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 demands Navalny’s immediate release

Jan 17 2021

On January 17, 2021, Putin’s agents arrested Alexey Navalny as he returned to Russia from Germany where he was treated for a near-deadly poisoning perpetrated by state-directed assassins.

Navalny’s illegal arrest constitutes kidnapping. He is kept incommunicado from his lawyer and family at an unknown location and his life is in danger.

Free Russia Foundation demands his immediate release and an international investigation of crimes committed against him by Putin’s government.

The European Court of Human Rights Recognizes Complaints on Violations in “Ukraine v. Russia” as Admissible

Jan 14 2021

On January 14, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights published its decision on the case “Ukraine v. Russia”. The Grand Chamber of the Court has recognized complaints No. 20958/14 and No. 38334/18 as partially admissible for consideration on the merits. The decision will be followed by a judgment at a later date.

The case concerns the consideration of a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights related to Russia’s systematic administrative practices in Crimea. 

The admissibility of the case is based on the fact that, since 2014, the Russian Federation has exercised effective control over the territory of Crimea, and, accordingly, is fully responsible for compliance with the norms of the European Convention on Human Rights in Crimea. The Court now needs to determine the specific circumstances of the case and establish the facts regarding violations of Articles of the Convention during two periods: from February 27, 2014 to March 18, 2014 (the period of the Russian invasion); and from March 18, 2014 onward (the period during which the Russian Federation has exercised effective control over Crimea).

The Court has established that prima facie it has sufficient evidence of systematic administrative practice concerning the following circumstances:

  • forced rendition and the lack of an effective investigation into such a practice under Article 2; 
  • cruel treatment and unlawful detention under Articles 3 and 5; 
  • extending application of Russian law into Crimea with the result that, as of  February 27, 2014, the courts in Crimea could not be considered to have been “established by law” as defined by Article 6; 
  • automatic imposition of Russian citizenship and unreasonable searches of private dwellings under Article 8; 
  • harassment and intimidation of religious leaders not conforming to the Russian Orthodox faith, arbitrary raids of places of worship and confiscation of religious property under Article 9;
  • suppression of non-Russian media under Article 10; 
  • prohibition of public gatherings and manifestations of support, as well as intimidation and arbitrary detention of organizers of demonstrations under Article 11; 
  • expropriation without compensation of property from civilians and private enterprises under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1;
  • suppression of the Ukrainian language in schools and harassment of Ukrainian-speaking children under Article 2 of Protocol No. 1; 6 
  • restricting freedom of movement between Crimea and mainland Ukraine, resulting from the de facto transformation (by Russia) of the administrative delimitation into a border (between Russia and Ukraine) under Article 2 of Protocol No. 4; and, 
  • discriminating against Crimean Tatars under Article 14, taken in conjunction with Articles 8, 9, 10 and 11 of the Convention and with Article 2 of Protocol No. 4 to the Convention.

Cases between states are the rarest category considered by the ECHR. Almost all cases considered in Strasbourg concern individuals or organizations and involve illegal actions or inaction of the states’ parties to the Convention. However, Art. 33 of this Convention provides that “any High Contracting Party may refer to the Court the question of any alleged violation of the provisions of the Convention and its Protocols by another High Contracting Party.” In the entire history of the ECHR since 1953, there have been only 27 such cases. Two of them are joint cases against Russia, both of which concern the Russian Federation’s aggression on the territory of its neighboring states, Georgia and Ukraine.

New Year’s Blessings to All

Dec 30 2020

While 2020 gave us unprecedented challenges, it created transformative changes in the way we work and communicate. The hours of Zoom calls seemingly brought us all closer together as we got a glimpse into each other’s makeshift home offices along with interruption by kids and the family pets. Remote work also made us appreciate human interactions, in-person events and trips much more!

As 2020 comes to an end, we want to especially thank our supporters who continued to believe in our mission and the value of our hard work, and we hope the coming year brings all of us progress and growth for democracy throughout the world. We’d also like to thank our partners and staff in the U.S. and abroad, and we know how hard everyone has worked under difficult world changes to achieve so many of our objectives this year.

We send our best wishes to all who have stayed in the fight for democratic reforms and for the values of basic human rights. We look forward to a new year with the hope of many positive changes to come.

– Natalia Arno and the Free Russia Foundation team.

International Criminal Court Asks for Full Probe Into Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Dec 14 2020

On December 11, 2020, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Fatou Bensouda, issued a statement on the preliminary examination of the situation in Ukraine by the ICC Office of the Prosecutor.

According to the findings of the examination, the situation in Ukraine meets the statutory criteria to launch an investigation. The preliminary examination of the situation in Ukraine was opened on 24 April 2014.

Specifically, and without prejudice to any other crimes which may be identified during the course of an investigation, Office of the Prosecutor has concluded that there is a reasonable basis at this time to believe that a broad range of conduct constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity within the jurisdiction of the Court have been committed in the context of the situation in Ukraine.

These findings will be spelled out in more detail in the annual Report on Preliminary Examination Activities issued by the Office and include three broad clusters of victimization:

1.     crimes committed in the context of the conduct of hostilities;

2.     crimes committed during detentions;

3.     crimes committed in Crimea.

These crimes, committed by the different parties to the conflict, were sufficiently grave to warrant investigation by Office of the Prosecutor, both in quantitative and qualitative terms.

Having examined the information available, the Prosecutor concluded that the competent authorities in Ukraine and/or in the Russian Federation are either inactive in relation to the alleged perpetrators, or do not have access to them.

The next step will be to request authorization from the Judges of the Pre-Trial Chamber of the Court to open investigations.

The Prosecutor urges the international community, including the governments of Ukraine and Russia, to cooperate. This will determine how justice will be served both on domestic and the international level.

We remind you that on September 21, 2020, Free Russia Foundation sent a special Communication to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (the Hague, the Netherlands) asking to bring Crimean and Russian authorities to justice for international crimes committed during the Russian occupation of Crimea.

Comment by Scott Martin (Global Rights Compliance LLP):

As Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda reaches the end of her tenure as Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, she announced yesterday that a reasonable basis existed to believe that a broad range of conduct constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed in relation to the situation in Ukraine. One of the most consequential preliminary examinations in the court’s short history, the Prosecutor will now request authorization from the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber to open a full investigation into the situation.

Anticipating that the Prosecutor’s request will be granted, the ICC Prosecutor’s office will be investigating the second group of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Russian Federation (the situation in Georgia being the other). This would make Russia the only country in the world facing two separate investigations at the ICC for crimes under its jurisdiction.

Call for Submissions – The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly vol. 3

Oct 26 2020

The Free Russia Foundation invites submissions to The Kremlins Influence Quarterly, a journal that explores and analyzes manifestations of the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe.

We understand malign influence in the European context as a specific type of influence that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. We follow the Treaty on European Union in understanding European values that are the following: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Democratic institutions are guardians of European values, and among them we highlight representative political parties; free and fair elections; an impartial justice system; free, independent and pluralistic media; and civil society.

Your contribution to The Kremlins Influence Quarterly would focus on one European country from the EU, Eastern Partnership or Western Balkans, and on one particular area where you want to explore Russian malign influence: politics, diplomacy, military domain, business, media, civil society, academia, religion, crime, or law.

Each chapter in The Kremlins Influence Quarterly should be around 5 thousand words including footnotes. The Free Russia Foundation offers an honorarium for contributions accepted for publication in the journal.

If you are interested in submitting a chapter, please send us a brief description of your chapter and its title (250 words) to the following e-mail address: info@4freerussia.org. Please put The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly as a subject line of your message.