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WE WILL FIGHT NOT JUST FOR OURSELVES, BUT FOR A NEW GENERATION OF CIVIL ACTIVISTS
WE WILL FIGHT NOT JUST FOR OURSELVES, BUT FOR A NEW GENERATION OF CIVIL ACTIVISTS
An interview with Andrey Yurov, the Honorary President of the International Youth Human Rights Movement
Karine Gantin (Paris, IPAM)
Karine Gantin: Good afternoon Andrey. Tell me please, what is the current situation in the realm of the protection of Human Rights in Russia?
Andrey Yurov: For the past several years, from my point of view, the situation as a whole with human rights, especially with the fundamental (individual, civil, political) rights, has deteriorated. Although in separate directions small improvements can be seen.
The main tendency, and the main threat, consists in the fact that in recent years the authorities have, by and large, returned to the Soviet feeling that they are primary, instead of the people. The authorities have forgotten that their primary task, as it is clearly written in the Constitution of the Russian Federation, is to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens. Instead, the rights and freedoms of citizens are put aside, have become superfluous, unnecessary, and are rigidly broken.
Karine Gantin: Can you give me some examples of the infringements of rights?
Andrey Yurov: I would pay particular attention to some of the issues with which our organization is directly engaged.
I shall begin with the main procedural right - the rights to a fair trial. In the opinion of many, not only human rights activists, but also experts, lawyers, and political scientists, the courts in recent years have become considerably less independent, less free. And when it is a question of any lawsuits made by citizens against any authorities or large commercial structures (by convention - "the mighty of this world"), more often the court acts for the benefit of the latter. Sometimes it is a question of straight corruption, sometimes – it is simply about fear, that their telephone conversations might be recorded, etc. And this factor puts people on their guard, because the court should be that independent procedure by means of which it is possible to protect all other rights. And in exactly the same manner the basic civil and political rights – freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of speech – are those rights owing to which all other rights can be protected: for example, social, collective, ecological (environmental) rights, etc.
Concerning the freedom of assembly, it is possible to say that the law which regulates the carrying out of mass actions is, in itself, quite good, but here law enforcement practice is ugly. For example, when the authorities forbid any kind of meeting, flagrantly breaking the law, the court, as a rule, is on the side of the local authorities.
With regards to the freedom of speech, it is impossible to say that changes in the situation are significant. It is very important that, until now each person can freely publish a newspaper with a circulation of 999 copies, or is free to place on the Internet anything they want. However, the first proceedings concerning freedom of speech on the Internet have already begun, and there are cases where, for rigid criticism of the authorities, the person is held accountable. There is practically no free mass-media, at least, not “mass” media. Those that exist have a very limited circulation, and, as a rule, operate at the very local level.
Today the greatest cause for alarm, both by way of legislation and by way of law enforcement practice, is due to the situation with the right to freedom of association.
Karine Gantin: Is this connected to the sensational new legislation on NGOs?
Andrey Yurov: The new law on NGOs, or more precisely, the submission of modifications and amendments, at once, into several laws, has bly complicated the work of noncommercial organizations.
First, NGOs are practically deprived of the different tax privileges accepted all over the world, and are equal on many financial returns to commercial organizations.
Second, the very process of creating and registering a NGO has become many times more complex, than say for any business, which, nevertheless, can render services to the population, while deceiving the population.
There is a system of numerous checks which greatly complicate work.
The reports have become very hard: any noncommercial organization, even the smallest, if it wishes to be registered, must have a separate person who is occupied with only one thing – constantly writing reports. It undermines the very principle of the work of an independent association when people unite in their interests, open or do not open an account, but nevertheless conduct minimal financial activity and are occupied with, in essence, the protection of their interests or the interests of other people.
The very procedure for suspending the activity or closing noncommercial organizations became so simple, that for May-July several hundred or even thousands of organizations have been closed - through court in absentia. What’s most unpleasant is that the lists of checks, used by the service leading the verification of the NGOs activity, are so obscure, that the organization learns that it is closed only after a great deal of time has past.
For us, playing by such rules became absolutely unacceptable - for the state, what became primary was, not our right to associate, not our freedom, what became primary was to resolve a certain state interest in allowing us or not allowing us to do something. The authorities want to make civil organizations transparent only for the authorities, but not for society. But we are ready to be transparent namely for society. For example, it was possible to oblige NGOs to post reports on the Internet or to publish them in a newspaper, instead of handing them over to the Registration service. And under such conditions we, from our side, demand total transparency for most of the verifying organs so we can understand what’s happening. It is necessary to explain very rigidly, to the authorities at all levels, that to create an organization and register it is our principal right. The authorities are only necessary to help to us legalize papers, instead of interfering in the implementation of our right.
Karine Gantin: How do citizens react to such behaviour from the authorities?
Andrey Yurov: Unfortunately, a sufficiently large amount of the population, but not the majority I hope, is indifferent to the fact it has had its rights and freedoms taken away. People put up with the fact that the Constitution is being broken, and that they are no longer the purpose and aim of the state. And this, as a human rights activist, grieves me much more than the excesses of authority.
This behaviour of the people is partly connected with a growth, both in society and in authority, of fascist attitudes. Let me explain, I mean three tendencies of fascism: growth of xenophobia, totalitarian thinking and a cult of militarism. The level of intolerance and direct aggression towards people who differ from the majority in terms of their religious views, beliefs, appearance, and to a number of non aggressive subcultures, has bly increased. People have returned to the views of the Soviet person, that there are some interests which are considerably higher than the rights and freedoms of the individual person, and that the individual can be crushed, being guided by a great idea, in the name of the great leader, the great party, etc.
Well, also being cultivated is the idea that the way to decide conflicts is through violent methods.
Karine Gantin: What’s happening in realm of the protection of human rights?
Andrey Yurov: The possibility of protection has bly diminished. This is connected with the tendencies and threats about which I already spoke. Problems in the field of freedom of association have also concerned human rights activists.
Human rights activists and civil activists are under serious pressure, whose force has, recently, increased considerably.
A negative image of human rights activists is being created in the mass-media; direct pressure appears through different bodies - financial, verification, fire protection and others. Under commercial pretexts, human rights activists are evicted from their offices. There is pressure on them via absolutely far-fetched criminal and administrative clauses, and they are arrested even during “legal” actions organized in accordance with all requirements of the law.
The cases when people, who are activists from civil organizations, and not human rights organizations, are removed from trains while traveling to various actions has become more frequent.
There are constantly situations when policemen enter peoples apartment’s without any grounds simply to find out who these people are, where so-and-so has gone or where they are now – turns out to be pressure upon the relatives. For example I personally am a member of the Advisory Council attached to Human Rights in the Russian Federation, director of Public Reception for the same ombudsman, in the Voronezh oblast, and am a certain “half-bureaucrat”, although I do not get any money for my work as an official representative of authority. Nevertheless, for the latter half of a year representatives of law enforcement bodies came to my apartment twice, while I was away, to find out whether I am engaged in extremist activity, and frightened my parents. The situation reaches to the point of absurdity. I should think so, imagine if they went to Federal Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin’s home and have asked if whether he was engaged in radical activity, at a time when say he, for example, was at some world congress representing the Russian Federation. If such pressure occurs to “official” human rights activists, it is possible to believe that the situation with ordinary active workers is much worse.
Karine Gantin: What is your comment on the “closing” of your organization?
Andrey Yurov: I have two hypotheses as to why this occurred. Thus far I’m not ready to give preference either of them.
First, this is a deliberate reprisal against the International YHRM. I have no absolutely specific information that our organization is on one of those “secret”, not clear generated by whom, lists of undesirable organizations. One such list was passed to us by the regional administration of one of Russia’s East-European parts.
Second, this is connected with the general system-defined mistake incorporated by changes in the legislation on NGOs. Ironically the YHRM was one of the active critics of the new legislation: we said that the approved amendments create an illegal situation when the law, instead of prescribing precise rules of the game, creates opportunities for arbitrariness.
The situation is symptomatic – it shows the prevailing attitude which has developed in our state system between the state and society. The state believes its right to control and forbid by imposing restrictions instead of, on the contrary, promote and contribute to institutes of civil society. In particular the state, embedding into the heads of officials such attitudes, provokes the conflict of civil society with authority, which negatively affects the reputation of the Russian Federation as a whole. We know that our situation is not isolated, similar cases are numerous; they occurred and occur in other regions.
In this matter one additional moment disturbs me, if we are, nevertheless, a well known enough organization, and I hope many people will stand up for us, then for the enormous number of small local organizations in the regions, also illegally closed, there is nobody to stand up for them.
Karine Gantin: What are the juridical aspects of the matter?
Andrey Yurov: As to the actions of the authorities, I consider them in a legal sense, worthless and silly.
There are two moments on which I’d like to comment.
The first is the illiteracy of the officials from the FRS which, by this court claim, showed their incompetence. From my point of view, the formal pretexts, on which the YHRM was closed, are insignificant and ridiculous. It is clear that any independent court would immediately through out the claim and would then also award the organization some compensation. We intend to appeal against the court’s decision and seek, within the appeal, compensation for moral damage.
The second – the court handed down its default judgment, in our absence, not having found the time to verify the authenticity of the information that the FRS submitted. One inquiry would have been sufficient to know, the necessary address needed to notify the organization so that it could, nevertheless, personally defend its rights in court, and to ascertain that the organization carried out all its responsibilities. However, the court simply accepted, on faith, the FRS argument, after forgetting about the applicability of judicial authority - to protect the law, instead of legitimize the decisions of the executive power.
The court still has an opportunity to correct the situation – we have already made a complaint about the cancelling of the default decision in which we specify that there was no notification from the court and we could not defend ourselves. If, however, the fact will be admitted, that nobody informed us about the court, the decision will be appealed, and we’ll then have an opportunity to argue in essence with the FRS claims. We consider both the absentee decision, and the initial claim illegal and we will challenge them. If it’s not possible to do this in Russia, we shall absolutely indeed go up to the European court, defending the right to association - not only ours, but also many other organizations which encounter a similar practice.
Karine Gantin: Andrey, how do you feel personally in this situation?
Andrey Yurov: I learned about what happened when I was in Krakow, at the International School of the Helsinki Civil Assembly (Helsinki Citizens' Assembly) – devoted to the problems of an increase in nationalism and xenophobia. The first thing I felt, was of course, certainly disappointment, indignation, and bitterness. But later, when I considered everything, I understood that everything is not so bad.
First, I immediately felt the support of the participants of the international activity that I was attending at the time. Second, considering that similar cases now occur in the hundreds, and could become thousands, of organizations in Russia, the closing of our organization becomes a very good occasion for the beginning of a big campaign. The campaign is directed not only toward the restoration of the rights of our organization, but to a larger degree – the protection of civil society in Russia and in the countries of the NIS as a whole.
In this sense now I feel a certain flow of forces and a desire to do more because until now, often different officials at different levels, for example in Russia, as one of the arguments provide facts, that close only extremist organizations, or those, which do not hand over reports in time. But now it appears that you can easily close a well-known, b organization that is effectively cooperating with the state structures, let alone regularly delivering reports in conformity with all the norms of legislation.
Right now we have the full right to deny these reasons, to say that the Russian legislation and its law enforcement are such that, in reality, not one organization can feel protected in such conditions, especially if it has an independent civic stand. However, to those organizations that completely subordinate their activity to the directives, either directly or indirectly specified by authority, every possible guarantee of safety will be given.
In this sense, it seems to me that the article, written by me two years ago, about the fact that civil society will be divided into three categories, became prophetic
The three categories of civil organizations are:
1) those who become subordinate to the state – they will be given every kind of preference, state grants, membership in public chambers, etc.;
2) those whom they will destroy because of their independent civic stand;
3) and those, whom they will leave for exotic things, for demonstrations to the Western world, that we also have “Democracy” and “Civil Society”.
Indeed, because of these factors, my feelings now are – this is a desire to not lower my hand, but to fight, moreover not only fight for myself, and not only for Russian civil organizations. Now more than ever, I feel they are putting undue pressure on civil organizations in different countries of the USSR – in Belorusia, and Central Asia, and a number of the countries of the South Cacauses, etc.
And in some sense, for many YHRM activists who only wished to be engaged in education, and have been absolutely assured that nothing threatens them, this situation has become a demonstration of the fact that in a restricted society it is impossible to be occupied by frivolous, “children's” subjects and to indicate that everything is in reality good. Now it’s become clear that disaster can arrive anywhere, and it means, that it is necessary to struggle, and to struggle not only for ourselves, and for the organizations in Russia, but for that, which the YHRM has always directed it’s activity – the protection of civil society in many countries of the world and the creation of a new generation of civil activists.
Karine Gantin: What support do you expect and from whom specifically?
Andrey Yurov: First, taking into account the fact that we are an international organization and simultaneously an international network, we are absolutely confident in the fact that what happened will very bly mobilize participants of the Youth Human Rights Movement. We hope that this will mobilize our closest friends and partners, and will return to them an interest in the struggle against injustice which from time to time fades.
Second, support from different organizations, both Russian and international, simple activists, journalists and youth, is very important for us. The fact is that to the activists who work in our branches, especially in Russia, it is very important to feel that they are not alone, and that in the world there are people who are ready to support them despite what occurs around of them. From the point of view of help in upholding our organization’s right to exist in the face of the state apparatus, petitions, references in various agencies, official inquiries, etc. are also important.
We hope for support from different Russian, foreign and international structures, organizations, and individual activists. A web site has been created: http://www.defence.yhrm.org, on which news of our solidarity campaign is posted, and where it is possible to learn how to help.
And third, we nevertheless greatly hope that the closing of our youth organization which in 10 years became very well known, not so much in Russia, as in Europe, Central Asia, will push many nongovernmental, and governmental, intergovernmental structures, such as the OSCE, the Council of Europe and so on, to relate in a completely differently manner to programs of for the protection of human rights activists and programs for the protection of civil society in the NIS countries.
In other words, we hope that what happened with us becomes a good occasion to draw attention to problems of human rights organizations in the NIS countries as a whole.
In the near future we plan to start an international campaign for the protection of civil society in the NIS countries, which we developed last year, and we hope, that very different people and organizations will be part of it.
We really hope for not only human rights activists, but also intellectuals, and well-known people prominent in cultural matters. We hope that the question of the future of civil society and solidarity will be discussed at many intergovernmental conferences and events. We wish to not be a victim (nevertheless we are a youth organization and if there is a need we shall open new organizations in other countries, so it is not that easy to get rid of us), but an instance for the beginning of a serious struggle not only for us, but also for human rights activists and civil society on the territory of the NIS.
Karine Gantin: Who are the members of your organization?
Andrey Yurov: If we look at those people who now compose the International “YHRM”, then there emerge basic groups.
The first are civil activists and leaders of the civil organizations (beginning and already prevailing professionals), who work in the most different spheres: from direct human rights defence up to ecology (environmentalism), from human rights education of schoolboys to the training of employees of law enforcement bodies in Human Rights, from anti-totalitarianism to the protection of the rights of draftees.
The second are the universally recognized public leaders and experts on the problems of civil society, and well-known human rights activists. People who are some kind of teacher and flag officers, for many members of the MVD whom they teach, advise, and guide in daily activity.
And the third group are socially active students, young teachers, journalists from different countries who might not be able to be engaged directly in civil activity but would, nonetheless, like to be well informed about what occurs in their country and the world in the sphere of human rights, and would like to take part in single educational programs or actions and campaigns. In this same group I would also place activists of social nongovernmental organizations and activists of political parties who also follow events in the field of protection of human rights, and periodically participate in actions for the protection of rights, and educational programs of the YHRM.
The collective portrait of a YHRM activist might appear as follows: a young idealist who, except for ideals and values, possesses a sharp desire and aspiration towards – training and development, constant professional and personal growth and, certainly, a change in the world. This is the image that we try to relay (in word and business) in the very different youth media in to search for and find such young people. So, these young people are on the same path as us.
Karine Gantin: Could you explain, please, the structure of your organization?
Andrey Yurov: The structure of the YHRM can be traced along several lines.
The general management is carried out by the general conferences, and in the interval between their gatherings - the International Coordination Council. The headquarters of the CC is in Nizhni Novgorod.
There are also working bodies - the Administrative Centre in Voronezh which ensures the general functioning of the Network, and Information Centres in Voronezh, (focused on work with members of the Network), in Moscow (the International Information Centre) and in Berlin (the European Information Centre).
Second, as has already been mentioned, the very different thematic structures on themes and forms of the activities, which unite participants in networks from different regions and countries (for example, working groups on antifascism, freedom of assembly, a team for education, a team for research and monitoring, and a team for public actions, etc.)
Third, these are the territorial structures of the YHRM. For example there is YHRM Ukraine, or, say, YHRM Nizhni Novgorod in Russia.
It is worthwhile to also mention the various statuses of participation in the YHRM – correspondents, and participants in the Network. There are correspondents of the YHRM, they are people or the organizations that receive information, can distribute the information, and receive printed information resources from the YHRM, etc. Participants are people or organizations that are already more familiar with the Network, with activists of the Network, and are ready to take up a certain moral obligation – to support other participants of the Network. Thus, practically any person can become a correspondent, spreading the ideas and values of the YHRM and wishes to participate in the information exchange, but the participant is a person who is already sufficiently acquainted with the YHRM Network and is ready to make a serious contribution to its work.
Karine Gantin: What are some current and future projects?
Andrey Yurov: Currently at the YHRM, five basic programmes (or macro-programmes, if you want) are active.
The first program – “Youth for Human Rights and Individual Dignity”, is focused on education and protection of, strictly speaking, Human Rights, as it is understood by the European Convention on Human Rights. Within the framework of this program activity is conducted on the following themes - freedom of association, freedom of assembly, the annulment of the death penalty, law enforcement bodies, etc.
The second – “The Rights of Youth”, is directed toward the protection of the entire group of rights connected with youth and fixed by the national legislations of countries. These are the rights of students, the rights of youth, the rights of draftees, the social-labor rights of youth, etc.
The third program – “Youth for Justice”, is focused on work with so-called public problems, on such injustices which, on the one hand, are not infringements of Human Rights (in the European understanding), nor national legislation, and yet are an obvious injustice and infringe on the interests of significant social groups.
The fourth program – “Antifascism and Tolerance”, is connected, first of all, with three sub-themes: opposition to racial, national, religious and other intolerance, opposition to the cult of force, violence and militarization, and anti-totalitarianism. These are numerous enlightening and educational programs for schoolboys, school teachers, students, and the program of support of foreign students in Russia, etc.
The last program is – “Solidarity” or “Protection of Human Rights Activists”. Within the framework of the program, systems of support and protection are developed for human rights activists and civil organizations which undergo pressure in connection with their activity; actions, support campaigns, and other acts of solidarity…etc, are conducted.
Specifically, within the limits of this program we, understanding the prevailing situation, prepared a multidisciplinary sub-program “Protection of Civil Society in the NIS”, which includes work along the entire spectrum of the themes that are, one way or another, connected with the protection and support of civil organizations in the NIS regions and support of basic civil rights and freedom. Since they’ve tried to close our organization, we plan to conduct this program most actively in the nearest months so that there will be no doubts that we exist, and that civil society can not be closed that easily. Perhaps we are young, but we have enough experience to carry out such a programme.
Besides this, a significant part of the YHRM activity composes the support and development of youth civil initiatives, involving young people in civil and human rights work – this is training, organizational development, legal consultations, assistance in fundraising, and our own programs of micro-grants, etc.
If we speak about plans for the future, first, we plan to work more seriously in so-called “problem” regions of the NIS and to develop complex activity in the support of youth civil organizations in these regions, protecting such fundamental rights as: the right to freedom of association and freedom of assembly. Second, work is now being done on the creation of human rights schools for young activists from the countries of the former Soviet Union. Third, development of antifascist educational programs for Russian-speaking areas, with its specific problems, connected in many ways with the consequences of the Soviet regime.
Karine Gantin: How is your network organized in Russia?
Andrey Yurov: The structure of the YHRM Network in Russia is practically similar to the structure of the entire international Network. There is the national representation of the YHRM in Russia which carries the name “Youth Human Rights Group – Russia”, and this organization is the base for the International YHRM in Russia. The responsibility of work is assigned to members of the network in Russia and a number of representative functions. Furthermore, there are a number of regional YHRM representatives, mainly in the European part of Russia. The information distribution with the Russian YHRM activist, as for example, with the YHRM activist in Ukraine or Germany, operates via e-mail so that all interested persons can obtain information regardless of where they live.
Karine Gantin: Tell us: How did the YHRM get started? Your personal history is interesting.
My history as a human rights activist began in 1988, when I entered the first illegal organization; I understood that I could have greater problems. At this time perestroika had already begun, and while nobody for it was put in prison, they could be very easily expelled from university. I was engaged in literature, wrote verses, prose, and entered into informal literary associations. I wrote not in the spirit of socialist realism, to publish something was difficult. I met with the representatives of a semi-dissident organization – the Trade Union of Writers and Journalists. After that I was an active participant in the student's movement and one of the leaders of the trade-union and human rights movements in the Central Chernozem region. By the end of the ‘90s when all my friends from youth went into either politics or business or emigrated, I all those years remained an activist and a human rights activist.
Once in 1997 at one international human rights conference, dedicated to the anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group, I discovered in horror, that among all the participants some people were under 40 years old. And here I vividly imagined that ten years on, in 2007, there would be almost no one who would come to renew the generation of dissidents. With my sad thoughts I turned to Lyudmila Mikhajlovne Alekseevoj, chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and she agreed with the fact that it was necessary to urgently search for young people, it was necessary to raise a new generation of human rights activists. In searching for young people with colleagues we sent out letters to operating human rights organizations, began to conduct seminars and discuss human rights, support local youth initiatives, and simply to allow people to get acquainted with each other – first from one region, then from several regions, and then from different countries. Several years later when this need arose, we were able to register an international organization – the Youth Human Rights Movement, although even then in Russia it was complex enough. Today the YHRM itself initiates different programs, works on many “adult” human rights themes, many honourable participants of the YHRM are much older than 30, since they too have grown over 10 years and have matured, and not only in the professional sphere.
Therefore news about the fact that we have been closed, because they have not found convincing proofs of our existence is an occasion to smile and show yourself and different infringers of Human rights, that we do not simply exist, we operate and we operate effectively. We – this is not an organization – this is a new generation, and it’s impossible to close a generation, even in the name of the law.