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On Thursday 6th October, Henry Jackson Society welcomed five leading Russian civil rights activists; Dmitri Bartenev, Natalia Taubina, Valentina Cherevatenko, Robert Latypov and Grigory Melkonyants to discuss the challenges of speaking out against human rights abuses and promoting democracy in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Dr Andrew Foxall – Director of Russia Studies Centre – opened the talk with the news that the international branch of Memorial has been added to the Russian foreign agents list and a reminder of that 7th October marks the anniversary of the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
The foreign agent law was a topic that Natalia Taubina – director of the Public Verdict Foundation – elaborated on arguing that it was used as a Government tool to marginalise hundreds of Russian NGOs in their fight for human rights. Taubina noted that civil society in Russia is under such ginormous pressure from state oppression that most end up liquidising their assets. By doing this, they dissolve as legal entities but can maintain their work as activists without legal and economic pressures.
Although, the NGO’s aren’t only under pressure from the authorities, they are also subject to attacks by members of patriotic groups in Russia. Many of these attacks receive little response from the authorities which leads patriots to assume this is the green light for them to continue attacking activists. Taubina stated that this signals the right to freedom of assembly being diminished – with many people facing administrative and criminal prosecution for taking to the streets in protest.
Following this brief introduction into the current state of human rights in Russia, the floor was opened up for a question and answer session that invoked discussion amongst the guests on topics surrounding domestic abuse, the Putin perception and what can western Governments do to assist Russian Human Rights organisations.
Valentina Cherevatenko – chair of the “Women of the Don” Union – told the audience that not only has the Russian Government been sitting on a legislation to prevent the decriminalisation of domestic abuse, it is also trying to remove abortions from medical insurance. Women will not accept such attempts without protest but as of right now it is only the elite who are opposing the plans.
Specific approaches to assist human rights organisations by western Governments need to be assessed on a case by case basis, argued Dmitri Bartenev, an attorney based in St Petersburg, but if western Governments were to put political pressure on the Russian Government that can also support them. Grigory Melkonyants – co-chair of Russia’s leading independent election monitor Golos – agreed with Bartenev stating that western organisations needed to show support of and keep in touch with their Russian counterparts. It’s this contact that destroys the steadfast image of the west as Russia’s ultimate enemy says Robert Latypov, head of Youth Memorial Action Group.
The perception that Vladimir Putin is a well-loved leader is correct amongst a general Russian public who have no freedom of speech or access to information critical of the President, proposed Bartenev. However, Cherevatenko argued that the silence of the Russian people in the case of their president is due to a strong sense of self-preservation.
Latyprov concluded the talk by reminding the audience that the task is to remove social apathy from society and instead turn it into civic activism.