Ensuring a Future for Democratic Civil Society in Russia – Discussion’s Summary

Jun 15 2016

A number of eminent Russian and American experts discussed the ways to ensure a future for democratic civil society in Russia at a long-day conference organized by Free Russia Foundation, Movements.org and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation in on June, 10th, in Washington, DC.

The first part of the conference which consisted of the two panels was devoted to general issues as opportunities for business and state of civil society in Putin’s Russia.

The best way to briefly describe Putin’s Russia would have been to say that one of the panelist – Ilya Ponomarev, turned from an acting member of the Russian Duma into a former one right in front of the audience. Two minutes after the conference had started, Ponomarev was unseated his parliamentary mandate by the Duma in Moscow for not fulfilling his duties. The only deputy who voted against the annexation of Crimea, last year Ponomarev was stripped of his parliamentary immunity, charged and arrested in absentia for the alleged embezzlement of $750,000 from the state-funded Skolkovo tech and science foundation. By that time he was in California and has never come back to Russia ever since, but his colleague deputy Dmitry Gudkov legally voted for Ponomarev during all the time of his absence.

It became unclear why the Duma would unseat Ponomarev just three months before new elections but this – the upcoming elections on September, 18th, became the main topic of the first panel.

Deputy chairman of Parnas political party Ilya Yashin, who traveled to DC to take part at the conference, stated that it is impossible to change the existing political system by playing by its rules. Answering the logical question why would Parnas – the out-of-system opposition party, participate in the elections, Yashin said elections should be used by the opposition to promote their ideas publicly and to make the regime feel uncomfortable. He provided an example when his own participation in the regional election in Kostroma let him appear on state TV; moreover, Yashin engaged one of the leaders of Russian opposition Alexey Navalny, who has been under political suppression for several years, to talk on national TV as his confidant. That was the first time Navalny had had an opportunity to appear on state TV for ten years, Yashin said. He added though that this case made the Duma change the law that would ban the confidents to take part in debates (Navalny himself cannot run for office because of previous criminal convictions he has).

Talking about the ways democracy can arise in Russia, Yashin said it cannot be brought into Russia from somewhere outside; it has to occur naturally from within the country. And that is what the opposition’s goal is: to form the demand for democracy by promoting its ideas among Russian people. Yashin sounded pretty desperate when asked if any changes are possible while Vladimir Putin is in power; and he specifically emphasized the phony role of former Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin’s come back to a governmental position (Kudrin was recently appointed deputy chief of the Presidential Economic Council). Kudrin will not be able to perform any economic reforms without political reform being implemented in Russia, admitted Yashin.

2016-06-10 11.07.18

Ilya Ponomarev talked more about technology as a way of changing Russian society. Ponomarev said the current regime lacks big ideas for the nation and assumed the dream of Russia will be born within the technologies.  And what could reunite the country is new enterprises, said Ponomarev.

Melissa Hooper, Director of International Law Scholarship Project/Pillar Project at Human Rights First, talking about technology sector, said that the US society has the privilege because almost all tech companies that provide communication are located in the States. And the goal of American civil society is to push them on promoting safety and truthful discussion online and correction of false information. When I made an example with China where both Google and Facebook agreed to cooperate with censoring governmental regulations to stay on the market, Hooper admitted that businesses operate on the basis of the revenue but what can be done is to make noise about it to put pressure on these companies. I asked her if HRF has ever tried to connect Facebook on an important issue that the social network doesn’t have a Russia department which would understand the context of posts on Facebook: these loops are being used by Russian state-paid Internet trolls who just bombard Facebook administration if they want a certain opposition post to be removed and without getting into context, just out of the facts of a big number of claims, Facebook often delete such posts. Hooper said they have, but Facebook never responded to that. She added though that the company is interested in the issue of Russia shutting down the Internet because it would affect their revenues but not in the issues of safety.

2016-06-10 11.46.50

The second part of the first panel was devoted to the state of journalism and freedom of speech in Russia. Senior editor of the Daily Beast Michael Weiss talked about how Russia uses propaganda to – the real unique selling point of Putin disinformation and propaganda is that notion that there is no such thing as empirical truth, nor there is such thing as objective fact. Everything is just subjective interpretation. It’s important to teach Western journalists and editors the nature and the style of Kremlin’s disinformation.

Maria Snegovaya, a Ph.D. student at Columbia University and columnist at Vedomosti newspaper, agreed with Weiss pointing out that rather implement the direct censorship strategies in its abroad propaganda Kremlin insinuate and create doubts in people’s heads. Snegovaya made an example with the MH17 flight shutting down where Russian propaganda has been consistently throwing different versions of what happened to expect the most obvious, of course, that the plane was shut down by Russia-backed separatists with a Russian Buk.

Senior Fellow at Hudson and author of a number of books on Russia and Putin, David Satter insisted that democracy in Russia is impossible without understanding the roots of Putin’s regime which start in Boris Eltsin’s times. Satter expressed his hopes for Russian diasporas abroad to help the changes come to Russia.

Summarizing everything that was said and discussed on the panel, I would like to underline the importance of the West to prepare for changes in Russia. Putin’s regime will come to an end, one way or another, and to not let Putin’s Russia 2.0 happen again, the world democratic society should help Russians to deal with new reality, when it comes, with a profound understanding of what democratic values are; not as it happened in the 90s. Enlightenment and education, whether it’s journalistic or business training or experience exchange between civil society groups, is the key solution.

by Karina Orlova,
Journalist, contributor of the Echo of Moscow

The first part of the conference which consisted of the two panels was devoted to general issues as opportunities for business and state of civil society in Putin’s Russia.

The best way to briefly describe Putin’s Russia would have been to say that one of the panelist – Ilya Ponomarev, turned from an acting member of the Russian Duma into a former one right in front of the audience. Two minutes after the conference had started, Ponomarev was unseated his parliamentary mandate by the Duma in Moscow for not fulfilling his duties. The only deputy who voted against the annexation of Crimea, last year Ponomarev was stripped of his parliamentary immunity, charged and arrested in absentia for the alleged embezzlement of $750,000 from the state-funded Skolkovo tech and science foundation. By that time he was in California and has never come back to Russia ever since, but his colleague deputy Dmitry Gudkov legally voted for Ponomarev during all the time of his absence.

It became unclear why the Duma would unseat Ponomarev just three months before new elections but this – the upcoming elections on September, 18th, became the main topic of the first panel.

Deputy chairman of Parnas political party Ilya Yashin, who traveled to DC to take part at the conference, stated that it is impossible to change the existing political system by playing by its rules. Answering the logical question why would Parnas – the out-of-system opposition party, participate in the elections, Yashin said elections should be used by the opposition to promote their ideas publicly and to make the regime feel uncomfortable. He provided an example when his own participation in the regional election in Kostroma let him appear on state TV; moreover, Yashin engaged one of the leaders of Russian opposition Alexey Navalny, who has been under political suppression for several years, to talk on national TV as his confidant. That was the first time Navalny had had an opportunity to appear on state TV for ten years, Yashin said. He added though that this case made the Duma change the law that would ban the confidents to take part in debates (Navalny himself cannot run for office because of previous criminal convictions he has).

Talking about the ways democracy can arise in Russia, Yashin said it cannot be brought into Russia from somewhere outside; it has to occur naturally from within the country. And that is what the opposition’s goal is: to form the demand for democracy by promoting its ideas among Russian people. Yashin sounded pretty desperate when asked if any changes are possible while Vladimir Putin is in power; and he specifically emphasized the phony role of former Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin’s come back to a governmental position (Kudrin was recently appointed deputy chief of the Presidential Economic Council). Kudrin will not be able to perform any economic reforms without political reform being implemented in Russia, admitted Yashin.

2016-06-10 11.07.18

Ilya Ponomarev talked more about technology as a way of changing Russian society. Ponomarev said the current regime lacks big ideas for the nation and assumed the dream of Russia will be born within the technologies.  And what could reunite the country is new enterprises, said Ponomarev.

Melissa Hooper, Director of International Law Scholarship Project/Pillar Project at Human Rights First, talking about technology sector, said that the US society has the privilege because almost all tech companies that provide communication are located in the States. And the goal of American civil society is to push them on promoting safety and truthful discussion online and correction of false information. When I made an example with China where both Google and Facebook agreed to cooperate with censoring governmental regulations to stay on the market, Hooper admitted that businesses operate on the basis of the revenue but what can be done is to make noise about it to put pressure on these companies. I asked her if HRF has ever tried to connect Facebook on an important issue that the social network doesn’t have a Russia department which would understand the context of posts on Facebook: these loops are being used by Russian state-paid Internet trolls who just bombard Facebook administration if they want a certain opposition post to be removed and without getting into context, just out of the facts of a big number of claims, Facebook often delete such posts. Hooper said they have, but Facebook never responded to that. She added though that the company is interested in the issue of Russia shutting down the Internet because it would affect their revenues but not in the issues of safety.

2016-06-10 11.46.50

The second part of the first panel was devoted to the state of journalism and freedom of speech in Russia. Senior editor of the Daily Beast Michael Weiss talked about how Russia uses propaganda to – the real unique selling point of Putin disinformation and propaganda is that notion that there is no such thing as empirical truth, nor there is such thing as objective fact. Everything is just subjective interpretation. It’s important to teach Western journalists and editors the nature and the style of Kremlin’s disinformation.

Maria Snegovaya, a Ph.D. student at Columbia University and columnist at Vedomosti newspaper, agreed with Weiss pointing out that rather implement the direct censorship strategies in its abroad propaganda Kremlin insinuate and create doubts in people’s heads. Snegovaya made an example with the MH17 flight shutting down where Russian propaganda has been consistently throwing different versions of what happened to expect the most obvious, of course, that the plane was shut down by Russia-backed separatists with a Russian Buk.

Senior Fellow at Hudson and author of a number of books on Russia and Putin, David Satter insisted that democracy in Russia is impossible without understanding the roots of Putin’s regime which start in Boris Eltsin’s times. Satter expressed his hopes for Russian diasporas abroad to help the changes come to Russia.

Summarizing everything that was said and discussed on the panel, I would like to underline the importance of the West to prepare for changes in Russia. Putin’s regime will come to an end, one way or another, and to not let Putin’s Russia 2.0 happen again, the world democratic society should help Russians to deal with new reality, when it comes, with a profound understanding of what democratic values are; not as it happened in the 90s. Enlightenment and education, whether it’s journalistic or business training or experience exchange between civil society groups, is the key solution.

by Karina Orlova,
Journalist, contributor of the Echo of Moscow

Free Russia Foundation’s Press Release on Submission of Article 15 Communication to the International Criminal Court

Oct 06 2020

On 21 September 2020, the Free Russia Foundation submitted a Communication to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s Office (in The Hague, Netherlands) seeking accountability for Crimean and Russian authorities concerning international crimes perpetrated during Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea. The Communication was prepared in cooperation with Global Rights Compliance and Center for Civil Liberties and is based on a focused inquiry conducted over the past year. In our inquiry, we documented crimes as part of a systematic, planned attack by the Russian state against civilians and groups in Crimea in order to discourage them from opposing the illegal occupation of Crimea and to force their departure from the peninsula. Crimes against civilians included unlawful arrests, beatings, torture, enforced disappearances, and other inhumane acts causing severe mental and/or physical pain. In particular, the crimes targeted the Crimean Tatars, a native ethnic group who had only recently returned to their homeland, having previously been forcefully and brutally displaced by the Soviet Union in 1944.

One of the principal coercive acts was the illegal detention and concomitant violence before, during, and after the imprisonment of political prisoners. Most of those detained were arrested by Russian and Crimean authorities on terrorism charges, but it was their legal, pro-Ukrainian advocacy that led to their imprisonment. In addition, trials of those arbitrarily detained were conducted in wholesale disregard of their fair trial rights. For example, some of those illegally imprisoned were denied a speedy trial, access to independent lawyers, and the opportunity to defend themselves against their arrest in a courtroom.

In order to force those illegally detained to confess to crimes they did not commit, Russian and Crimean authorities also perpetrated acts of torture and cruel or degrading treatment, the levying of additional charges against them, even more inhumane prison conditions, denial of communications with their families and threats made against them, enforced disappearances, and even, in at least one case, a mock execution.

Other inhumane acts include “punitive psychiatry” and the denial of adequate prison conditions, including the following: (i) feeding people inedible food or, at times, no food at all; (ii) facing severe overcrowding in prisons; (iii) denial of regular water supply; (iv) threats of assault against them by prison cellmates; and (v) adding pork to food – prohibited for observant Muslims. Further, medical attention was systematically inadequate or denied for many individuals.

Concerning acts of torture, it was perpetrated by different Russian authorities, including the FSB. Allegations include the use of electric shocks in an effort to get an accused to confess. One was beaten in the head, kidneys, arms and legs with an iron pipe. With another, fingers were broken. Still another endured spinal bruises and having a plastic bag placed over his head to the point of unconsciousness. Further, threats of sexual violence against a detained man were made. Murder as well. Hands were broken, teeth were knocked out in still another.

Trials were largely held behind closed doors for illegitimate reasons, and many of the witnesses were secret not only to the public but also to the Accused. Further, credible allegations exist that, at times, there were FSB or other agents in the room, silently instructing witnesses what to say and how the judges should rule. This adds credence to words, according to the Kyiv Post, heard by Arsen Dzhepparov from a senior FSB lieutenant who stated “I will prove by all possible – and impossible – means that [an Accused is] guilty – even if he isn’t guilty”.

Concerning the crime of persecution, nearly all of these deprivations of fundamental rights were carried out with discriminatory intent. Specifically, these groups were targeted due to their political view – namely, by peacefully opposing the illegal occupation of their country. Some were targeted on ethnic grounds or religious grounds on the basis of their Crimean Tatar background.

War crimes, another group of crimes punished at the ICC, were also perpetrated in addition to or in the alternative to the crimes against humanity. This includes the crime of torture, outrages against personal dignity, unlawful confinement, wilfully depriving protected persons of the rights of a fair and regular trial, and the transfer of the occupying power of parts of its population into the territory it occupies or the deportation of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory.

All these crimes had the ultimate objective of the criminal enterprise – the removal of pro-Ukrainian elements out of Crimea and the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation without opposition, including the installation of pro-Russian elements, which include the emigration of more than 70,000 Russians, the illegal imposition of Russian law in the occupied territory, forcing Russian nationality on many Crimeans, and the appropriation of public property.

Ultimately, we hope that all the information gathered by the ICC in the context of its preliminary investigation will lead the ICC to investigate mid- to high-level Russian and Crimean officials on this basis. The international community expects responsible global leadership that follows the rule of law and expects it – no matter the situation – to be respected, especially from a state that is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. When this fails to happen, the international community must demand accountability. We hope that an investigation can be opened and responsible officials of the Russian Federation will be investigated. After an investigation that conforms to international best practices, responsible persons should be charged with the systematic perpetration of international crimes.

Novichok Use Implicates Putin’s Government in Navalny’s Poisoning

Sep 02 2020

Today, the German government has announced that Russian pro-democracy leader Alexey Navalny was poisoned by Novichok. Novichok is a deadly nerve agent developed by the Soviet government chemical weapons program and used on several occasions by the Russian government to kill its critics in the recent years.

To restate the obvious, Novichok is a poison that can only be accessed with the authority of the Kremlin. Therefore, today’s announcement by German officials  directly implicates the Kremlin and Putin in the high-profile assassination attempt on Navalny.

The choice of Novichok was not just a means  to silence Mr. Navalny, but a loud, brazen and menacing message sent by Putin to the world: dare to criticize me, and you may lose your life.

The announcement by the German government of its intent to formally notify the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (‘OPCW’) of the use of Novichok against Navalny is a meek bureaucratic half-measure that fails to acknowledge the extraordinary threat to human life posed by Putin’s regime everywhere. Taken together with Angela Merkel’s promise earlier this week to help Putin finish his Nord Stream 2 pipeline despite an international outcry amounts to condoning the poisoning and normalizing it into a new modus operandi where Putin’s murders go unpunished. Free Russia Foundation urges the leaders of the EU, its Member States and the U.S. Government to take an urgent and drastic action to punish the perpetrators of this heinous crime not only to serve justice, but to establish a powerful deterrent against new attacks by Putin’s regime globally.

Free Russia Foundation Statement on Kremlin’s Interference in Elections in Georgia

Aug 26 2020

We are deeply concerned with information recently distributed by the well-respected authoritative source Center “Dossier.” According to “Dossier,” the Kremlin is using Russian political expert Sergey Mikheev and consulting company “Politsecrets” to manipulate Georgian society, distribute disinformation and anti-democratic narratives, undermine Georgia’s Western aspirations, and interfere in free and fair elections in Georgia scheduled for October 2020.

More

Free Russia Foundation Calls for Investigation into Alexey Navalny’s Poisoning

Aug 20 2020

Free Russia Foundation is gravely concerned about the life and safety of Alexey Navalny. More

Civic Solidarity Platform Appeal with Regard to the Recent Events in Belarus

Aug 12 2020

INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY SHOULD REACT IMMEDIATELY AND STRONGLY TO RIGGED PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS AND MASSIVE VIOLENCE OF SECURITY FORCES AGAINST PEACEFUL PROTESTORS IN BELARUS More