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Sunday 22 November 2015

When corruption isn't the real problem in Eastern Europe

The ouster of Romania's Prime Minister following a disaster last month in a nightclub has universally been put down to a revulsion against corruption. In this article, reblogged with permission from LeftEast, an alternative explanation for what happened is put forward: that the real problem is austerity.

What regulation existed had been relaxed and there weren't enough people to enforce it. It was a disaster waiting to happen. And the health system was shown massively wanting for those who survived.


By Florin Poenaru

On October 31st during a rock concert in the underground club Colective in Bucharest a fire broke out, killing 27 and injuring another 200. Almost a fortnight after the total number of casualties reached 54, with many more still in critical condition in hospital.

This was the biggest tragedy in the recent history of Bucharest and its social effects will still be felt in the foreseeable future. In the short run, this dramatic accident sparked a series of processes that are still underway and whose significance is still uncertain. In this text, I will try to highlight some of the social forces and processes that this tragedy simultaneously brought to light and managed subsequently to obscure, especially by the way it was integrated into a certain symbolic and discursive universe.

While the real dimensions of the tragedy were still not fully known, the Romanian President went public and offered what became the main framework for explaining the tragedy: corruption kills. Since the site where the concert was held lacked any proper amenities or authorizations for such events while the authorities looked the other way, the corruption of the local administration and of the political class in general were conveniently blamed for the deaths. Such an immediate explanation for the tragedy resonated with what is already the main popular framework in Romania: things go wrong because of corruption, especially the corruption of the political class as a whole. This tragedy was just the ultimate example.
The moment Colective club caught fire

After a day of mourning and silent marches across the country in the memory of the victims, the people took to the streets on Monday November 2 in huge numbers and demanded the resignation of the Prime Minister, Victor Ponta. Surely, there was no direct connection between him and the tragedy, but Ponta has been framed for long as the embodiment of all that is wrong with the political class, especially its corruption. Accused of plagiarism, Ponta was also recently indicted and is awaiting trail for corruption and abuse of power. In fact, his days were numbered ever since he lost the Presidential elections almost a year ago. Then he was defeated precisely by the anti-corruption rhetoric and by a candidate who seemed to come from outside, or at least from the margins of the current political establishment. This tragedy became then the perfect moment to finally get rid of the prime minister, a fact calculated by the President who offered corruption as the immediate explanation for the tragedy.

Therefore, what seemed to be a genuine sudden outburst of anger following the tragedy was right from the beginning directed towards very concrete political goals at play in the prolonged struggle that has been taking place in Romania in the past 12 months. Prior to this tragedy, the vice Prime Minister Gabriel Oprea was already under heavy street pressure to offer his resignation after a policeman in his escort died in an accident provoked by the breaking of a legal. Oprea and his parliamentary fraction were the only reasons Prime Minister Ponta was still in power. The nightmare of Colective swapped both of them aside and paved a way for appointing a new prime minister by the President.

While this framing of the tragedy as an outcome of corruption was indeed very powerful and continued to inform most of the subsequent demands of the protests in the following days, the exact details emerging after the accident opened up alternative interpretations and a new set of different questions. Such details could not simply be subsumed under the anti-corruption narrative.

For example, it turned out that the there were not enough local fire safety inspectors following the cuts in the public administration during the austerity measures imposed after the financial crisis. Moreover, the legal provisions were very much relaxed in the past years in favor of business owners. The official policy of the local administration to transform the center of Bucharest in a place of consumption and fun enabled entrepreneurs to open up places with little official oversight and minimal investment in infrastructure. Deregulation, not corruption emerged as the main culprit.

Maria Ion
Furthermore, details about the people killed in the accident complicated the picture even more. One of the victims was the cleaning lady of the club. Maria Ion was the homeless single mother of five who had been waiting for years in vain to get social housing from the Mayor house. Her family got it after her death during a TV show in which what was supposed to be a social right became an act of charity. The club employed her illegally, without proper documents, regular payment or social insurance. So were the bartender and the bodyguard working there, both of them in mid-20s and now dead.

The number of the injured soon put an immense strain on the city’s hospitals. They had difficulties coping with the influx of badly injured people and doctors and nurses had to be brought from homes and work long shifts in order to deal with the situation. It became obviously clear that hospitals in Bucharest are understaffed and quite unprepared to deal with catastrophes of such scales. The special clinic for cases of severe burning was not functional at the time of the tragedy. This of course should not come as a surprise given the number of doctors who left the country and the ridiculous salaries paid to those who stayed. The system has been under-financed for 25 years and the main idea of reform is just privatization. As many people have observed, it is better not even to think what would have happened if such a tragedy had occurred in a small provincial city in the country.

In this context, relatives of patients asked for them to be treated abroad. This might have been an emotional reaction in some cases, and an impossible demand given the state of the patients, but it nonetheless reflected the popular belief that the local medical system cannot be trusted. In the past, the president, the prime minister and many other notable officials chose to seek medical treatment abroad in a sign of no confidence in the local system.

It also emerged that many of the injured ones, a vast majority of them young students and professionals, do not even have basic medical insurance, reflecting a wider trend among the unemployed and underemployed Romanian youth living in conditions of basic precarity and vulnerability that usually remains hidden.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, and following well-known knee-jerk reactions in such cases, a series of controls and official declarations painted an even grim picture. It turned out for example that over 90% of schools in Romania do not meet fire regulations. Even by the current legislation, lax at it is, they should be closed. Also, about 200 buildings in Bucharest, including popular cinemas, clubs, restaurants and shops, are in such an advanced state of dilapidation that they should be immediately closed. They are still functional. In addition, tens of blocks of flats in Bucharest and dozens of other buildings are in danger of collapsing in case of an earthquake. The exact number is not even known.

While it is politically productive and intellectually convenient to blame the death of people in Colective on corruption, the sobering truth is that they are victims of the current state of deep underdevelopment of the Romanian society. Corruption cannot be dismissed tout court, but it is not a cause. It is also an effect of the same mechanisms that contributed to the current situation. Deregulation, the neoliberal policies of reducing the state to the bare minimum and of privatizing public goods, the flexibilization of the labor code and the dismantling of any collective bargaining rights, the assault against social services and the demonization of the “welfare profiteers”, market fundamentalism and the fetishism of individualism, profit and success – in short the consensus of the transition yeas made inevitable the tragedy in Colective.

In such cases, emotions run high and comparisons fly like shrapnel. But the sheer scale of the tragedy in Colective should not blind us to the fact that this was not an isolated case, even though the collective number of victims is staggering. Just a few days after the tragedy in Bucharest a bread factory in Brasov caught fire. A worker was killed and others were badly injured. It turned out that many workers were trapped inside because they could not open the doors with their magnetic cards once the electricity went out. For the majority of the people, working and living conditions in Romania render them not only vulnerable and precarious but also almost entirely disposable in the process of accumulation and profit.

In this context, there is a deep ironic paradox in the decision of the protesters to ask for the resignation of the prime minister. As a politician, Ponta was unwilling and unable to break with the neoliberal consensus and his main policies (the fiscal code, etc.) were geared towards the benefit of business owners and global capital. Such a conduct is completely unsurprising from a social democrat nowadays everywhere in Europe. But Ponta was able to break with the austerity measures of the former conservative government and to offer some modicum reprieve to labor and state employees. He was also bent towards a more liberal Keynesian measures including more state regulation.

By pushing for his resignation the protesters decrying the events in Colective just paved the way for the proponents of neoliberalism and austerity — the main culprits of the tragedy — to come back to power in the next elections.

* This article originally appeared in Croatian on the Bilten website.

Friday 20 November 2015

The case of Maxim Eristavi

Maxim Eristavi is a Ukranian journalist I've been following for about two years. When the EuroMaidan (what is now known as the 'Revolution of Dignity') broke out in Kyiv he was a strong English speaking presence reporting what was happening.

The first time I saw him was in a series of interviews around Ukraine he did with a German hipster where his ability to ask the right questions came shining through (see their report from March 2014 'What happened on the Maidan in Kiev?' after the jump). His writing last year for publications like New Republic pulled no punches, such as 'The New Ukrainian Government Is Poised to Abandon the LGBT Activists Who Were on the Front Lines'.

Now he is regularly interviewing Very Important People on the Hromadske channel he helped found, whose Sunday Show in English, which he co-hosts, has become a go-to source for Ukraine watchers.

He was recently made a Poynter fellow and spoke at the Yale Law School saying:
My mission today will be to highlight the 5 most popular myths about Ukraine and the Ukrainian-Russian war, to debunk them and by doing so to show how Ukraine is not, as it may appear, a far away localized conflict but instead a good case study for many global developments in international law, six main theories of international relations, social deconstructive studies, global fight for civil rights equality and development theories.
Eristavi on the Maidan
Eristavi is also openly gay, a rare thing in Ukraine, and features in a series by the artist Carlos Motta called "Patriots, Citizens, Lovers..." which was at the gallery owned by the oligarch Victor Pinchuk (who recently brought Elton John to Kyiv to tell Ukraine's elite to support LGBT rights). Motta developed the show in conversation with Ukrainian journalist Maxim Ivanukha and it is "composed of ten urgent interviews with Ukrainian LGBTI and queer activists who discuss the critical and dire situation of lesbian, gay, trans and intersex lives in Ukraine in times of war."

Here's what Eristavi had to say (you can watch him after the jump along with a Hromadske report about the show):
My name is Maxim Eristavi. I am an independent journalist and the co-founder of Hromadske International. I work on media coverage of Ukraine: Mostly on LGBT issues and media rights. I am also one of the few openly gay journalists in Ukraine. As a journalist I have always thought that if you know a topic really well or if your background helps you to cover a specific topic well, then you must do it. I decided that I can cover LGBT news better than non-LGBT journalists or those who do not quite understand the daily realities of LGBT people’s lives in Ukraine.

After I came back to Ukraine at the end of 2013, after a long absence, and the revolution had begun, I understood that this was an opportunity for the implementation of civil rights in Ukraine. The Maidan revolution was and is a unique opportunity for the majority of people in Ukraine to realize the importance of equality. Equality as a wide concept that concerns everyone and that has to do with the civil rights that all people should have since they are born. The revolution presented a unique opportunity to define this and to help the progress of attaining equality.

I used to live in Russia, which is often compared to Ukraine in terms of the scope of its homophobia. But when I returned to Ukraine I noticed how much society had changed. I started thinking that in Ukraine, in contrast to Russia, equality and the empowerment of the civil rights of the LGBT community were a potential victory. Achieving these goals here would be much easier than in other countries of the region and if we were to achieve them we could make progress for the whole region, not only for Ukraine.

From the gallery show
Recent polls show that more than 70% of Ukrainians think gay people are sick. This discussion is still stuck in the past. One can surely understand people who say that in times of conflict the time is not right to discuss important yet controversial issues, such as trying to change the course of history or stereotypes about minorities. Not only about the LGBT community but also about gender rights, religious expression or the concerns of other minority groups. But when they tell me: “Why don’t you wait 20-30 years until the big problems are solved and then we can get back to your problems?” I always answer that the war in Ukraine is not only military and economic, but also civil and cultural. Building a society that is dramatically different from Russia and from the post-Soviet values that we are still trying to get rid of would be a very important victory in this war. A victory for everyone, not only for the minorities, but also for the whole country. This won’t be achieved by solving only military and economic problems. Ultimately, strong and protected minorities are not a threat to a healthy and successful country.

But one year after the revolution and in the midst of the war the situation in the country has worsened. The problem is not only a change in the social attitude towards LGBT issues because you can often see a completely different trend. People want to know more, they understand the necessity to protect minorities... Yet from another perspective, I see the current situation as an attempt to highjack the conversation about LGBT issues, to instil fear in people and to manipulate them through this fear.

I wouldn’t only blame the nationalists or other marginal groups for this. Our own community is also to blame. In a country of 45 million people there are practically no LGBT people who are out. There are only a handful of them and they are mostly involved in the field of activism. Ordinary Ukrainian citizens don’t know what LGBT means and they don’t know any LGBT people. In a country that keeps its LGBT life in the closet, the community itself should be the first to address this issue.

 When it comes to gay rights, gay Ukrainians don’t differ from other Ukrainians who want to have more rights. This goes back to a culture of fear common to Soviet times. Constant paranoia and fear of being punished for having a different opinion created a culture of fear that still persists. When you speak with LGBT people of an older generation, generally they don't participate in any events or speak openly about their sexuality, even with their families, which might be more important than coming out publicly.

My whole life could be described as an escape: An escape that started at school when I was trying to avoid being bullied and to get away from people who tried to humiliate me. Later on, the escape becomes larger as you want to escape your city since you don’t feel safe and you are trying to find a new and more tolerant society. Later you want to leave the country. I went to places where I thought I would feel more comfortable but I realized that this fear stays inside you everywhere you go. It is impossible to escape until you turn back, stop, and start hitting back. Where you live is not so important, you first have to solve the problem of self-respect. Hating something inside you, something you can’t overcome, something passed on to to you at birth, is toxic and destructive.

Honesty is one the things that attracted me to journalism. It was important for me not only professionally, but personally as well. If I had become honest with myself and with those people whom I tell my story, I realized that I could do things differently in my job. I have idealistic and romantic journalistic standards and I realized that it is impossible to tell people stories without talking about my personal background… If I tell a story about LGBT people, I have to say that I am also gay.

If there are so many LGBT people in the Ukrainian media, why is the media’s coverage of LGBT issues so unprofessional? I wouldn’t only blame journalists for this but also LGBT activists themselves. Due to the activists’ previous negative experiences with the media they prefer to take some distance and agree only to minimal cooperation. Both sides need a fresh start; we need to work together in order to understand why the coverage is so unprofessional and often homophobic.

I don’t think we have to reinvent the wheel. But we have to pay attention to history and to the experience of other countries where this issue has resolved successfully. We need to try to learn something elsewhere and to test it here to see whether it works. We need to constantly search for new ways to achieve progress. Ultimately, despite history and everyone’s different backgrounds it comes down to one simple task: Accepting the choices of another human being.

When I recall my childhood and the problems I faced then: being humiliated at school by other boys who wanted to disgrace me by locking me up in the public toilet, I understand that I am more successful now than they are and that I feel better than they do. I don’t need special rights, additional rights or special privileges. I just need just equality, a right that is given at birth and is guaranteed not only by law but simply by the right to life. Equality shouldn’t require any additional expenses or the efforts of lawmakers. One shouldn’t have to vote or organize elections in favor of equality. Equality is something you have at birth. It is a right to be proud of who you are and not to be afraid to say it to others. It is something given to all humans at birth. This is the idea with which absolutely all Ukrainians can agree on after the Maidan revolution.

Thursday 19 November 2015

On Russia’s selective ’retribution’ for acts of terrorism

Andrei Lugovoi, FSB assassin and Russian MP

Reblogged with permission.


By Halya Coynash

Andrei Lugovoi, Russian State Duma Deputy and the UK’s chief suspect in the killing of Kremlin whistle-blower Alexander Litvinenko has promised “inevitable retribution” for the terrorists who blew up Russian A321 and blamed “European tolerance” allowing “a flow of migrants” into Europe for the terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov 13.

The irony could not be more pronounced. Litvinenko, who like Lugovoi was a former FSB [Security Service] officer, died a hideous death from radioactive polonium in 2006 not very long after publishing a book in which he accused the FSB of being behind the apartment block bombings in 1999 which killed several hundred people and helped Putin come to power. That book was recently placed on the List of extremist materials in Russia, a few months after Lugovoi received a state award from the President “for courage and daring demonstrated in carrying out work duties in conditions linked with risk to life”. *

Litvinenko shortly before his death

Lugovoi became an MP shortly after Britain’s request for his extradition was turned down, and he is now the deputy head of the State Duma Committee on Security and Countering Corruption. It was clearly in this capacity, and standing in front of the State Duma sign that he gave a long interview, entitled “You shouldn’t believe the USA” to Rossiya 24.

After more than a week of vague statements, denials and furious conspiracy theorising, Russia announced on Nov 17 that the Metrojet plane which crashed in the Sinai Peninsula on Oct 31 had been destroyed by a bomb.

Lugovoi called this a “monstrous crime” and said that Russia’s reaction must follow two principles: no negotiating with terrorists and inevitable retribution. He agreed with unnamed government officials in saying that Russia must increase its activity in the Middle East, including in Syria.

There were certain key messages, one being that Russia has allegedly made huge strides in fighting terrorism – through the “effective work” of the FSB, through legislation, etc. The A321 attack is presented as “unique” and as due to “treachery of local security services”. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov reports that the Kremlin’s leader has ordered “those guilty exterminated”. There is no indication as to how ‘guilt’ is to first be determined. Nor, of course, is there any suggestion that the terrorist act, if such it be, may have been linked with Russia’s active role over the last month in bombing areas under the control mostly of groups opposing Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, including, but by no means exclusively ISIS.

Lugovoi goes on, as have other pro-Kremlin politicians, to point out that Europe is also not safe and he directly blames “European tolerance”. He makes no mention of the thousands of refugees fleeing the Assad regime and the bombing in Syria, and speaks only of a “flow of migrants” which Europeans supposedly clap their hands over.

The Ahmads brought their four children to Russia seeking safety, but they were refused asylum
This, of course, enables him to ignore such shocking violations of international law as the continued presence at a Moscow airport of an entire family of Syrian refugees whom Russia is simply refusing to allow into the country.

Lugovoi basically sings Russia’s praise, suggesting that the FSB’s role should be an example for other countries. The latter, he suggests, must consider closing borders. Numerous reports on pro-Kremlin media have broadcast predictions that France and / or Europe will be forced now to resort to other restrictions on people’s freedom - doubtless also following Russia’s role model.

Asked about an anti-terror coalition, Lugovoi says that Russia’s only ally was its own army and fleet. Lugovoi, who spoke extremely emphatically on all other subjects seems nervous here, and waffles only about some possible “temporary” measures. He does, however, return to a standard theme in Russian propaganda, by saying that the USA will always do everything to reduce safety for Russia and “our western partners”, and that the more “mess” there is between Russia and European countries, the better for the USA who should not be believed.

Lugovoi has long spoken and, doubtless, acted, in unison with Russia’s leaders and his key statements here are similar to those made by others. It is almost certainly no accident that Putin should have taken the opportunity to pass into force a plan on developing the military until 2020. While spending on medicine has dipped catastrophically in Russia, together with the standard of living, more and more money is being spent on the military. Any Levada Centre public survey will make it quite clear whom Russians deem their enemies. ISIS has seldom received a mention.

With respect to Russia’s ‘principles’ of not negotiating with terrorists and “inevitable retribution”, there are many bitter words that can be written about the Kremlin’s funding and support for militants, a large number of them from Russia, responsible for hostage-taking, forced disappearances, extra-judicial executions, etc. in Crimea and Donbas.

There will be cases before the European Court of Human Rights and, almost certainly, the International Criminal Court over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and behaviour in other parts of Ukraine.

Footage on July 17, 2014 which Life News reported as a Ukrainian military plane downed by militants
It is Russia that has blocked an international investigation into the downing of the Malaysian MH17 airliner by a Russian-made BUK missile. This was reported on Russian television as having been downed by Kremlin-backed militants with those reports and incriminating footage only removed after it became clear that a passenger plane had been downed, not a Ukrainian military aircraft.

A European Court of Human Rights judgement is now awaited over one of the most monstrous terrorist acts in the Russian Federation. The Court in Strasbourg has already accepted that Russia must answer for its failure to prevent the tragedy at the school in Beslan, North Ossetia in which 331 people died, more than half of them children. For over two days then Putin even lied about the number of people held hostage in the school, and it is known that the terrorists were so angered by the claim that they were not prepared to negotiate that they refused to give the children water. There are serious grounds for believing that Anna Politkovskaya was poisoned to stop her negotiating, and that the explosions used to justify the storming of a building holding well over a thousand children, parents, grandparents and teachers, did not come from the terrorists. There was no ‘inevitable retribution” and Russia has, on the contrary, done everything to block a proper investigation and bring those responsible to answer.

* The results of a public inquiry into Litvinenko’s murder are due out soon. Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun left traces of radioactive polonium everywhere they went, both before and after the meeting with Litvinenko where he drank the fatal substance in a cup of tea. One key point made repeatedly through the hearings was that radioactive polonium is not something that you can buy on the black market.

See also:

Monday 16 November 2015

Meaningful art: the KGB HQ ablaze

Pavlensky infront of the Beria-designed ablaze door

Pavlensky is a hero, as far as I'm concerned. This image above will outlive him. Reblogged with permission.


By Gabriel Levy

Russian political performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who set fire to the doors of the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters this week, has asked a judge to treat him the same way as political prisoners from Crimea.

On Monday [last week] Pavlensky poured petrol on the doors of the notorious building on Lubyanka square – used since the 1940s as the offices and detention centre of the KGB, the Stalinist security police – and set light to them. Supporters filmed the action. Pavlensky was arrested and charged with “vandalism motivated by ideological hatred” – to which he responded: “It would be strange to have any other attitude to the Lubyanka.”

In the Taganka district court on Wednesday, Pavlensky said that “the so-called ‘Crimean terrorists’” were charged with terrorism offences for setting fire to doors, in cases fabricated by the FSB. “I demand that I be suspected of terrorism. I consider this to be the logic of your system. Until this demand is met, I refuse to participate in all your juridical rituals.” He then declined to answer further questions.

The Crimean prisoners to which Pavlensky referred are anti-fascist activist Aleksandr Kolchenko and film director Oleg Sentsov, political prisoners jailed for their part in protests against the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Kolchenko and Sentsov were in August sentenced to ten and twenty years respectively by a court in Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia, on fabricated terrorism charges. A third frame-up victim, Gennady Afanasiev, gave evidence under torture that was used to secure convictions, and is serving a seven-year sentence. Human rights organisations denounced the trial as a parody of justice and demanded the defendants’ release.

The connection made by Pavlensky was to Kolchenko’s admission that he had been involved in causing a fire at a building used by pro-Russian forces in Crimea, in which no-one was hurt and only minor damage done to property. His lawyer argued that a hooliganism charge would have been appropriate. (For detailed information on the Crimea case see the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group site.)

Pavlensky, 32, has been remanded in custody for a month. The court rejected his lawyer’s request for release on 1 million rubles (about £10,000) bail, and/or being placed under house arrest while caring for his children, who are seven and four years old.

Pavlensky named his performance “Threat. The Lubyanka’s burning doors”. In a statement published on line, he said:
The burning door of Lubyanka is a glove thrown by society in the face of the terrorist threat. The Federal Security Service [FSB] operates through continuous terror and holds sway over 146,000,000 people. Fear has turned free people into a sticky mass of isolated bodies. The threat of imminent reprisal hangs over anyone within reach of surveillance and eavesdropping devices and passport checks. Military courts are eliminating the last vestiges of free will. But terrorism can exist only due to the animal instinct of fear. An unconditional defensive reflex makes the individual oppose this instinct. This is the reflex to fight for one’s own life. And life is worth fighting for.
Pavlensky nailing his balls to Red Square
Pavlensky’s previous performances have included lying in St Isaac’s Square in St Petersburg, wrapped in barbed wire, and sewing up his lips in protest at attacks on freedom of speech. He considers himself an actionist, in the tradition of the artistic school of that name established in Vienna in the 1960s. Earlier this year he organised a group of people to burn automobile tyres and bang metal sheets with sticks in the centre of St Petersburg, to echo the atmosphere of the Maidan demonstrations in Kiev that brought down the government of Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014.

Some Russian socialists have argued that Pavlensky’s action was motivated by middle-class individualism. I sympathise with the response by Ivan Ovsyannikov, a socialist and trade union activist:
Yes, I understand all that about “middle-class/ decadent/ individualist rebellion” that “lacks class consciousness”. I’ll even allow that the FSB’s doors are a valuable artistic monument. But I spit on those doors and on pseudo-left phrases. Right now they are cynical, wretched, inappropriate. Pavlensky isn’t a political strategist. But he is a brave person who can serve as an example (no, not in respect of his particular way of doing things, but with his unbending non-conformism at a time when total cynicism prevails). I do not know how good an artist he is, but in any case I know that those who are judging him “wouldn’t do art like that themselves”. Of course, there is no need to imitate Pavlensky, but there’s nothing to despise him for, either. At the end of the day, the Marxists of the early 20th century disagreed with the methods of the People’s Will and Socialist Revolutionaries – but that didn’t stop them from acknowledging their heroism. And of course this is a different case. But from a moral point of view, I repeat, Pavlensky is right. And we need to defend him. And “to defend” does not mean to say “oh, bless him, he didn’t mean anything nasty, just give him 15 days”. No, the main point must be this: [government] power, which has spit on morals, rights and justice, that power, which has surpassed all the limits of good and evil, has no right to judge the artist Pavlensky, even if he burned the whole FSB to a cinder.
St Petersburg picket for Sentsov + Kolchenko
For readers who doubt the rationale of Pavlensky’s action, I would add two points of my own.

First, it is almost impossible either rationally or emotionally to get our minds round the cruelty of the sentences on Kolchenko and Sentsov, and the absurdity of the fabricated case against them. Pavlensky’s courageous action helps.

Russian social and labour movements face a state that is not yet a dictatorship … but under which even small acts of political defiance potentially carry the price of devastating, disproportionate repression. Pavlensky didn’t answer the question “what to do?”, but he focused on the inevitably inadequate nature of our responses to the Crimea case. Of course, inadequate: Kolchenko and Sentsov are in jail and may remain there for years.

Second, the site of Pavlensky’s performance was well chosen. From the 1930s the Lubyanka epitomised Stalinist terror. It crushed and destroyed people – socialists, activists, and innocent bystanders alike – on site. Its continued use in the post-Soviet period as the security police headquarters is a pretty eloquent expression of the continuity between past and present regimes. Resistance continues too.

See also:

Sunday 15 November 2015

Thoughts on the Paris attacks

Reblogged with permission.


By Ralph Leonard.

On Friday morning, one would have not been mistaken to think that the fight against ISIS had made some positive progress, with the liberation of Shingal by The Peshmerga from ISIS' dominion in northern Iraq and the killing by drone strike of Muhammad Emwazi (Jihadi John). Albeit the killing of Emwazi was more symbolic than catergorical and the liberation of Shingal is not exactly going to speed up the inevitable defeat of ISIS.

However, on Friday night in Paris, we were reminded again that this Jihadist cancer is still alive and well gnawing away at civilisation just like they had done a few days ago with the suicide bombings in Beirut and the beheadings of Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan. In Paris, terrorists launched a series of attacks that have claimed the lives of at least 160 people and 300 people injured. This make it the deadliest terrorist attacks in Europe since the Madrid bombings in 2004. ISIS has released a statement where they claimed responsibility for this and we definetly know it was a Jihadist attack because we have credible reports the gument shouted "Allahu Akbar" as they slayed the innocent.

In the aftermath of these horrific attacks, I have noticed alot of kneejerk finger pointing and simplistic analysis which is often done through a political lense that lacks complexity and nuance. You have the regressive left essentially blaming Western foreign policy and changing the subject to irrelevant topics. While on the other side you have those who want to shoehorn immigration and the refugee issue into this debate because that is their pet issue they want to talk about.

To be honest, I really am not surprised or shocked by the fact that we got the usual deflection, obsfucations and masochism from the regressive left.

Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks first response to the Paris attacks was to change the subject to Dylan Roof and the Iraq war. Later in the show one of his colleagues claimed that France closing it's borders will potentially "further radicalize muslims". This clearly bigotry of lower expectations. So muslims will all of a sudden start killing people if they don't get the desired immigration policy they want. How contemptable. The closing of the borders is likely a short term measure as part of the state of emergency France is under right now. However, suppose France did make this a long term policy, it still would not provide an excuse or an "explaination" for radicalization. Despicable.

WOW! I am so glad we have Ayatollah Piers Morgan to be arbiter of who is a "real" muslim and who is not a "real" muslim thereby engaging in takfiri reasoning and Kuffarsplaining. Piers has probably never read the Qu'ran in his life, yet he considers himself an expert in Islam.

Another trait in the regressive state of mind is to dig for western "hypocrisy" in light of a terrorist attack in the west and engage in fatuous whataboutery. Notice he had to shoehorn Palestine in there as per usual. Don't get me wrong the problems in Palestine, Lebanon and Yemen are serious issues that definetly should be talked about, but why is Ben excavating for "hypocrisy" now? I'm afraid I find this contemptable.

Then we have the "grievance" argument. Remember when regressives talk about "grievances" in relation to Islamist terrorism what they mean is "this attack happened because of "Western foreign policy" which is what the Latuff cartoon (right) implies. This a simplistic and wrong analysis of the situation. The attackers did not target symbols of French militarism or the French state. Rather, they attacked places where young, multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan Parisians hanged out such as cafes, resturaunts and bars like La Belle Equipe, Le Petit Cambodge and the Jewish owned music venue Bataclan.

The other venue attacked was the Stade de France, the home of the French national football team, (Les Bleus) another symbol of multi-racial and multi-cultural France.

For too long now the regressive left has said that these Jihadists are the bullhorn of long forgotten "muslim grievances". I suppose they are, if you want to define a "muslim grievance" as the grievance of seeing an undraped female head or face, the hatred of cosmopolitanism and cultural diversity embodied in cities like Paris, the presence of a Shia muslim, a Jew and non-muslims on what you claim as "muslim soil". The horror of not having an totalitarian, imperialist super state called the Caliphate which they have now resurrected in Iraq and Syria. Anything can be twisted into a grievance by Jihadists.

Yes they have grievances, but it is nothing like the grievance we have with them. It should be we who they are afraid of, it should be our opinion that they should be worried about. Because we too have unalterable values and we do care about defending The Enlightenment and the values of a civlized world.

While the regressive left tried to play the card of masochism and blame terror attacks on Western foreign policy, some on the right have and will try to ramp up an anti-immigrant agenda, the more extreme elements will go for a more anti-muslim agenda.

As of now we're not sure of the backgrounds of all the attackers. We do know that a Syrian Passport was found next to one of the gunmen belonged to someone who registered as a refugee.They are also checking on the fingerprints of another man at the request of French investigators. However, authorities are not ruling out the possibility that the passport may have been a fake or may have been stolen or bought from a well established black market.

Another question that must be asked is why would a Jihadist who thinks modern notions of citizenship and nationality is haram, all of a sudden take his passport to a suicide mission and make sure it got found? For me this seems too calculated.

Friday 13 November 2015

How Mother Nature exposed one Gulag mass grave

Reblogged with permission from Global Voices.


By Kevin Rothrock

Sergey Parkhomenko, a Russian journalist and publisher, has worked as a reporter, an editor, a radio show host, and more. He is also immensely popular on Facebook, where he has more than 133,000 subscribers.

A man of generally anti-Kremlin views, Parkhomenko challenged his social media audience on November 2 to tell him if they know the history of a Russian town called Kolpashevo. He received more than 5,000 responses—most of them saying no. Five hours after polling his readers on the subject, Parkhomenko wrote on Facebook again, telling a story very few Russians, it turns out, have ever heard.

This post has attracted more than 12,700 “likes,” more than 13,000 shares, and more than 1,200 comments. RuNet Echo reproduces that text below, translated into English.

Sergey Parkhomenko. Photo by Evgeniy Isaev
Well what do you know. Five thousand people answered my impromptu survey in my last post. I asked if my readers can tell me anything about a place called Kolpashevo, located in the Tomsk region. Or if they knew anything about a particular place inside Kolpashevo: the Kolpashevsky Ravine.Colleagues at [the human rights organization] Memorial assure me that Kolpashevo’s history is well-known, has been written about many times, and is all over the Internet. In the 90s, moreover, a small book was even published on the subject.

Of the 5,000 people who responded to my Facebook post, however, only 30 or 40 said they know about the history behind the town. And most of these people live in the Tomsk area (or used to live there), so they know the history from their relatives and their neighbors… The rest answered: no, don’t know, never heard of it.

So now I can go ahead and tell the story.

The town of Kolpashevo (home to a little more than than 20,000 souls, according to the latest census) sits on the high bank of the Ob River. The water makes a turn at Kolpashevo, and every year it “eats away” a few feet of a sand cliff there, inching closer and closer to the homes on streets named after Lenin and Dzerzhinsky [the founder of the Soviet secret police forces]. This is how it’s been for as long as anyone can remember, and everyone in town is used to it.

Location of Kolpashevo in Siberia
On April 30, 1979, exactly one day before May Day, the Ob’s waters knocked down another six-foot chunk of sand from the riverbank. Sticking out from the newly exposed wall were the arms, legs, and heads of people buried there. A cemetery at least several yards wide had been exposed. The people had been packed in and layered tightly. The top layer of bodies were decayed almost completely, while the lower layers were very well preserved, mummified in pure sand. It’s said that you could easily see the clothes they were wearing, and in some cases you could even make out the faces. There were men and women of different ages, and there were children. All in civilian clothes.

Some of the skulls from the uppermost layer rolled out from the sandbank, and little boys picked them up, put them on sticks, and started running around the town, scaring passersby. Soon the whole town was aware of what had happened. People started gathering at the sandback. Some thought they could even recognize one person’s coat, or place another person’s face… The police and neighborhood watch volunteers then cordoned off the whole thing. Then, very quickly (literally within a few hours), they built around the crumbling sandbank a thick fence.

The next day, the Communist Party staged gatherings all throughout town, at various enterprises, and in the so-called “red corners” [the Party meeting areas of factory floors]. The Party’s activists began to explain to the population what they’d been told by the Party’s district committee: buried here were traitors and deserters from the war. But the explanation wasn’t entirely convincing. Why was everyone dressed in civilian clothes? What were the women and children doing there? And from where, for that matter, did so many deserters come in a town of just 20,000 people?

Kolpashevo via brizzz on
Meanwhile, a bit more of the sandbank slipped into the river, and it became clear that the burial site was enormous. There were thousands of people. People around town recalled how there used to be a prison on these grounds in the late 1930s. It was general knowledge that there were executions there, but nobody could imagine just how many people were shot. The perimeter fence and barbed wire had long ago been dismantled, and the prison itself was closed down. Even the prison house had been moved to another location farther from the disappearing coast, to a place where it served for many years as a dormitory for students at a technical institute.

In fact (to the knowledge of few people in the town), Kolpashevo’s prison operated a full-fledged assembly line of death. There was a special wooden trough, down which a person would descend to the edge of a ditch. There, he’d be killed by rifle fire, by a shooter sitting in a special booth. If necessary, he’d be finished off with a second shot from a pistol, before being added to the next layer of bodies, laid head-to-toe with the last corpse. Then they’d sprinkle him lightly with lime. This process repeated, until the pit was full. When that happened, they filled in the hole with sand, and moved the trough over a few feet to the side, and began again.

And so the river bank continued to recede and bodies were falling into the water and drifting all the way to the town. People watched this happen from the shore.

Thursday 12 November 2015

Update on labour rights in Eastern Ukraine

Pavel Lisyansky (left) with protesting workers at the Amstor supermarket in Severodonetsk. Photo from the Nihilist web site.

In this interview, Pavel Lisyansky of the Eastern Human Rights Group gives an update on efforts to defend workplace rights in eastern Ukraine, as military conflict continues between the government and Russian-backed separatists.

Pavel is a trade union activist and humanitarian rights campaigner in towns near the front line with the separatist-controlled territory, which runs through the industrial areas of Donetsk and Lugansk. The interview was published on 2 November in Russian on, an anarchist web site based in Kyiv. Thanks to Hryćko Čornyj for this translation.

Question. [Please update us] on two labour disputes: the hospital in Svetlodarsk that landed in a bureaucratic “black hole”, and the shopping centre in Severodonetsk that is trying to force workers to leave their jobs without severance pay. Is there any news about these two episodes? Are you aware of other instances of labour rights violations in recent months?
Workers’ meeting at Svetlodarsk hospital

Pavel Lisyansky. Regarding the hospital at Svetlodarsk. [After a major battle at Debaltsevo in February, the hospital, on the Ukrainian side of the front line, was cut off from the local government administration, which was on the other side. Despite the urgency of the life-saving work of more than 100 staff, they have not been paid for ten months because local authorities failed to resolve the bureaucratic “black hole” into which the payments had fallen.] The government did not hear the voices of the workers. The salaries have not been paid and hospital funding has not been restored. The problems are the same: winter, cold. But the medical staff do not give up. At a meeting of the trade union committee the members decided to hold protests and organise a walk from the [military – HČ] front line to the regional state administration in Kramatorsk. […]

Regarding Amstor [supermarket – HČ]: the employer has adopted harsher tactics and forbade the use of heating in empty premises. [Managers want to dismiss workers, who are refusing to leave until they receive months’ worth of back pay they are owed, and severance to which they are legally entitled.] People have taken sick leave en masse. […] I also began to receive phone threats. The situation in this instance is more difficult, because in order to fight against such an unscrupulous employer one must set in motion all sorts of workers’ rights mechanisms and levers of influence. Frankly, it’s difficult to get through a brick wall of labour lawlessness, even together with the whole workplace collective.

Regarding the Elektropribor (Electric appliance) factory in Privol’ie: that was a case of non-payment of wages, but we actively worked there and were able to solve the problem quickly.

There are massive problems for the mineworkers in Ukraine. At each mine there is a different case of workers’ rights being violated. The same thing among public sector employees: at almost every workplace there are violations of workers’ rights. The schools in Svetlodarsk were also affected by the nonpayment of wages, but we were able to help them. There’s a whole list of violations of labour rights, and the instances of these are growing exponentially!

Q. What is the situation at your mine in Lisichansk?

PL. The situation is very near to critical: the wages are being paid, but with delays. We have managed to establish a dialogue with the employer. But here we have to fight with the traditional trade unions, who see me as a competitor, because they use workers as a cash cow to make money. They began an aggressive campaign against me, which is absurd: one group of trade unionists is fighting another, in the meantime neglecting the rights of the workers. I had to leave my job at the mine and settle for an elected post of chairman of the local trade union organisation, virtually as a volunteer – this was the only way I could save the local organisation to fight for the rights of workers. I actively support all workers employed by the company (i.e. the mine), irrespective of which trade union they belong to. Rights activists, like doctors, offer treatment without asking about political convictions or affiliation to other unions.

But this is difficult to understand for the old guard of the Ukrainian unions; they are used to make money from miners. I know what I am talking about: already at my age I have been employed at nine mines in different regions of Donbas. They [the old guard at traditional unions – HČ] already smell of earth; they have forgotten what workers’ struggle is, and maybe they never even knew it. They do not give way to young, active workers. For them the concept of “young” is someone who is 50-57. This, they think, is the right age to start leading a trade union organisation. There are, sometimes, good people who want to help the young, but they, unfortunately, are unable to go against this system.

This is why I decided to become a workers’ rights advocate – a lawyer for the workers. After all, there are lawyers serving the mafia, corporations, oligarchs – so there should be for the workers. I want to dedicate my strength and energy to defending and protecting workers’ rights, not to fight inside trade union structures about god-knows-what.

Q. Tell us about the case of the illegal dismissal of an employee [at the mine], who was later branded a “drug addict”. How did this situation come about? How was this “addict” treated by his colleagues?

PL. He simply came to be disliked by his boss, so the latter found a reason to do away with him and said he was a drug addict. Then the machine of administrative lawlessness went into motion: the personnel department issued the dismissal order; the security guards, like an unleashed pack of dogs, were set upon him. But the boss did not take account of one thing: this was a member of our union, and we can respond to the administrative tyranny, even by resorting to similar tactics, if necessary. As a result, the worker was reinstated. We consulted and decided to get him transferred to another mine in the same production association, in order to protect this worker from further attacks. Now we are actively working to remove that manager from his post.

Q. Whose situation is worse in the Donbas: the public sector workers (medical staff, teachers, etc) or those who work in the private sector? Who is more likely to be mobilised to stage a protest; who is more motivated? Do the two groups differ in terms of their respective arsenals of methods of struggle?
Protesting shopping centre workers

PL. It’s diverse. If, for example, we are closer to the [military – HČ] front line – it’s the public sector workers; if it’s a bit further from the line – it’s the private sector workers. The situation at the moment is such that it is easy to mobilise all workers whose rights are being violated. They’re simply going hungry. All financial reserves have run out. The prices have risen; the wages are unpaid; the war has instilled a greater sense of indifference toward death, and therefore people feel they have nothing to lose. They need to feed their children – but with what money? This is one of the main factors that helps to mobilise at the moment. And the employers in this environment are like drug addicts. They see that they can tighten the screws a bit more, so they keep tightening to see how far they can go. But this junkie-employer forgets that the thread in the screw will eventually break, the intoxication from the drug will pass, and then he will soberly shudder. But it will be too late.

The arsenal of action is the same for all: protests, letters, lawyers, trade unions, etc. But the people of Ukraine have been entrapped. They have been divided into different unions pitted against one another. Some union leaders have been bought by the state or the oligarchs, and, when necessary, pitted against one another in a different way. The workers do not have their own political representation or lobbyists. And serious human rights advocates are not especially interested in the problems affecting the workers (such work does not receive grants from major donors). So it is, that Ukraine’s workers today are acting like a group of disorganised deserters, tearing in every direction without any sense of what to do.

Q. How much has the situation with labour rights worsened because of the military action? Are there any improvements now, during ceasefire?

PL. In short: no. It has not changed. The situation is still severe.

Q. Tell us a few words about yourself, the Eastern Workers Rights Group, and your plans of action for the near future. Thank you!

PL. What can I say? I come from a family of workers. I’m a fourth generation miner. At the age of 19 I lost my father – the main authority in my life. I have barely recovered from this shock. After my father’s death, the company where I worked with him started to denigrate me, pay back “debts” owed to my father through me. (My dad was a true workers’ leader in Antratsit; this is a well known fact. [Note: Antratsit, which is in the separatist-controlled territory, was the site of worker protests last year. See here]) My dad had, as I now have, many enemies. It was then that I realised that there is nobody else in this life who will ever stand up for me. I went through a moral turning point; I started to fight for my own rights, and to defend other vulnerable people like myself.

Then I was involved in trade union work at the university and, later, at workplaces. I saw with my own eyes the shortcomings of the traditional unions and the lack of any defence of the workers’ rights in Ukraine. I was hugely disappointed in the actions of one of the leaders of the trade union movement in Ukraine (I won’t mention his name) and had a great desire to protect the rights of people in the war zone. That was how in 2014 the Eastern Workers’ Rights Group was set up, in the sadly infamous city of Debaltsevo. The founders of this group are displaced persons and refugees who have been active near the front line in helping to restore and protect workers’ rights, fighting against injustice in the context of war. […]

See also:

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Russia intent on revising unfortunate history

Petr Pavlensky early on Monday in front of the FSB door he set alight
The message could not be clearer, in Russia history is decided by the state. The labeling of the legendary human rights group Memorial as a so-called 'foreign agent' underlines a process that has been going on for some time.

Last month the armed forces announced that they were setting up a unit which “will examine, first of all, the history of the Second World War, the facts related to the falsification of Soviet people’s victory in the Great Patriotic War and other events in the life and the armed forces.”

Official state media is publishing denial of the Holodomor, the "Terror-Famine", as Robert Conquest called it, ordered by Stalin that killed as many as seven million Soviet peasants, most of them Ukrainians, in 1932-33.

Approval of Stalin is on the rise both officially, even from the head of the Orthodox Church, as well as among Russian people. Nikolai Svanidze, a writer and historian whose grandfathers died in the purges, told the LA Times that Stalin restoration is as a rival to the West, "which is the context in which he interests Putin." Only two museums dedicated to the gulag exist. Writes Shaun Walker in the Guardian:
The Gulag is not ignored completely, but is “contextualised” in a way that plays down the horror and pairs it with the war, suggesting the two come as a package.
The deputy director of a new Gulag museum in Moscow told Walker that in remembering the Gulag “you can either put up a big portrait of Stalin and note goldmining achievements, or you can put up death rates and haggard faces." Unfortunately, she says, "more often it’s the former."

In an interview with XSoviet News, activist Alex Sinodov said:
People have the idea that Stalin solved problems. Stalin would take care of for instance the neighbours they don’t like. If you look at history the purges mainly took place within the military and government. During Stalin’s purges two percent of the general public were a target, but in the military and MGB (currently FSB) it was as high as 25 percent. If Stalin would be back then people believe that he would take care of parts of the government that they don’t like. Repression starts at the top of the government. As an example Stalin killed heads like Yagoda and Yezhov, the top people in the government suffered a lot.
I also think that by bringing Stalin back into society the Big Brother is watching you is brought back to life. Anything about Stalin also always really pisses off the opposition. That is a big difference between Stalin and Putin, Putin puts people who failed in high places, where Stalin would have eliminated them immediately. Putin doesn’t have control as Stalin did, I think the murder of Boris Nemtsov shows that. Kadyrov took care of Nemtsov, that probably wasn’t a direct order.
There are plenty of Russia though who are fighting back. Early on Monday morning Petr Pavlensky, the performance artists famous for nailing his scrotum literally to Red Square, set fire to a door at the FSB headquarters - the same HQ as the KGB. The door was personally designed by KGB Head Lavrentiy Beria (who Stalin called ‘my Himmler’).

The week before Russians had stood in the square outside the former KGB HQ to mark the annual day of remembrance for Stalin's victims. Thanks to Memorial, each participant had a piece of paper in their hand with the names of two victims, their ages, professions, and dates of execution. Now Memorial's branches in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, the Komi region and the St Petersburg branch discussed below carry a label which echoes the Stalin-era denunciations of alleged anti-Soviet spies.

Reblogged with permission.


By Halyna Colnash

“A huge blow for all those involved in remembering the victims of the Soviet Terror” is how the decision by Russia’s Justice Ministry to forcibly add the St Petersburg Memorial Research and Information Centre to its register of so-called ‘foreign agents’ has been described. Arseny Roginsky, Head of the International Memorial Society, goes on to explain that RIC Memorial has put together a unique database listing the places where victims of political repression were buried. “No state or civic organization has such a list”, Roginsky stresses.

It was RIC Memorial that played an enormous role in uncovering the mass grave of victims of the Terror at the Sandarmokh Clearing, near Karelia. It was at this place from Oct 27 to Nov 4, 1937 that 1, 111 prisoners from the Solovky camps were executed as part of a killing quota. They included 290 Ukrainian writers, poets, intellectuals and scientists.

The Justice Ministry’s decision was announced on Nov 6, and came unexpectedly since the organization had been informed that they had two weeks “to refute the document confirming the check” and had only just received the document in question. The decision will certainly be appealed.

The Memorial Research and Information Centre was created by historian Veniamin Ioffe, who was himself a political prisoner in the 1960s. It was planned from the outset as a centre providing the research backup for the historical-archival commission of the Memorial Society. It now has archives, a library and the extremely important Virtual Museum of the Gulag.

After hours offline, the Centre’s site now has a statement explaining the Justice Ministry’s decision and the fact that this would oblige them to have a preface to all material saying that it had been pretended “by an organization fulfilling the functions of a foreign agent”. It states that it does not intend to use this label, but will continue all its projects and programs.

“We inform all those interested that the public activities previously carried out by the Memorial Research and Information Centre will be undertaken by the Educational Centre, named after Veniamin Ioffe Просветительный центр имени Вениамина Иофе.

Candles lit at KGB building in Minsk in memory of victims of Stalin's repression, Via
The notorious law on so-called foreign agents came into force on Nov 2012, obliging non-commercial organizations receiving grants from abroad and engaging in what the law very loosely described as ‘political activities’ to register as ‘foreign agents’. The law was boycotted by a lot of civic organizations, so in June 2014 President Vladimir Putin signed into force a law which allows the Justice Ministry to forcibly include organizations on the register. This it has been doing ever since, targeting organizations probing and publicizing grave violations of human rights, or those probing the deaths of soldiers in Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine, etc.

This is by no means the first attack on Memorial and organizations linked with it. There had been attempts to force ‘foreign agent’ registration in 2013 and then in Oct 2014 a major offensive was launched by the Russian Justice Ministry and the pro-Kremlin television channel NTV. The Justice Ministry announced that it was asking the Supreme Court to dissolve the Russian Memorial Society claiming to have found infringements in its organizational structure. See: Kremlin plays ‘extremist’ card against ’Memorial’ rights organization

There have also been repeated attempts over recent years to whitewash Joseph Stalin and the crimes of the Soviet regime.

On March 12, 2014, a decision was issued by the Inter-departmental Commission on State Secrets to keep the majority of Soviet secret police classified as secret for a further 30 years. This includes the vast bulk of material regarding the Great Terror of 1937-1938.

The drive which Putin initiated in 2007 to highlight the positive aspects of Russia’s history has already resulted in a record number of Russians viewing Stalin in a positive light, and in the first house-museum and monument to Stalin opening in the Tver oblast.

Soviet repression is at the same time being underplayed or denied. An example is seen in the fate of a vital museum on the site of the notorious labour camp Perm-36. The NGO Perm-36 which ran the museum has been driven from the museum and forcibly registered as a ‘foreign agent’. The museum has been taken over by the authorities, and, as a recent visitor wrote, the words ‘Stalin’, ‘dissident’ and Gulag are nowhere to be seen.

Graffiti on Memorial HQ, reads 'foreign agent'

Statement by chairman of board of Memorial human rights centre, Alexander Vladimirovich Cherkasov

On November 9 the Memorial human rights centre received in the post the results of the “Act of Planned Inspection” of our organisation (see excerpt below). The inspection from October 5 was conducted by the Main Directorate of the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation for the city of Moscow. In this “Act” the Justice Ministry, among other things, puts forward a political accusation addressed to our organisation: “By their actions the members of the Inter-Regional Non-Governmental Organisation the Memorial human rights centre have undermined the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, by calling for the overthrow of the current government and a change of the political regime in the country.”

What kind of “actions” are these? What do you have to do to incur such serious accusations?

It turns out that Memorial “undermines the foundations” by forming a negative public opinion “about the state policy that is being conducted by the higher bodies of state government, expresses disagreement with the decisions and actions of the mentioned institutions of government, the results of preliminary investigations and court verdicts that have been given in high-profile criminal cases”.

In the course of our human rights work we gather facts. On their basis, in the course of discussions within the organisation and in a wider circle we develop opinions and evaluations. We publish these materials – evaluations, opinions, factual materials and so on.

Thus we implement freedom of thought and speech and freedom of association, which are guaranteed to us by articles 28 and 30 of the Constitution of Russia. And we do not consider it appropriate to be silent if we see that representatives of the government – including the highest Russian authorities – are violating human rights and the norms of international law.

This, from the point of view of the Justice Ministry, is “forming a negative opinion” and “undermining the foundations”.

Since as examples of “undermining activity” the “Act” gives, firstly, our evaluation of Russia’s actions towards Ukraine. We indeed think that these actions come under the definition of aggression – in full accordance with the UN definition.

Secondly, we are accused of publishing “the opinion of leaders of organisations” about the fact that Russian troops have participated in combat actions in eastern Ukraine. But this “opinion” is also based on a multitude of irrefutable facts.

Thirdly, the Justice Ministry is upset by our disagreement with the unjust verdict given in the Bolotnaya case. Indeed, in our materials and in the materials of other human rights organisations, and in media reports, there is a multitude of proof that the charge in this case was fabricated and falsified.

But where are the calls to “overthrow the current government” here, which the creators of the “Act” immediately accuse us of? Obviously the Justice Ministry equates criticism of the government with attempts to overthrow it.

The Justice Ministry’s “Act of Inspection” which accuses us of “undermining” reports about political prisoners is dated October 30, the Day of Political Prisoners in the USSR.

The prosecutors’ “understanding”, which incriminates the Memorial human rights centre for maintaining a list of political prisoners and a register of people detained at demonstrations, on the basis of which we were included on the “register of foreign agents”, was given to us on April 30, 2013. On the 45th birthday of the dissident “Chronicle of Current Events”, which wrote about judicial and extra-judicial political repressions.

Symbolic coincidences

Since the Justice Ministry’s “Act” itself directly returns us to the times of the Soviet government’s battle against dissidents.

It is probably worth recalling the Constitution of Russia, the section “Foundations of Constitutional Order”, article 2: “The person and his rights and freedoms are the highest value. Recognising, observing and defending the rights and freedoms of the person and citizen are a duty of the state.” And then everything falls into place. It becomes obvious: it is not we, Memorial, but the Justice Ministry that is undermining the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation by its actions.

(Translation by Sarah Hurst.)

See also: