EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Movie Screening of ‘Putin’s Hostages: Ukrainian Political Prisoners’
DATE: 5:00pm – 7:00pm, 12 March 2019
VENUE: IPU Room: Palace of Westminster
SPEAKERS: Nikolai Polozov, Maria Tomak, Oleksandra (Alya) Shandra, Dr. Andrew Foxall, Rt. Hon John Whittingdale MP
EVENT CHAIR: Rt. Hon John Whittingdale MP/Dr. Andrew Foxall
John Whittingdale: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome this afternoon. This is a joint event on behalf of the Ukrainian Embassy, the British-Ukrainian Society, the All Party Parliamentary group for Ukraine and the Henry Jackson Society, so we have lots of interesting, expert people in the room. My name is John Whittingdale, I chair the All Party Parliamentary Group for Ukraine, which I follow with great interest, but I’d like to particularly welcome, obviously our speakers today, but also her Excellency the Ambassador of Ukraine, my colleague Lord Risby who chairs the British Ukrainian Society, and very modestly in the corner over there my colleague Michael Fallon who was our Secretary of State for Defence for many years and did a lot to support the British Armed Forces assistance to Ukraine.
So what we’re going to do, we’ll see the film, which I think last just over half an hour, and then we will hear from our various speakers who I’ll introduce and then I hope there’ll be an opportunity for discussion, but as you’ll be aware there are other things going on in Parliament [audience laughs], you’ve done pretty well even getting into the building to be honest [audience laughs]. But despite the distraction of Brexit, I hope that it will be a very useful and informative afternoon, so thank you all very much for your attendance. Dennis?
John Whittingdale: Roll the VT as they say [audience chuckles].
Film then plays through. The audience claps at the end.
John Whittingdale: Very good, can I invite our speakers to come and take the table here. I’m very proud to say that that film was made I understand with some financial support from the British Embassy in Ukraine. We have our own debate going on here but it perhaps puts it into perspective when we see the agonies of those held in Russia and Crimea, and the families who are left behind, so come on Maria, Andrew, Nikolas and Alya.
Speakers take their seats.
John Whittingdale: So we have with us Maria Tomak and Alya Shandra, who you saw speaking in the film, both of whom are Ukrainian civil rights activists and journalists, and Nikolos Polozov, who is a lawyer from Russia, who has defended many people in Russia, and also Dr. Andrew Foxall who we know well from the Henry Jackson Society. Now who’s going to go first?
???: Well before we start, if I may I would like to introduce Piotr Malinowski, who is the film director, who came particularly from Poland [audience claps].
John Whittingdale: Who’s going first? Andrew?
Andrew Foxall: Thank you John. First of all just to echo what John said, thank you all for being here. My role really is just to serve as a discusser to get the conversation flowing, to try and get as much out of our three esteemed guests as we are able to within the next hour, just over 60 minutes or so. So in the first instance what I think would be really quite useful, whilst you, perhaps like me this was the first time you’d seen the film, while we let it settle in exactly what exactly that film does for us individually, perhaps if we invite each of the speakers to give their own reflections on the film, for five or six minutes, and then we can move to a Q&A and try and get as much involvement from the audience as possible. Perhaps we’ll start with you.
Alya Shandra: Hello my name is Alya Shandra, I’m an editor of an English language platform about Ukraine: Euromaidan Press, and we’ve been sort of following the history of Ukraine after Euromaidan and focusing on persecutions by Russia because that’s what followed Euromaidan. The occupation of Crimea, the war in Donbass, was accompanied by a very heavy human rights toll and human losses. So basically what strikes me in Russia’s persecution of Ukrainians for political reasons is the way that they are just doing away with any sense of justice and throwing people behind bars for many dozens of years just to suit their political goals, and the reason that Russia is doing that is because it is shaping a narrative and a fake reality, but as opposed to what is happening in the United Kingdom or in other Western European countries mostly, it’s not doing this in the virtual media space, but it is doing it with real people that are being tortured to confess to this alternative reality that it is forming. So I think, it just breaks my heart to see this and I see that this is reminiscent of Stalin’s oppressions also, give me the man and I’ll find you and give you the crime.
I think this must be stopped and if nothing is done it will just continue and the list of prisoners will grow because we’ve been having this marathon writing postcards to political prisoners each New Year and I remember there were 8, then there were 14, then there were 25 faces, now there are more than 70 political prisoners. So when Piotr addressed us and asked if we would like to create a film about this topic of course I was very glad to because it would allow us to shed light on not only the fates of several political prisoners that I’m sure that you’ve heard the names of several times (prisoner names) (44:35-40), but very few people know that these are just the most famous people in a whole line, in a whole row of persecuted Ukrainians and basically it’s not only Ukrainians, it’s also a whole lot of Russians are behind bars, basically Ukraine has been impacted by this whole phenomenon because Russia unleashed its war. What we see here in this film is the result of just abuse of the judicial system, the abuse of justice for political purposes in Russia today. I believe this is a topic that should affect all of us, should trouble all of us and I think that we need to stop this with your help.
Andrew Foxall: Yes, I suppose an initial thought would be that the disregarding of justice for political goals and to achieve political aims is a process that obviously has a particular history in Russia and in post-Soviet Russia.
Alya Shandra: Yes but we must understand that it doesn’t start in post-Soviet Russia but is a continuation of the total absence of justice in the Soviet Union. In these methods of torturing political prisoners it’s just chilling how much they will just repeat the KGB methods of the 1930’s, if you read documentary evidence it’s terrible. It’s just from the same playbook.
Nikolai Polozov: It is very difficult for me to watch this movie. The story tells just a few stories of Ukrainian political prisoners captured by Russia and it will take a while if you start creating movies about each and every Ukrainian political prisoner, and you will just get tired watching these movies. But the Kremlin regime is not tired of continuing what it has been doing, capturing new people. Every time I watch this movie I get flashbacks of what I was dealing with in court. We have a feeling that in front of you there is a judge who already knows the decision that he was told to rule out by the Kremlin’s executive branch. He has empty eyes, you know he is looking at me or at that one who is in a cage, like he silently says “Ok, let’s finish as soon as possible because I have other cases to do”, and these are the situations when you realise you cannot do anything, this is me, this is the one I am defending but I just realise I cannot do anything. Nobody can help this person, and that person was sentenced, tortured, arrested, he experience a lot being in a person, and this person is looking at you like “please help me”, but you realise you cannot help him inside the system.
So you understand it is so vital to create such movies, movies about those who were kidnapped, not only inside Russia but from other territories like Pavlo Hryb, a Ukrainian who was kidnapped from the territory of Belarus, or those who were kidnapped from Crimea, you do this to get support from foreign countries. All the international support, it may be done by just watching such movies or by sending a letter or a card to a political prisoner. This is a really minor thing but it is very important. Thank you.
Andrew Foxall: A call for solidarity which is clearly very important, Maria last but not least.
Maria Tomak: Good evening to everyone. First of all let me thank the organisers of this event, the Ukrainian Embassy, Mr. Whittingdale and to the Henry Jackson Society, and we do appreciate that on this critical day for Great Britain you pay attention to Ukrainian problematics which are European problematics to be honest. Five years ago these days were historic for Ukraine, these days the problem of illegally detained Ukrainians citizens started in Crimea. In those days together with my colleagues, we were in Crimea, we tried to support pro-Ukrainian rallies, we tried to document the first cases the first cases of kidnapping, but we didn’t know that it would be a huge problem for not only Crimea, but also for Donbass later. Now we can see thousands of victims of kidnappings, of tortures, especially in Donbass. I would like to give you some figures. Currently we have different kinds of illegal detainees. So we have in Donbass at least 116 prisoners of war and hostages, civilians who are captured by so-called LPR (Luhansk People’s Republic) and DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic). In occupied Crimea and in Russia we have at least 73 persons, plus we have 24 sailors who were captured recently and Nikolai is actually the leader off the group of lawyers who are defending and are actually making the strategy of defence in the case of the sailors.
I was talking about it yesterday and I am sorry of someone was there and you have to listen again but I have to say that what we try to do in this situation, it’s not only complaining, but Maidan event taught us that we have to react in that very rational way when it comes to some critical situation. That’s why we try to find lawyers when it comes to new arrests, we try to engage some international organisations or the international community, we try to find someone in the field who can provide assistance or provide information. And luckily we have in Crimea such lawyers such as Nikolai who can come there and is not afraid of coming there and getting involved in political cases. We have the Crimean Solidarity Group which is launched by Crimean Tartars, which is a phenomenon of oppression to occupying power at the moment. But unfortunately we have almost no information and we have literally no access to Donbass and we have no idea what is going on there, that is why I feel that this problem is almost forgotten at the international level. You can see surnames like Sentsov and Panov in different kinds of resolutions but you almost can’t see any reflection of the situation with the hostages of Donbass, simply because we have no information out of them and it’s often because women are captured there and Ukrainian military almost every week and at least every month we have one new hostage and unfortunately no good news about the release of any of them.
So we have the growing number of illegal detainees, but on the other side we have some good news from Ukraine which now tries to push for adopting the special law which would provide legal status for these people. Recently the Ukrainian government provided some financial assistance to the families of victims, and I am really proud of the families of illegal detainees who launched their own NGO’s in order to protect their rights, to demand some guarantees and so on, so I think it’s a very healthy reaction from the side of Ukrainian society, not to get lost but to join the effort and to make some rational recommendations and to demand they be fulfilled. But the problem is, unlike Donbass which has negotiated in Minsk, there is no place where the fate of Crimean hostages or those kept in Russia, is negotiated.
It’s a huge problem and we are not naïve people, we do understand that given the Russian position, which considers them part of the Russian Federation, they will not agree on that so easily. But what we think is that we need to have our position on how these, at least negotiations on humanitarian issues should look like, who should be involved and probably we need to push for this, maybe using the instrument of sanctions, of personal sanctions against those who are involved in the gross human rights violations, and if it comes to debate, effective or not, I can argue that once during the past few years, we were talking all the time about gross human rights violations and about the persons who were involved in these violations, once I was shown on Russian TV, only once. It was in the previous year when we transferred the lists of those perpetrators here in the British Parliament, to members of the British Parliament, and afterwards I was shown on Russian as an evil (laughs), as a person who was going to run for the elections, it’s not true, I will not, but they were claiming that ‘oh this person will go to the elections’ and that is why I tried to make this PR so to say.
So it’s working, that’s our message and we don’t know how we’ll finish this day in terms of a Brexit deal, we don’t know what is going on any further but we still think that nevertheless, we ask that the UK should support, probably the idea of personal sanctions against those who commit gross human rights violations, or the EU Global Human Rights Act, this idea which is debated now and we as a part of the International Coalition of Organisations who support this idea, we ask you to support this act and I think that it’s crucial just to show that these things that are used against (59:00-5) are just not acceptable by the civilised societies and the civilised countries. Thank you.
Andrew Foxall: Thank you. I think there’s much discussion at the moment about the impact of sanctions and whether or not sanctions work. It seems to me that if sanctions didn’t work then Mr. Putin wouldn’t spend quite as much time as he does trying to get them removed or reversed. There is a broader context to this which you allude to, which is the OSCE recently released an update to the number of fatalities from the broader annexation of Crimea and Russia’s, you know let’s call it what it was, an invasion of eastern Ukraine. The OSCE now say that over 13,000 people have died as a result of Russia’s warmongering in Ukraine. That is in the European context now one of the most deadly conflicts since the wars that accompanied the fragmentation of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and we are now hitting the fifth anniversary of so many of these important landmarks in Ukraine’s history, and that makes the conflict one of Europe’s longest running conflicts in the best part of a century, and we must bear all of this in mind as well.
What I’d like to do at this stage is to open it up for questions or comments or queries or points of dissension if there are any from the audience. It’s important as well if anybody wants to, I can see hands going up already, if anybody does want to raise the issue, as Maria did earlier of Magnitsky legislation, then we’re very lucky to have with us John, who was one of the earliest supporters of William Browder’s campaign for the adoption of Magnitsky legislation in the UK, precisely to hold these sorts of people to account. If we cannot get justice for these people inside the borders of the Russian Federation, then we’ll try and get justice for these people outside of the borders of the Russian Federation. As I say, John’s one of the most vocal supporters of this campaign to begin with. Euan.
Euan Grant: Thank you all very much indeed. Euan Grant, I’m the former customs intelligence analyst for the ex-Soviet states and of course in organised criminality from those countries, particularly Russia, you just can’t separate the state and its agents from that criminality. Two questions, rather related, regarding the potential for European wide or a European State, EU member state Magnitsky type actions, sanctions, bans, travel bans and so on, are there any particular countries where you’re getting a positive reaction as a result of this film and perhaps by indication where you’re not, and secondly are you planning to broadcast the film outside London? I would think there’s a particular opportunity and need in Edinburgh, not just because Sputnik is there, but because I do believe there is something of a culture around Edinburgh University, which is remarkably unobjective and unacademic in its approach to the conflict. There’s a strong whiff of apologism for Mr. Putin. Thank you.
Andrew Foxall: Thank you Euan. It’s worth noting that Edinburgh University is quite open about having received money from the Russkiy Mir program operated by the Russian state. Perhaps if Alya and Maria respond and then Nikolai can offer a legal perspective on things.
Alya Shandra: I will start. I just want to say that the information which we gather about the perpetrators, we propose first of all to those countries which have already adopted the Magnitsky Act or Magnitsky Act like legislation, so of course we already transferred this information to the US government and they regularly impose new sanctions, just recently. We are not sure who is the source of these sanctions, I mean why they took this or that decision, but I have to say that recently they for instance, had put on the list Mr. Sushkov, he’s one of the investigators from Crimea, who used to be a State Security Service of Ukraine officer before the annexation, and he’s participating in some of the cases, including a case of persecution of an independent lawyer who is defending lots of political prisoners currently in Crimea: Emil Kurbedinov, he’s Crimean Tartar, so the sanctions were imposed against him by the US government just recently.
So of course we transfer this information to the Canadian government, to the Lithuanian government, to the Estonian government as well, so I cannot at the moment say that we are very successful in all of this but at least we try to do this job, but also it’s important to say that I believe also that there should be some amendments to Ukrainian internal regulations as for the sanctions, to make the Ukrainian position stronger and I will not go deep into details but currently we’ve conducted the committee meetings at the Verkhovna Rada: Ukrainian Parliament in order to make recommendations for the amendment to the law, and I hope that the draft law on the amendments will be developed and will be adopted by the Ukrainian Parliament, and I mean that Ukraine should have a very strong position on that, should provide evidence, I mean Ukraine as a state because unlike for instance Russian society, which is standing alone against its government, we are standing as a society and as a state, and of course the first source of this information should be the Ukrainian law enforcement which are collecting in a procedurally correct way all the evidence of illegal persecution, as well as we do. So we do transfer this information but as of now only the United States are very active in terms of imposing the sanctions.
Regarding screenings, the premiere of this film was held at a PACE session in January and we have upcoming plans for Brussels, in the European Parliament March 19th so if any of you are in Brussels please do come. Afterwards we have plans for Berlin. If you would be able to organise a screening anywhere in the United Kingdom were you think we could come and show this one that would be great for presentations. We haven’t had any proposals from Edinburgh yet but we have from Oxford University so perhaps that could be a future venue?
Euan Grant: Perhaps you can put Edinburgh on the spot and propose it to them and if they say no, question their reasons why? What have you got to lose? You’ve got nothing to hide.
Alya Shandra: Actually our goal is for as many people as possible to see this documentary because it is popular, not only for specialists. Of course our ultimate goal is to find a TV station to broadcast it, so if you have any ideas please let us know.
Nikolai Polozov: With regard to sanctions, you have to ask yourself first, why are you implementing sanctions, particularly if we are talking about the Magnitsky Act, and what do we expect from those sanctions? If we are talking about the Magnitsky Act which started with listing those responsible for the murder of Magnitsky, I would say that Russia didn’t really suffer severe consequences following those sanctions. These people, they don’t have property outside Russia, they have no plans to travel abroad, so this is nothing other than a kind of harassment towards them. I would say another example if we are talking about Azov Sailors, as you know Mogherini from the European Union announced the names of 8 people who will be on the list of sanctions. Well this episode means nothing for the Russian state, it is absolutely not harmful.
Well what do we expect from those sanctions? If you really want to protect human rights you really have to do something, but not just do something to say we did something. To achieve the greatest results what I believe you have to do is impose sanctions against Putin’s close circle, so those people who are sensitive to Putin, and so he will have to react if you impose sanctions against those people. Or these sanctions have to be very severe from an economic point of view. I’m talking about embargoes, trade embargoes, some kind of energy resources limitations or switching Russia off of the Swift System. Otherwise it just looks like somebody is just trying to keep his face and just saying, you know. We need something but this is not the serious kind of approach frankly.
So what we have to do is actually impose sanctions against Russia, related to the issue of the Ukrainian political prisoners, and this time sanctions have to be subject to the conditional debt, they will be prolonged while the Ukrainian political prisoners are detained. It’s been five years since everything happened right, we feel that the Russia government has immunity from those methods that have been applied by the western states against Russia. We have to go find new approaches, new places, you know something new to make these efforts effective. Thank you.
John Whittingdale: I would only add, as Andrew referred, thanks to the relentless campaigning of Bill Browder around the world. The UK did pass legislation to implement the possibility of the Magnitsky list that allows the British government to impose sanctions on individuals who have been shown to have been involved with human rights abuses, it’s obviously specifically designed for those involved with the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, but it can also be applied to those who are responsible for the torture we’ve seen displayed in the film. We still have work to do, the government hasn’t fully implemented yet and we are putting pressure on the government, having got the legislation in place now, to use it. The other thing which we need to do is to put pressure on those overseas territories which are described as British Overseas Territories, where a lot of money is concealed. We know that a number of people use accounts in those territories to hide away dirty money, and that’s where we need pressure to reveal ultimate ownership of those accounts. So there is still work in progress, but we have certainly made some significant steps forward, we also need to continue to work internationally. We have up until now been an active voice in the European Union, I suspect that won’t continue, however it does provide an opportunity in that, actually America has gone much further that the European Union in imposing sanctions and the UK, no longer having to move at the slowest pace of the membership of the EU, will actually I hope, have the opportunity to go further and perhaps impose the same sort of sanctions as the US has done, and on that note, I’m afraid I am going to have to leave you to participate in the debate which is going on, on that subject, but thank you very much, I leave you in the very capable hands of Andrew.
Andrew Foxall: Are there any more hands? There’s a question here at the front.
Audience member: I’m just very conscious that you talk about money, HSBC have been a bit in the firing line of late, I don’t know how aware you are but I know that I run a little business and I’m being told I can’t keep my account open unless I can answer this questionnaire, and a big chunk of it has questions about: ‘do I do business with anyone in the Crimea?’, ‘do any of the people I work for do business in the Crimea?’ What are they going to do? I don’t know the answer to this, but it’s just quite interesting they’re asking those questions. They’re asking about Crimea, they’re asking about North Korea and they’re asking about Venezuela. You tell me but something’s happening
Andrew Foxall: Well there’s much more in context of this which is, as you suggest, the financial measures that the West has put in place in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the broader invasion Eastern Ukraine in 2014, and you’ve written about, with Bob Seely in fact, that is part of a much broader toolkit, both that Russia uses against the West, but these financial measures are part of the Western response to Russia. Perhaps you’d like to say a little bit about that?
Alya Shandra: Well basically, Russia has a number of tools that it is using against other countries, we call it ‘hybrid war’. Basically it’s the continuation of politics by other means, and actually political prisoners are one of the instruments of this war because it uses them as bargaining chips, because it uses them as part of its propaganda campaign, and of course if there is this war going on and a reaction must be made and so financial measures, I think it’s one of the best ways to react from the West, because, basically, where does Putin get his money to conduct his repressive campaign, to conduct his war against the West? It’s from the goods that the West buys from him and of course the EU is Russia’s major trading partner so naturally if we limit the financial flow into Russia this will limit Russia’s ability to conduct war.
Andrew Foxall: Indeed there was a report released last year by the foreign affairs select committee here that argued that if we are serious about standing up to the threat that Russia poses then one of the first things we must do is end our role as a laundromat for corrupt Russian money and the questions that perhaps you’re being asked are a small, albeit important I would say, part of that response. There’s also of course the broader issue of the city of London and the extent to which the London Stock Exchange has somewhat enabled Russia to stay financially viable in the years since the annexation Crimea and invasion of east Ukraine, but that’s perhaps another topic for discussion. I don’t know if Maria or Nikolai, you could respond?
Nikolai Polozov: Ok, I can say something. So we had two wars, two world wars in the Twentieth Century and we had another tragedy, so everything we have now with regards to human rights protection is coming from our experience with those wars and other tragedies. These kinds of rules, they cannot be violated by anybody, including in Europe which suffered war. There is not only a problem that Putin takes people as hostages or captures new territories. The problem is Putin is ruining the international architecture which has been built. He’s financially supporting far-right and far-left forces in Europe, he pays money to kill somebody, to assassinate somebody on the territory of foreign countries, sometimes he uses very dangerous, radioactive ways of assassination.
The issue of occupation of Crimea is not an issue of Ukraine and Russia only. It is about Europe’s collective security, given Russian nuclear potential. Putin has only one motive, to stay in power as long as possible, at any price. So he will capture other countries, not only Ukraine if necessary, for example: Belarus. They are really threatening Baltic States, so when I hear somebody asking me about “why is the bank asking me about my assets in Crimea, whether I’m working or dealing with Crimea”, well it means whether you are responsible or not responsible in terms of the collective security in Europe. If you don’t stop Putin there, far, far away from you, he will come closer to you and he will be next door.
Maria Tomak: I just wanted to add, to tell one story just to support Nikolai’s ideas. I remember how back in 2013 when Maidan just started, it was probably in December after this attack of police on the protesters when the big scale Maidan has started. I talked to the correspondent of one of the big European newspapers, I believe it was El Pais, the Spanish one, and she shared with me that, you know, after the previous time that I came to Kiev and wrote a story about Maidan, I was so heavily attacked in the comments, I was so shocked, I was so demotivated, it was like they just destroyed me. And I remember this conversation, and I do understand at that moment the story of Olgino Troll Factory (?) has started, and that was the time when they kind of tried this instrument, and it appeared to be very, very effective, and it seems that this instrument ended up in the US, and is now being investigated by American law enforcement as a possible source of influence from Russians, from the Kremlin, in their interference in American elections. So what I’m trying to say is that we should not underestimate these kinds of threats and something which starts with such naïve things like comments near the article can end up with such influence on trans-global processes.
Andrew Foxall: I have a question if I may, not for the panel but for the filmmaker himself, which is, we’ve heard I suppose the Ukrainian perspective on why this film is so important, what motivated you to create it?
Piotr Malinowski: Well I’m not from Ukraine but from Poland and it’s kind of hard to believe that these kinds of things are going on still in Europe, that people are kept as hostages, and actually I was covering the situation in Ukraine last year for some Polish newspapers, and I spoke also with my friends from Germany and Spain, and I was telling them about the political prisoners in Ukraine, the political prisoners in Russia, and some of them heard about Oleg Sentsov, about Savchenko, but they were completely not conscious about the problem so one of the main aims of the film is to raise awareness in European societies about this problem. Also to try to show why the Russian authorities need those hostages, why it’s still going on and somehow to stimulate European society to react, because unfortunately it depends on us, it depends on the European Union and European societies if Putin will stop or not, because Ukraine by itself is not able to do that and we had the Chechen War, then there was 2008: Georgia, now it’s Ukraine and what will be next? And my country is I would say maybe not at the very top of the list but quite high, so that was my main motivation.
Andrew Foxall: And the film is in a sense built around three case studies, three sort of life stories almost. How did you select those three? Do you actually have many more recorded that didn’t make it into the film?
Piotr Malinowski: Well there are more than 70 Ukrainian political prisoners right now and this number is increasing constantly, and of course saying 70 people is just too a number yeah? So we had to choose some stories, and we were choosing those stories based on different cases, to present a sort of representative of Crimea. There is Pavlo Hyrb who was kidnapped, just a random person, who was not involved in anything, he was not a soldier, he was not even participating in protests in Euromaidan. He was 14 at the time. There is Yevhen Panov who was a volunteer, so different stories of sometimes also random people, but just used by Russian authorities, by Russian Secret Forces to manipulate their own society, to intimidate people within Crimea and Ukraine and their representatives, and of course it is also important whose families are ever let go. Unfortunately we couldn’t go to Crimea to investigate more.
Andrew Foxall: Thank you.
Nikolai Polozov: I just want to add that I just remember the time when we were speaking about a single number of political prisoners then it grew up to thirty, forty, fifty. Actually the film itself is outdated now, because it’s no longer 70, it’s 73. So last week they’ve taken three more Crimean Tartars to detain so the number is rising.
Andrew Foxall: One of the things that struck me about the film, I think you sort of alluded to it yourself, was one can obviously never understand what goes on, why the Russian authorities operate the way they do, but you can almost understand in certain cases why individuals might be targeted, but in the case of Pavlo Hyrb who just, just seemed so, so arbitrary that it leaves as lasting impression of, and it somewhat, perhaps offers an insight into the nature of Putin’s regime which, arguably one of the defining features of which is a reckless disregard for human life, both within the borders of the federation but also outside it. I don’t know if you want to offer any additional thoughts?
Maria Tomak: Yes, probably just one remark. Again sorry, it’s emotional but I think it’s important because when you say that it’s hard to believe that now in Europe we have hostages, in the territory of Europe, I have to say that one of the most terrifying things which I survived during the last five years was not even some shelling’s, but that feeling for instance in Donetsk, in April 2014 when you realise that normal, civilised city, where just recently European championship for football was conducted, now is covered by people with army, with guns, by totally insane… people that don’t think critically, they’re radicals because of this propaganda message campaign, and you understand that there is no future for this place in the nearest time, and that it’s going back to some middle ages. I mean I would not wish anyone to experience feelings like this in your country. It’s really terrifying when you, I think that something similar was in like Iran, when this country that was European-like and I mean relatively free, turned into this awful, religious dictatorship, and you understand that you cannot influence the situation, that is awful.
Andrew Foxall: Please.
Audience member: I first of all wanted to thank you for today and for this film, and Tony Blair also for his very right words and the statement that Russian leadership is at war with the West and it is about time that the West finally realises and starts doing something more proactively and not just reactively, and there is already an available toolkit of sanctions that have been applied to Iran that should be applied to Russian leadership, and also the issue is combating Russian propaganda: Sputnik, RT, the fact that any person in Western Europe or the US can turn on their TV and hear the position of the Kremlin immediately without having an effective counterbalance to that, and then of course the way that the Russian state is exploiting the weaknesses of the democracy that there is in the West, which they perceive as a weakness, that they have found a weak spot and they are exploiting them through social media and through propaganda. I don’t think in the times of the Second World War Hitler would be allowed to open his propaganda channel for, you know, for his purposes, so I think we are really not far from the same situation and adequate measures need to take place.
Andrew Foxall: Thank you. More of a comment than a question but thank you. Would you like to respond?
Nikolai Polozov: Hitler would not be allowed to open any propagandist channel. I cannot recall if other were trading with Hitler or he was just capturing. Russia Today’s budget is $1 billion annually. A fortune is spent on other channels, like troll factories and other networks. Putin is not printing those bills. The Russians budget gets 60% from selling oil and coal, so this money is spent on this whole repressive team, so it’s both internally and also spends in Western countries to convince the Western world that Russia is absolutely normal. So you cannot resolve this situation by trading with Putin or allowing him to create a callous which is going deeper outside. The time has passed actually when we were hoping to kind of normalise relations with Putin, we have to recognise, acknowledge this. We have a new reality since the occupation of Crimea and we have to acknowledge this as well.
Audience member: Can I ask Nikolai, do you have any stats or figures on how much Ukraine benefits from trading with Russian gas? Because I believe that they have reverted back to some of the old policies with the infrastructure. Do you have any information about that?
Nikolai Polozov: He doesn’t have it on oil and gas. So we had some oil and gas platforms in Crimea in territorial waters, but the Russians simply captured them after the annexation of Crimea. So the shale, gas and oil deposits in Donbass are in the occupied territories now. And we do remember the time in 2007 and 2008 when Russia was blackmailing Ukraine and Ukraine was not sure whether Ukrainians will just get cold or not. What Crimea now wants to do is just to cut off these resources, Russian resources, by diverting the gas pipeline from Ukraine. So it is incorrect to blame Ukraine for trading with Russia, it’s the same as blaming a person because he used to have a sweet factory in Russia. There are several businessmen, Ukrainians, who are trading with Russia for example Victor Medvedchuk, he’s loyal to the Kremlin and he is against the Western integration of Ukraine, and yes he does have business in Russia, in Siberia, oil and gas business, which is registered under the name of his wife, and it is highly likely that he is earning money on this. But can we say that Ukraine is trading with Russia? On this example of course not.
Andrew Foxall: It’s important to say as well that immediately after the annexation, as part of Ukraine’s efforts to reform domestically did reverse flow gas from allied countries in Central and Eastern Europe. It was able to do that for a relatively short period of time, not least because it was a relatively mild winter, spring and autumn. Ukraine has, as well as attempting to reform itself domestically, of course been fighting a war which has lasted for five years and it’s also had its territory dismembered so it’s somewhat understandable that that reform process has not proceeded as fast or as effectively as it would have liked, so it’s true to say that it is, it has reverted back to taking more gas from Russia than it has previously, but it’s slightly more nuanced than perhaps your question implied, although I’m not sure if there was anything behind your question.
Audience member: Well there was slightly because I’ve read reports from the opposition leader Tymoshenko. In one article, I can’t remember the newspaper, she again is being proposed as a conduit for resolving the energy crisis in Ukraine, and obviously Medvedchuk and all these other people, is this prospectively on the cards?
Andrew Foxall: Well that brings us quite nicely on to the topic of Ukraine’s presidential election which is forthcoming and is somewhat inevitable as the ambassador suggested, and clearly within the presidential election campaign itself, Russian propaganda will feature quite prominently. So too will it feature in other elections. We saw the report today released by Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, warning that Russian propaganda will feature quite heavily in the European Union Parliamentary elections in May. On the topic of Russian propaganda and interference in elections, perhaps one our panellists would like to respond to that. Either Ukrainian or other elections.
Alya Shandra: Well, it could be pretty surely said that Russia’s goal is to create as much instability and chaos in Ukraine as possible. We could also make an educated guess that Russia’s main goal would be to make sure that Petro Poroshenko does not get re-elected because the chaos that Russia is aiming for will follow. It could also be said that Russia is investing huge amounts of resources into destabilising Ukraine prior to elections, and we can also make an educated guess that if Russia does not get a pro-Russian candidate that it is hoping for this election for the post of president then it will continue to destabilise Ukraine as much as possible, including military means. So in terms of Russia’s overall strategy of trying to make Ukraine return to its empire and to build up its geopolitical influence in the world, and make sure that Russians don’t see this example of Ukrainians integrating with the West and building a democratic country. The elections are only one episode of this war that has been ongoing since 2014, so no matter what happens come the elections we can be sure that the Russians will continue this war in all the ways that are possible, and political prisoners are one more episode of this war.
So I would just like to reflect maybe on the Russian state. Russia’s doing this because it’s an authoritarian state and it wants to increase its influence in the world, and these political prisoners that we watched are both a symptom and an instrument of an authoritarian state. A symptom because an authoritarian state needs to have an inflated repressing system that it uses against its own citizens and in order to justify the existence to its citizens it creates image of a threat, and we see all the extremists and savages that are contained, in the news they do justify this repressive system, but is also an instrument because it consolidates Putin’s power. So I would just like to offer a reflection that Russia’s aggressive policies that Ukraine is carrying the brunt of, that you are also feeling in the United Kingdom the electoral interference, with assassinations on your ground or types of assassinations. These are all symptoms of an authoritarian state, and the political prisoners that are being abused, they are being used to increase the power of the state so in helping them I think we will create a safer world because we will make it a little less authoritarian, apart from doing justice to innocent people who are sentenced away for nothing, so I would like to thank all of you all for your solidarity that you’ve expressed by coming and joining our screening, I would like to thank the organisers for having us. Thank you.
Andrew Foxall: Thank you. Maria would you like to add anything?
Maria Tomak: I’m not an expert in this issue but speaking about the elections I have to say that unfortunately the human rights agenda is not the top priority when you look at the programs of the candidates, and Crimea as well, because usually the candidates put in their program some populistic phrases and ideas and they don’t hope of course that Ukrainians will read these programs (laughs), usually, and that’s very sad. I can say there is no proper demand form the society as well, in order to have some agenda on human rights or on Crimea in their programs. Donbass is more represented because there is like a war there, like a real war there, but Crimea is kind of a bit of a forgotten issue for Ukrainian society and for the candidates as well, and unfortunately in the case of for instance the surprise candidate Zelensky it works because, it might sound strange but this person doesn’t show up before the journalists at all after his failure with the Radio Liberty journalists, when he was not behaving properly, it was a failure so he decided to not show up before the journalists at all and unfortunately he is still popular, although he does not answer any complicated questions, but there’s no like, request from the society as I understand to get these replies, including Russian business by the way.
So yes, and it’s a very complicated conversation about the journalism in Ukraine, about the society, about the requests from the society, about what are the priorities of the candidates, but at the end of the day of course Russia will try and use all of these like, weak points, weak places in order to achieve their goals, and now lots of people are quite optimistic, they say ok, yes we’ve lost, at least temporarily, a part of the territory, we lost thousands of people, but at least we survived. I’m not very optimistic in terms of, I don’t think we won this war, it’s ongoing and Russia will continue to attempt to gain influence over the whole country so that’s something we should remember.
Andrew Foxall: We’ve just hit 7 o’clock and the bell’s ringing but Nikolai, perhaps you can leave some final comments about the film rather than about, what else?
Nikolai Polozov: I would like to thank Alya and Piotr for creating this movie, but I do think that picking up three characters is not enough definitely, so they have to create more movies about each and every political prisoner and to screen them all over the world so that it is a constant reminder to each of us that they’re still there.
Andrew Foxall: Right, well it falls to me really just to thank both our panellists but also Piotr for the film, it really is very powerful and does deserve I think to be seen widely and repeatedly so that people can’t forget about not only these individuals but the broader conflict of which they are proportionally victims. I as I’m sure everybody else in the room, wish you the very best of luck and every success for the film. Thank you again.