the other hand, at a press conference in 2018, when asked by a journalist of the GTRK “Dagestan” Elena Yeskina, whether the president notices that in a large multinational country only “pretty babies with blond hair and big blue eyes” are shown on television and that in the Kremlin regiment the “unspoken criterion” is Slavic appearance, Putin replied, “It is just your perception.” More recently, on April 20, the president publicly mocked the Bashkir language by distorting the name of a cafe in Ufa as “iPad, halyava.”

Ruslan Gabbasov, head of the Bashkir National Political Center, says that the Russian Federation has long been essentially a unitary country. His assessment is even harsher: “The Russian Federation is not a federation at all, but a colonial-type empire.” The national republics have been stripped of their sovereignty, their constitutions rewritten under the Kremlin pressure and brought into line with the Russian Constitution. In 2017, speaking in Yoshkar-Ola, the president declared that the Russian language is “the natural spiritual framework of the country,” “everyone should know it,” and it is unacceptable to reduce the level and time of the Russian language teaching. A year later corresponding amendments were inserted to the Law on Education, which linguists and language activists opposed.

“The state languages of the national republics are relegated to the level of second-rate languages on their territory. Now, for a Bashkir child who wants to study his native Bashkir language at school, the parents have to write an application for choosing the language, and if there are not more than seven such applications in the class, the language is not taught. In urban schools, where Bashkir children are not so strongly represented in numbers, they are deprived of the opportunity to study their native language. The Russian language, however, which is not native to the Bashkirs, is studied on a mandatory basis. Where Bashkir state language is studied, it is taught only one hour a week, which is catastrophically insufficient. Russian literature is compulsory, but Bashkir literature has long ceased to be taught as a separate discipline,” said Ruslan Gabbasov.

The strengthening of national identity against the backdrop of war is a natural way to distance oneself from Kremlin politics and rhetoric, says journalist and regionalism researcher Todar Baktemir. “Moscow sends people to fight in Ukraine. Would an independent Kazan (capital of Tatarstan) do that? I don’t think so, because the Tatars as a political nation have no claims against the Ukrainians,” he explains.

On April 21, Alexandra Kibatova, a student of the Higher School of Economics, went out on the Moscow Arbat with a poster in Mari language: “Mylanna sogysh ogesh kӱl” — “We don’t need war.” The police detained her and filed a report on discrediting the Russian Armed Forces.

Kibatova came from the village of Krasny Bor in the Agryz district of Tatarstan, where Tatars, Russians and Maris live. With her action, she wanted to express her disagreement with the policies of the Russian authorities. “The rhetoric of propaganda is built on defending the idea of the Russian world, but what does it mean to be Russian? Can all people in Russia be equated with Russians? I was born in a Mari family, for my parents, especially for my father, national identity is very important, this mindset was absorbed in me as well. Russian culture is also an important part of me, it’s what we all breathe in Russia. But it was important for me to say that I don’t support Russianness,” the student told “Idel.Realii” media outlet.

Since the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army, numerous campaigns emerged containing anti-war statements in the national languages of the peoples of Russia. Alisa Gorshenina, an artist from Nizhny Tagil, came out on a picket in April with a white rose in her hands. Ribbons with the inscriptions “Epir vӑrҫa hirӗҫ!” and “Kirәkmi begә suhysh!” were attached to the flower. Translated from Chuvash and Tatar, it means “We’re against the war!”

Gorshenina made another artistic piece where on a huge coat she wrote anti-war inscriptions in 14 languages — Tatar, Komi, Bashkir, Karelian, Chuvash, Udmurt, Altaian, Khakass, Buryat, Kumyk, Avar, Mokshan, Nanai and Sakha. She captioned the photos of this work “Hearing Russia’s Voices.”

In early March, Ruslan Gabbasov asked the head of Bashkortostan, Radiy Khabirov, to issue a decree “to ensure that our Bashkir boys do not go to war in Ukraine. “If this war is at Putin’s will, our Bashkortostani guys should not participate in it. Issue an order that our guys should not be sent to war. Show your wisdom and willpower. Show your will, the way President of Tatarstan Shaimiyev did when he issued an edict for Tatar boys not to be sent to Chechnya. How many Bashkir boys’ lives do you have to lay down before you understand that this war is not ours? Have the courage to refuse to let Putin send our guys — regardless of nationality — to Ukraine. This is not our war, and our guys should not die there,” Gabbasov said.

On May 8, the international conference “Forum of Free Peoples of Russia” took place in Warsaw. The event was attended by representatives of the Tatar and Bashkir communities, as well as other peoples of Russia, who were described by the organizers of the event as “enslaved by Russian imperialism.” Tatar activist Nafis Kashapov, who represented the “Free Idel-Ural” public platform at the forum, described the work he and his associates have carried out in Tatarstan over the past 30 years. He mentioned projects that included the production of educational literature in the Tatar and Russian languages. The Tatar representative expressed dismay with the situation in Russia. He believes that what is happening in Ukraine should encourage the Tatars to rethink many important issues.

In 2013, the Kalmyk Aldar Erendzhenov and his wife created the clothing brand 4 Oirad, which popularizes the culture of indigenous peoples. After the start of the war, a billboard appeared in the capital of Kalmykia supporting Russian troops with the inscription “I am Kalmyk, but today we are all Russians.” When Erendjenov saw it, he got the idea to produce items with the “Nerussky” (“Non-Russian”) print, referring to nationalist T-shirts with the inscription “I am Russian” in stylized Cyrillic script. “It’s a response to the Russian world, because we actually have our own non-Russian world. We wanted to make the word ‘non-Russian,’ which is used as an insult, positive. I’m not Russian, and I’m proud of it,” says the designer.

At the end of April, Aldar Erendzhenov decided to emigrate to Mongolia. This decision was due to the numerous threats that the designer began to receive after the start of Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. The authors of the denunciations believe that the word “non-Russian” insults the state-forming people. “We are receiving threats. The propaganda media accuse us of inciting ethnic hatred and threaten us with a criminal case. We see activists in Kalmykia getting their tires slashed and their cars set on fire, and the police do nothing,” Erendzhenov says.

The year 2021 is remembered for the unprecedented activity of civil society in Kalmykia. After a three-year break, a congress of the Oirat-Kalmyk people was held here and a public court was established for the first time. At the same time, the hopes for change after the election of Batu Khasikov were replaced by complete disappointment in him. The head of Kalmykia turned out to be one of the most isolated governors, unwilling to make contact not only with members of the public, but also with deputies.

On March 10, 2022, the Oirat-Kalmyk people opposed the war by signing an appeal to the Russians and residents of Kalmykia. The appeal, signed by the leader and his three deputies, says that over the last 400 years Oirat-Kalmyks have participated in all military conflicts on the side of Russia, but they don’t need a war with Ukraine. On March 30 the Elista city court of Kalmykia fined the deputy chairman of the congress of Oirat-Kalmyk people Aducha Erdneyev 30 thousand rubles for signing an anti-war letter. A protocol was drawn up against him for “discrediting” the Russian military (Article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Code).

Despite unprecedented repression, national minority activists in Russia continue their work, because their task is to stop the hostilities and human sacrifices.

According to Alexandra Garmazhapova of the Free Buryatia Foundation, all the words of the Russian authorities about the need for so-called “denazification” of Ukraine are lies. “Almost immediately I had a cognitive dissonance: okay, we will get rid of the Nazis in Ukraine, but who will get rid of them in Russia?”

The Free Buryatia Foundation invited subscribers to share their stories about racism in Russia. There are now more than a thousand and a half such stories. As these stories show, the experience of the peoples of Russia is more a story of disunity than unity. “The standard slurs — ‘churka,’ ‘chinese,’ ‘hach,’ ‘narrow-eyed’ — were heard by almost everyone who wrote to me. As someone who has a strong oriental appearance, I thought that only “narrow-eyed” people got it. This is why I was surprised by the reports from Udmurts, Chuvashs, Mordvians, Marians, and Karelians who wrote that they’ve been taught their entire lives that it’s shameful to be an Udmurt. The peoples living in Russia have much more in common with Ukrainians than they may realize. In Soviet times, all languages except Russian were declared peasant languages. And if the Ukrainians get their language back, the Karelians or Buryats have it very bad… People think that racist outbursts are forgotten, like remarks about a bad haircut, but they are not. It hurts for years to come. Because they insult your whole species, your history, your essence. And thanks to the Kremlin, who talked about denazification, for reminding us who we are. And we are non-Russians. And this is normal,” says Alexandra Garmazhapova.

The Free Russia Foundation team condemns the crimes of Putin’s regime against Ukraine

May 18 2022

Since day one of the full-scale war unleashed by Putin’s regime and its supporters against the sovereign state of Ukraine, Free Russia Foundation, which supports Russian activists, journalists, and human rights defenders forced to leave Russia because of direct security threats, has changed the operation of its regional offices, mobilizing resources and capabilities in support of international efforts to end the war, restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and counter the lies and propaganda of the Kremlin.

The Free Russia Foundation team, which include many Russian citizens—political immigrants,  living in various countries around the world, condemns the crimes of Putin’s regime against the sovereign state of Ukraine. We respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states. We consider the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbass, and the occupation of Georgia—crimes. As citizens of Russia, we share responsibility for the actions of the Russian authorities, who commit crimes against humanity on behalf of all Russians. We regret that many Russians, susceptible to propaganda and misinformation, have supported the aggression against Ukraine.

Since February 24, we have intensified education campaigns throughout Russia. Dozens of Russian activists from different countries participate in these campaigns. We will not let fascism, dictatorship and lies prevail and will continue to fight for a democratic future for Russia. 


Many Russians around the world, including thousands of Russian activists, journalists, human rights defenders with whom we have been working for years, are also engaged in this work. Our main task, what the entire democratic world expects of us, what Ukrainians expect, and what no one will do for us, is to unite all Russians who oppose war, inside and outside Russia, to develop common strategies of resistance and to act jointly,  shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine and the entire civilized world.

Over the years we have been able to contribute to the creation of a successful vibrant community of democratically minded Russians and representatives of the anti-war movement in many countries. These are Russians who have always opposed the imperialist ambitions of the Kremlin, who want and need to live in a free European Russia. In the past few months, since February 24, we have involved hundreds of them in active work on various important issues. 

A new stage in our work is the creation of resource centers in a number of key countries, which, together with our offices, will become platforms where activists, journalists, and human rights defenders can find safe places for active joint efforts, planning and implementation of pro-democracy and anti-war initiatives and projects, assistance, and necessary support. We approach the creation of these centers with a heightened focus on the safety of the activists themselves, as well as on the possible risks for the countries with growing concentration of Russian political immigrants. Like the Foundation’s offices, these centers will promote democracy, counter misinformation, and integrate Russian activists into local and international formats and communities.

Natalia Arno
Grigory Frolov
Egor Kuroptev
Dmitry Valuev
Nikolay Levshits
Anton Mikhalchuk
Nina Aleksa
Pavel Elizarov
Nadia Valueva
Vladimir Zhbankov
Aleksey Kozlov
Evgenia Kara-Murza

Another Round of Repression in Russia. Politician Vladimir Kara-Murza Arrested; Alexander Nevzorov, Alexei Venediktov, and Other Independent  Media Figures Recognized as “Foreign Agents”

May 06 2022

Rarely does a Friday in Russia these days go by without another round of Kremlin repression of prominent members of civil society. It seems, however, that last Friday was a record-breaking week for the number of big names sanctioned by the Russian authorities.

The Case of Vladimir Kara-Murza

On April 22, 2022, Judge Elena Lenskaya of the Basmanny Court has ordered Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent public figure and journalist, one of the initiators of the Magnitsky Act (2012), to remain in custody until June 12. On the same day, the Ministry of Justice recognized him as a “foreign agent.” The criminal case against him was opened for alleged “false statements ” against the Russian army, motivated by political hatred (point e, part 2, article 207.3 of the Criminal Code).

Vladimir Kara-Murza is a prominent Russian opposition politician, journalist, and former chairman of the board of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom. As a reminder, on February 11, 2021, an investigative effort publicized that a group of FSB officers, who have been implicated in the poisoning of politician Alexei Navalny and several other people, also made two attempts to poison Vladimir Kara-Murza in 2015 and 2017. This conclusion was made by investigative teams at Bellingcat and The Insider, which discovered that FSB officers shadowed Kara-Murza on his trips.

The politician is represented by lawyers Olga Mikhailova and Vadim Prokhorov. According to Prokhorov, the reason for the criminal case against Kara-Murza was his March 15, 2022 address before the House of Representatives of the State of Arizona. Kara-Murza’s lawyers, as well as the defendant himself, cannot explain why, out of a series of his public speeches in the United States, the IC has chosen that particular one.

According to the ruling on the initiation of criminal proceedings, Kara-Murza “has knowingly spread false information under the guise of reliable reports, containing data on the use of the Russian Armed Forces to bomb residential areas, social infrastructure facilities, including maternity homes, hospitals and schools, as well as the use of other prohibited means and methods of warfare during a special military operation in Ukraine, thus causing substantial harm to the interests of the Russian Federation”.

The content of Kara-Murza’s speech in question is not much different from the Anti-War Committee’s first declarations, and is, in fact, a brief critical analysis of the 23-year development of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The Basmanny Court zoomed into the following statement made by Kara-Murza: “…today, the whole world sees what Putin’s regime is doing to Ukraine. It is dropping bombs on residential areas, on hospitals and schools… These are war crimes that were initiated by the dictatorial regime in the Kremlin.”

Independent resources pointed out that the translation of the speech was not made by a professional interpreter, but by a certain Danila Mikheev, who had consulted as an “expert” on several other cases against the opposition on behalf of the IC.

Kara-Murza faces between five to ten years in prison. He has plead not guilty. The court has admitted personal testimonies of the deputies of the Moscow City Duma Mikhail Timonov, Maxim Kruglov and Vladimir Ryzhkov.

“I have never committed any offenses or crimes, and all the documents of the investigation have nothing to do with reality. I am an honest politician and journalist, I have been working for more than twenty years, and all this time I have continued to exercise my right to express my opinion,
guaranteed by the Constitution,” Vladimir Kara-Murza himself said in his statement in court. “I categorically deny any involvement in any crimes. There is no corpus delicti in these documents, and my entire case is 100% political from beginning to end. All of this is an attempt to point me to my political position, to which I am entitled <…> Despite the repressive laws that were passed in March of this year, I have no intention of hiding or fleeing anywhere. My whole life and my activity prove that I am not going anywhere. I ask you to appoint a measure of restraint not involving detention,” said Kara-Murza.

Vladimir was arrested on April 12 under Article 19.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (noncooperation with a police officer). On April 11, Kara-Murza was detained near his home and taken to the Khamovniki Police Department, where the politician spent the night awaiting trial. The reason for his detention was that he allegedly “behaved inappropriately at the sight of police officers, changed his trajectory, accelerated his step and tried to run away at their demand to stop.” This became known from the police reports published by the lawyer.

The criminal case against Kara-Murza is expanding rapidly. As early as 12 April, when the politician was arrested for 15 days for “disobeying a police officer,” a report on the discovery of “crime” was lodged with the IC’s desk. On the same day, Mr. Zadachin, the investigator of the Investigative Committee, examined the report and demanded to open an investigation. Ten days later, the politician was taken from the detention center in Mnevniki for questioning, and then immediately to court.

Now his wife, translator Yevgenia Kara-Murza, is fighting for Vladimir’s freedom. She left her job at international organizations to help him and continue his political activities.

“Frankly, we knew it could happen at some point. He had already been poisoned twice, there had been attempts on his life, he barely survived. Now they will hide all the opposition figures behind bars so that they can’t work, continue their activities effectively, and Volodya is very effective,” says Yevgeniya Kara-Murza.

Vladimir Kara-Murza is known to political leaders around the world as a tireless advocate for the Magnitsky Act. This crucial document, adopted in the United States in 2012, allows for the imposition of sanctions on those responsible for “extrajudicial killings and other gross human rights violations.” It now includes those who, according to the U.S., were involved in the death in custody of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had uncovered a scheme to steal 5.4 billion rubles.

It is believed that the two poisonings of Kara-Murza were revenge for the fact that he and Boris Nemtsov lobbied the U.S. (and later Canada and the European Union) to pass this document. As a result, sanctions were imposed on employees of the FSIN, the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Investigative Committee of Russia, and judges. Later, the list was expanded to include the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov; Andrei Lugovoi, a deputy (who is suspected of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko in London); and other Russian politicians and officials.

“The Magnitsky Act is passed every day in a new country, sanctions are imposed, we saw this at the beginning of the war. Yes, if these sanctions had been imposed seven or ten years ago, there would not have been a war. But the fact that such legislation was passed in different countries made it possible to impose sanctions very quickly after the invasion began. The work of Vladimir is very effective, and he is, of course, very troublesome to them. His poisonings in 2015 and 2017 were clearly linked to his activities aimed at having personal sanctions imposed on the murderers and thieves of this regime <…> Vladimir is an honest, up to his bones honest, decent, absolutely inflexible in matters of principle. He is a true patriot of his country. He says that as a Russian politician he should be where people fight evil. And he believes that he has no moral right to call on people to fight if he himself is safe. For him, the two concepts are incompatible — if he calls for a struggle, he must be at the forefront of that struggle. Again, absolute honesty. To himself, first of all,” said Yevgenia Kara-Murza.

Just before his arrest Kara-Murza in an interview to CNN predicted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would lead to Putin’s downfall. “It’s not just corrupt, it’s not just kleptocratic, it’s not just authoritarian,” he said of the Putin government. “It is a regime of murderers. It is important to say it out loud.”

International Reaction

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement on his twitter account that the U.S. is “troubled” by Kara-Murza’s detention. He called for his immediate release.

In a statement on Friday, The Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan said Kara-Murza has “repeatedly risked his safety to tell the truth about Vladimir Putin’s heinous violations of human
rights” and said the charges against him were for a “sham offense.” He added, “Americans should be infuriated by Putin’s escalating campaign to silence Kara-Murza. … And everyone who values press freedom and human rights should be enraged by this injustice and join in demanding Kara-Murza’s immediate release.”

“We are deeply concerned for our friend Vladimir Kara-Murza’s personal safety, and we call on Russian authorities to release him immediately,” said Michael Breen, President and CEO of Human Rights First. “Putin and his regime have shown themselves to be willing to break any law, domestic or international, to suppress political opposition at home and subjugate neighboring countries like Ukraine. We call on all of democracy’s allies to oppose criminal behavior like this to protect human rights in Russia, Ukraine, and around the world.”

“Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people. He must be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately,” reads a joint statement by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, co-chairman Rep. Steve Cohen and ranking members Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Joe Wilson.

New “Foreign Agents”

On April 22, 2022, the Russian Ministry of Justice also added eight more people to the register of “foreign agents”.

The list includes prominent independent journalists and political observers— the former editor-in-chief of the “Echo of Moscow” radio station Alexey Venediktov, the publicist Alexander Nevzorov, journalist Sergei Parkhomenko, the authors of Radio Liberty Yekaterina Lushnikova, Arthur Asafyev and Vladimir Voronov, sociologist Viktor Vakhshtayn, LGBT activist Yaroslav Sirotkin.

Opposition politicians Leonid Volkov and Vladimir Kara-Murza were added to the “foreign agents” registry, the latter’s case was described above. This became known when the Basmanny Court in Moscow arrested Kara-Murza in the case of “false reports” about the Russian military. According to the Ministry of Justice, Volkov and Kara-Murza were engaged in political activities in the interests of Ukraine.

Alexey Venediktov immediately said that he would file a lawsuit to protect his honor and dignity “against the person who signed the decree” to include him in the register of media outlets that perform the functions of a foreign agent. According to the journalist, there are no reasons for
including him into the list. He said that at the moment he is waiting for the Ministry of Justice to justify and prepare a suit because “this is a criminal offense — insult and slander”.

Journalist Alexander Nevzorov wrote in his Telegram channel that he was completely indifferent to the status assigned to him by the Russian authorities and predicted their defeat in the war against Ukraine.

Sergei Parkhomenko learned about his inclusion in the register during a live broadcast on YouTube and said that he was quite calm about it, because he understood that the process of inclusion in the list of “foreign agents” had turned into a conveyor system.

Until now, there had been 142 designated persons and entities (including outlets, journalists, and activists) on the “foreign agents” list. The last time it was updated on April 15, 2022, nine people were added to the list, including the blogger Yury Dud, political analyst Ekaterina Shulman, and
cartoonist Sergei Elkin.

On April 5, 2022, the authorities for the first time added a new registry of “individuals who perform the functions of a foreign agent.” Journalists Yevgeny Kiselyov and Matvey Ganapolsky, who had worked in Russia in the past and now work in Ukraine, were included on it. Like Kara-Murza and Volkov, they also have Ukraine as a source of foreign funding. Now there are four people on this registry.

Like media “foreign agents,” “individual foreign agents” must mark their public materials and appeals to government agencies with a note on the status, as well as regularly report to the Ministry of Justice on their income and expenditures. The penalties for violating the requirements under the new register are more severe. Whereas the Criminal Code provides for penalties ranging from a fine of 300,000 rubles to two years in prison for media “foreign agents,” “individuals” can be imprisoned for up to five years.

Transatlantic Interparliamentary Statement: On arbitrary arrest of Russia’s leading dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza

Apr 29 2022

“We, the undersigned leaders in legislatures around the world – the duly elected democratic voices of our constituents and countries – unreservedly condemn the arbitrary arrest of Vladimir Kara-Murza and call for his immediate release.”

On Monday, April 11th, Mr. Kara-Murza was detained by Russian Security Services as he was about to enter his home following an international media interview, arrested on the false charges of not obeying the police. He has since been charged under the new law criminalizing opposition to the invasion of Ukraine, and is now facing up to 15 years of imprisonment.

A violation of the Russian constitution and of the country’s international legal obligations, the arbitrary arrest of Mr. Kara-Murza – who is also a UK citizen, a US Permanent Resident, and a Senior Fellow at a Canadian institution – represents the continued criminalization of freedom in Putin’s Russia. United in common cause, we call for an end to Putin’s punitive persecution and prosecutions of Russian civil society leaders, the release of Mr. Kara-Murza and all political prisoners, and the expansion of targeted Magnitsky sanctions against Russia’s architects of repression.

Vladimir Kara-Murza has emerged as one of Russia’s most respected democratic opposition leaders, a noted public intellectual and voice of conscience. He has testified before our Parliaments, and represents the very best of what Russians stand for and the country that Russia can aspire to be. Targeted for his principled leadership, Mr. Kara-Murza has survived two assassination attempts, and nonetheless continues to shine a spotlight on the Russian people’s opposition to Putin and his war of aggression.

The unjust imprisonment of Mr. Kara-Murza is emblematic of the crimes perpetrated by Putin’s regime against both the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, and the international community more broadly. Left unchecked, its internal repression has often morphed into external aggression, with the atrocities in Ukraine being the latest and most pernicious manifestation in a long line of wars, murders, thefts, corruption, disinformation and election interference. We must stand with those heroes on the front lines, like Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is putting his life on the line in defence of our shared values, sacrificing his freedom to help others secure theirs.

While Russia’s leading defender of political prisoners has now regrettably become one himself, we pledge to not relent in our efforts until he is free, bringing the same dogged determination to securing his release as he has brought to building a better Russia. Our shared commitment to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law demand no less.

Contacts:

Honourable Irwin Cotler, PC, OC, OQ, Ad.E Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights +1 514.735.8778 media@rwchr.org

Natalia Arno Free Russia Foundation +1 202.549.2417 natalia.arno@4freerussia.org


Endorsements

Zygimantis Pavilionis, Deputy Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Lithuania; Former Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Lithuania (2020-22); International Secretary of the Homeland Union/Lithuanian Christian Democrats

Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Marco Rubio, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues; member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States

Mario Diaz-Balart, Member of the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations of the United States; Chairman of the US Delegation to the Transatlantic Legislators Dialogue; Member of the U.S. Delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and Vice-Chairman of the Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Relations (PCTR) of the Political Committee

Ali Ehsassi, Chairman of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights; Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development of Canada Anita Vandenbeld, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Development; Member of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of Canada

Garnett Genuis, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development of Canada Heather McPherson, Member of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights; Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development of Canada

Heidi Hautala, Vice-President of the European Parliament Klára Dobrev, Former Vice-President of the European Parliament (2019-2022); Member of the European Parliament Urmas Paet, Vice-Chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament; Former Foreign Minister of Estonia

Andreas Kubilius, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament; Standing rapporteur on Russia; Former Prime Minister of Lithuania

Guy Verhofstadt, Member of the European Parliament; Former Leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (2009-2019); Former Prime Minister of Belgium

Anna Fotyga, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament; Secretary-General of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party; former Foreign Minister of Poland

Radosław Sikorski, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament; former Foreign Minister and Minister of Defence of Poland

Frances Fitzgerald, Member of the European Parliament; Former Deputy Head of Government of Ireland; Former Minister of Justice of Ireland

Rasa Juknevičienė, Member of the Subcommittee on Security and Defence of the European Parliament; former Minister of Defence of Lithuania

Csaba Molnár, Member of the European Parliament; Former cabinet Minister of Hungary

Raphael Glucksmann, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament; Vice-Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights; Chair of the Special Committees on Foreign Interference in All Democratic Processes in the European Union

Bernard Guetta, Vice-Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights; Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Viola von Cramen-Taubadel, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament; member of the Special Committees on Foreign Interference in All Democratic Processes in the European Union

Thijs Reuten, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Mounir Satouri, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Michael Gahler, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Juozas Olekas, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Ioan-Dragos Tudorache, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Petras Austrevicius, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

David Lega, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Miriam Lexmann, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Javier Nart, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Charlie Weimers, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament

Eugen Tomac, Member of the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament

Attila Ara-Kovács, Member of the Subcommittee on Security and Defence of the European Parliament

Sergey Lagodinsky, Vice-Chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs of the European Parliament

Morten Løkkegaard, Member of the Special Committees on Foreign Interference in All Democratic Processes in the European Union

Ausra Maldeikiene, Member of the European Parliament

Ivan Stefanec, Member of the European Parliament

Liudas Mazylis, Member of the European Parliament

Vlad Gheorghe, Member of the European Parliament

Jan-Christoph Oetjen, Member of the European Parliament

Sándor Rónai, Member of the European Parliament

Nicolae Ștefănuțăm, Member of the European Parliament

Nils Ušakovs, Member of the European Parliament

Pavel Fischer, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security of the Czech Republic

André Gattolin, Vice-Chair of the Senate Committee on European Affairs of France

Gabor Grendel, Deputy Speaker of the National Council of the Slovak Republic

Kerstin Lundgren, Deputy Speaker of the Swedish Riksdag and Foreign Affairs Spokesperson of the Centre Party

Margareta Cederfelt, President of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly; Former President of Parliamentarians for Global Action; Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Swedish Riksdag

Michael Roth, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag

Nils Schmid, Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag and Foreign Affairs Spokesperson of the Social Democratic Party

Ulrich Lechte, Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag and Foreign Affairs Spokesperson of the Free Democratic Party

Ines Voika, Deputy Speaker of the Latvian Seimas

Rihards Kols, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Latvian Seimas; Representative of the Latvian seimas to the OECD

Michal Kaminski, Deputy Speaker of the Polish Senate

Bogdan Klich, Chairman of the Foreign and European Affairs Committee of the Senate of Poland

Samuel Cogolati, Deputy Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Belgian Parliament

Charlie Flanagan, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Ireland; former Foreign Minister

Tom Tugendhat, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom

Mark Pritchard, Member of the National Security Strategy Committee of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom; Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party Parliamentary Foreign Affairs & Defence Committee; 

There must be a Ukrainian ‘Nuremberg Trial’ and it should be hosted in Mariupol

Apr 12 2022

By Vlada Smolinska

Over the weeks since the start of Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine, the world has witnessed in horror massive, purposeful, and unremorseful violations of international humanitarian law perpetrated against the people of Ukraine by Russian armed forces. Convicting those responsible for carrying out flagrant crimes against international law in Ukraine, in particular war crimes, is not just a matter of keeping faith with high moral standards and the rule of law by the international community, but is an existential imperative for global governance.

Evidence of new crimes is uncovered every day, and these crimes are ongoing.  As you are reading this text, the world is learning about the horrific events in towns and villages 20 km from Kyiv – in particular, Bucha and Irpin — liberated from Russian occupiers. Ukrainian civilians – men, women, and children – shot dead in the back of their heads, with their hands tied behind their backs, lying on the ground in the streets for weeks. Bodies trampled by Russian tanks. Toddlers raped and tortured to death. Family members forced to watch. Mass graves with at least 280 people executed have been found.  Accounts of Russians shooting unarmed civilian refugees as they tried to evacuate cities and villages occupied by Russia soldiers.

As the world is processing, shell-shocked, the photos of the Russian genocide in tiny Bucha, we must remember that an even greater catastrophe is unfolding in Mariupol –– a city the size of Miami. Russia’s forces have besieged the city for over a month now, leaving residents without water, food, and electric power, under constant shelling and bombing. Residential buildings, hospitals, schools, kindergartens have been intentionally leveled to the ground by air strikes.

Most of the sites hit by the Russians in Ukraine were clearly marked as in-use by civilians. This includes Mariupol maternity hospital and Mariupol theater, clearly marked with the word “дети” — Russian for “children” — in huge letters visible from the sky. As a result, the number of civilians killed could be as high as 25, 000 according to the Mariupol Mayor’s advisor.

Yet, Russia has not stopped there. On April 11, in Mariupol, Russian armed forces used chemical weapons, presumably sarin — a nerve agent prohibited by international law, against both military and civilians. Exposure to Sarin is lethal even at very low concentrations, such that death can occur due to suffocation from respiratory paralysis within one to ten minutes after direct inhalation of a lethal dose, unless antidotes are quickly administered. People who absorb a non-lethal dose, but do not receive immediate medical treatment, may suffer permanent neurological damage. Mariupol residents subjected to prolonged siege do not have access to medical treatment. While the standard recommendations for civilians exposed to chemical weapons attacks are to close all the windows and remain close to a source of running water, residents of Mariupol no longer have either glass windows or running water.

That Russian armed forces were prepared to employ chemical weapons in their military assault against Ukraine was foreshadowed by their typical false-flag information line accusing the Ukrainian side of readiness to use chemical or biological weapons. The United States and United Kingdom highlighted the propaganda approach and its meaning, issuing warnings that the Russians likely intended to employ such devices themselves and assign blame to Ukrainian defenders.

Russia’s deliberate genocide of the Ukrainian population, including Mariupol residents, is readily discerned.  In the wake of the initial international outcry in response to the horrific tragedy of Bucha, Russia deployed mobile crematoria in Mariupol to cover up its crimes.

Carla Del Ponte, the former chief prosecutor of United Nations war crimes tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, asserted there were clear war crimes being committed by Russians in Ukraine and called for an international arrest warrant to be issued for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

President Biden publicly called Putin a war criminal. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken declared that the U.S. government assessed that members of Russia’s forces had committed war crimes in Ukraine.

Now, these powerful words must be followed with effective actions. Putin must be brought before a tribunal to be tried and sentenced for his crimes. Russia as a State must be held responsible for each and every violation of international law, including the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.

Bring Putin and his Regime to Justice

Putin’s regime proclaimed “denazification” to be the main goal of its war — what they call a “special military operation” — against Ukraine. Yet even a superficial examination of the situation and history dispels this ruse.

The official transcript of Day 68 of the Nuremberg Tribunal, established at the end of the Second World War to try and convict Nazi leaders, says: “Before their retreat from Mariupol the German occupational authorities burned down all the 68 schools, 17 kindergartens…and the Palace of the Pioneers.”

Reading this passage, one gets an eerie sense that the quote describes the present. With the single exception of the Soviet-era Palace of Pioneers, the contemporary Russian Nazis have followed in the footsteps of the original German Nazis.

All these are horrendous, fully documented crimes that warrant prosecution under international criminal law:

  • Killing of tens of thousands of civilians, including children and volunteers who were bringing food and water to people in need;
  • Using chemical weapons;
  • Wantonly targeting for destruction Mariupol hospitals, homes, schools and kindergartens; and
  • Shelling of people moving through the so-called “green corridors” (for humanitarian evacuation to safety).

There is a critical issue to keep in mind with respect to bringing Russians to justice for their crimes –– the International Criminal Court (ICC) lacks status to prosecute Russia’s leaders and military personnel because Russia is no longer a signatory to the Rome Statute establishing it.

In theory, the UN Security Council (UNSC) could ask — and thus empower — the ICC to investigate these offenses. However, Russia is a UNSC Permanent Member and would most definitely veto any such motion.

A more viable option thus would be the establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute the crime of aggression in Ukraine — a Ukrainian “Nuremberg Tribunal”.

The Precedent of the Nuremberg Tribunal

On August 8, 1945, after the end of the World War II, the Allied powers — the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union — established the International Military Tribunal (IMT) to consider cases of crimes against peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and conspiracy to commit any of those crimes.

The Allies chose Nuremberg, Germany, as the venue for the trial owing to its role as the epicenter of the Nazi propaganda rallies leading up to the war. Nuremberg was supposed to symbolize the death of Nazi Germany.

While more than three quarters of the city lay in rubble, there was one facility in Nuremberg — the Palace of Justice — that was sufficiently spacious and undamaged to accommodate the trial. Thus, in November 1945, the court convened in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg.

When the trial began, there was no electricity, no water supply, and no sewage in Nuremberg. So the Allies assigned highest priority to early resolution of these critical issues for the resident Germans themselves. Democratization, denazification, and demilitarization followed the reconstruction works. Realizing that their well-being depended on the occupying authorities, the Germans were more accepting of the Tribunal.

The outcome of the Nuremberg Tribunal set an important precedent. New categories of crimes were defined: the crime of genocide, killing of groups, crimes against humanity, the killing of individuals. It established the concept that rule of law stands above any individual state and that criminals among a nation’s top officials can and would be prosecuted, tried, and convicted.

Why is Mariupol the right place for a tribunal

Mariupol holds profound symbolism within the chronicles of the Russo-Ukrainian war. It is a city that will forever preserve in history the horrific crimes of the Russian Federation against Ukrainians and Ukraine. Lives lost forever, young girls — some under the age of 10 — tortured and raped by the Russian army, destroyed hospitals, residential buildings, schools, and kindergartens.

This is not the first time that Mariupol has had to fight back Russian forces. In 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, Mariupol was occupied for a month by Russia’s army and Russia-backed forces. However, the situation in the city back then cannot be compared to what hundreds of thousands of Mariupol residents are facing now.

“Before the barbarity of the killing of children, of innocents and unarmed civilians, there are no strategic reasons that hold up,” — Pope Francis said in his Sunday Angelus address regarding Russia’s army having besieged and attacked the city named in honor of Mary. The only thing to do is “to stop the unacceptable armed aggression before it reduces the cities to cemeteries”, — he added.

Once Russian military aggression has been defeated, an international coalition must be prepared to help Ukraine rebuild Mariupol.  Greece and Italy has already made such proposals.  And, as the rebuilding takes place, a war crimes tribunal must be held in the city.

Putin himself, those who issued criminal orders, and those who carried out such orders — those who personally used force, inflicted torture, or otherwise criminally abused civilians, as well as conducted other crimes in violation of international law, humanity, and common decency in Ukraine –– must bear full responsibility in accordance with international law.

The best way to hold those responsible is via a special war crimes tribunal, following the example of Nuremberg.

The best place to administer such justice is Mariupol.