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In Russia, solidarity is hard work - but a new activist movement is emerging

How should rights defenders, activists and journalists organise their struggle against Russia’s “lawless state”? We speak to Dmitri Makarov from the Youth Human Rights Movement.

Editors of oDR
5 March 2020
Dmitry Makarov (centre)
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For Russia’s rights community, recent weeks have been tough. In mid-February, Andrey Yurov, one of the founders of the Youth Human Rights Movement, was accused of having sexual relations with colleagues and participants in the movement, and that this behaviour amounted to sexual harassment and abuse. Yurov confirmed that he had had romantic and sexual relationships with women involved in the Youth Human Rights Movement, but denied that this was abuse.

All this emerged as news broke that the organisation was to close, provoking discussions of abuses of power in the organisation’s “own ranks”. The Youth Human Rights Movement (YHRM) was founded in 1999, and organised hundreds of activists from Russia, eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space, supporting youth involvement in rights defence and civic actiity.

Then, a few days later, the Meduza online media published an article on the “Network Case”, a high-profile terrorism investigation into Russian anarchists and anti-fascists. On 10 February, one group of defendants in this case, from the town of Penza, were found guilty, and sentenced to between six and 18 years in prison. Meduza’s article alleged that several of these defendants had been involved in dealing drugs and, most shockingly, the apparent murder of a man and woman. Reactions to this article have ranged from anger and confusion at the apparent haste and quality of Meduza’s work, to outrage that these allegations were not shared earlier.

These events have raised familiar questions about how rights defenders, activists and journalists should organise their struggle against Russia’s “lawless state” - and what principles should guide this struggle.

We talk to Dmitry Makarov, co-chairman of the Youth Human Rights Movement’s Coordination Council.

Meduza’s article alleges that several defendants in the “Network Case” are complicit in murder, and has generated a strong reaction in the rights and opposition community. Many commentators claim that this information “harms the broad civic campaign in defence of the accused, discrediting them and provoking doubt over the need to defend them.” Do you agree with this position?

In my view, the Meduza article changes nothing. Torture is impermissible in any case, and the official investigation, which has ignored information about a murder in favour of a fabricated story about a “terrorist group”, provokes even more questions.

Perhaps it’s right to worry that the civic support campaign will lose momentum after this article. But I believe that there’s still a chance to say that coming out in support of political prisoners and against torture is important not because we like or sympathise with the defendants, but because there should be no torture, nor politically-motivated prosecutions.

"Network case" defendants in court, 10 February | (c) Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

It seems that before Meduza’s investigation came out - immediately after the sentences were issued in the “Network case” - Russian journalists and rights defenders had started talking about how the final part of the Penza case was not a complete defeat, but the start of a new wave of solidarity. How do the members of the Youth Human Rights Movement, who are in the same age group as the defendants, see the situation?

This was one of the most discussed issues at the last seminar of the Moscow Open Human Rights School. The “Network Case” has really intensified people’s perceptions of lawlessness and arbitrary rule.

But this feeling leads not to despair, but rather to the realisation that we are in for a long and hard battle - and we still don’t know what this battle looks like. One thing, however, is clear: you can’t stand on the sideline. There was a very strong feeling of empathy among the young people who took part in our discussions. And here it’s not a question of age, it’s simply in the perception that things can’t go on as they are and we need to do something about it.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a collective letter from psychologists [in support of the “Network Case” defendants] or pickets outside the State Duma or the FSB headquarters at the Lubyanka. The main thing is the feeling that something needs to be done. And the main question for the human and civil rights establishment is – what can we suggest?

Do you have an answer to that last question?

People are trying to answer it. Ella Paneyakh from the Institute for the Rule of Law proposes developing public control over Russia’s court system. And we have had some more general ideas from Ekaterina Shulman, who also talks about the fact that the authorities need to be checked and monitored not only in the context of the “Network Case”, but in general. We need to unite, publicly express the feelings of every professional body and get engaged with every possible institution.

This is part of our attempts to find answers. There aren’t enough of these yet, but they’re coming along. And I think that helping rights defence organisations is one option - whether through donations or professional assistance. Other options would be to create civil initiatives on a wider basis than the existing solidarity groups engaged with individual political prisoners or visits to regions, such as Penza.

The difference between the “Network Case” and many others is the level of public attention outside Moscow and St Petersburg. This is also a new reality, seeing what young people have to deal with in the provinces, whether they be activists or simply targets of the repressive machine. We can draft different options, but the main thing is to strengthen horizontal links that need to go beyond signing online petitions and pickets. There are still no simple answers to the question: “What can you do if you want to help?”

Supporters of the "Network Case" in Penza courthouse | (c) Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

You can, indeed, sign the petition started by Lev Ponamarev, or send money to the parents of the “Network Case” defendants, or go to Penza. We already have those options, and a lot of support here as well. Now we need to suggest some further steps: we need to take part in a public investigation of other terrorism cases, where the same supposed members of Hizb ut-Tahrir are being given sentences of up to 25 years, as we know from situations in Crimea and Muslim republics in Russia.

There has as yet been no attention paid to these areas, but we need to dig in in that direction. And we must provide some help of various kinds for the Committee Against Torture, or get involved with the Public Verdict campaign against torture in the Yaroslavl prison system. In other words, we need to think about what we can offer those supporter groups, and we still haven’t achieved a lot in terms of a human rights support movement.

In other words, one of the main tasks is to create not professional groups and individual expert organisations, but a human rights culture in general?

Yes, the expert organisations and “fighting groups” who are operating “behind enemy lines” need some support. Otherwise it would be very easy for everything to collapse: their members could be arrested, could lose their foreign passports or, as happened in Chechnya, individual figures could simply be murdered or put in prison. When the human rights movement is isolated, it’s paralysed.

The response to this challenge was developed immediately after the murder of Natalia Estemirova [in 2009]: a joint mobile group with representatives from several rights organisations. The response that can be given now is an even broader wave of support for human rights work. The self-organisation around important rights problems or difficult topics should be broader, it should address not only formalised, institutional structures, but different support and solidarity groups.

This kind of horizontal culture should emerge regardless of the efforts of people involved in the Youth Human Rights Movement.

To recap: the human rights agenda in Russia should not only belong to the experts, but should be used by many different people in different contexts. Have we already seen this new horizontal culture in the “Network Case”? Did it manifest itself somehow?

It’s beginning to manifest itself, although, of course, it’s not quite enough yet. We see it in waves - in the Ivan Golunov case, where the core of the movement was the Moscow journalist community. But these connections are being built and remain, and there are already some communities which have become concerned, and are working from case to case.

This ability to self-organise comes from a feeling that this isn’t the last battle for your friends and family, or for your clients, as it happens for relatives or lawyers when their loved one or client is on trial. For Russian society on the whole, each of these cases is another link in a chain of battles for a Russia free from repression and torture.

Members of YHRM wear t-shirts in support of Oyub Titiev at an award ceremony for historian Yury Dmitriev | Facebook

The Youth Human Rights Movement has consistently taught people methods of human rights defence. That said, the “Network Case” is completely unprecedented in terms of the level of illegality, fabrication of evidence and violation of all rights. Many have noted that after this case, the security services now have a green light for any kind of lawbreaking. What do rights defenders need to learn today?

I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong impression that someone knows the right answer to this question. Because when you’re in the position of teaching someone something, you should have the right answers. In my view, what we need here is dialogue and exchange of experience. This is what we need to learn - self-organisation, building coalitions - and this is something that we as rights defenders, it seems to me, aren’t very good at.

The necessity of the “Moscow case” meant that there’s been attempts to find some general responses to the situation. There aren’t enough resources for an individual organisation to react to these kind of crises. But on the whole the skill of common action is what we need to learn.

We should be talking about a big range of actions that we can take that will make change. How to fix civic issues through collective efforts - through legal, political, civic and education campaigns? This is what we’re trying to understand with our education programmes and work.

If we’re talking about a concrete case, it’s very important that there’s a core of people who form the campaign around them. This is often what’s lacking. Sometimes, it’s professional lawyers, rights defenders who act as this core. But this is only part of the story. Often a case lacks a team that can coordinate the campaign - not to manage everyone, but come up with different options that can be used.

It seems like there’s alot of work to be done to make this kind of culture. Why is the Youth Human Rights Movement closing then? Because it’s own reputation is under attack, or are there other reasons?

The scandal around the actions of Andrey Yurov, one of the founders of our movement, has been discussed a lot in the activist community. We talk a lot about how to react to this and what to do to prevent similar situations arising and being permitted. We still need to address the accusations regardless of whether they are connected to the culture of mutual aid inside the Youth Human Rights Movement, or whether they reflect general trends.

At the same time, the decision to close the organisation has come, in my view, from the fact that the main part of the team which works with the youth network aren’t young people anymore. There’s a feeling that we don’t speak the language which young people will hear. The human rights leaders that came from our organisation should share their experience, present their resources which they’ve gained thanks to their links with other rights defence and expert organisations. On the one hand, I’m ready to claim that our organisation has partially fulfilled its mission on forming a new generation of young human rights defenders. But on the other, the core of the network has lost its drive and can’t face the challenges that are arising today. But this is my view, my colleagues might have different opinions.

Related story

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A high-profile terrorism investigation into Russian anti-fascists has helped a new front emerge in Russia - a front of solidarity.

Where have these difficulties come from? Young people simply aren’t joining the movement?

There’s no shortage of young people at the seminars that me and my colleagues run. But there’s a generation crisis, and it’s not only in the rights movement - it’s connected with the fact that the older generation doesn’t understand the younger one, doesn’t trust it fully. But if we talk about networks where there’s no leadership, no clear vertical of power, then this is a different communication skill. And for young people it’s formed by social media. perhaps, they don’t need or aren’t used to formal structures - it’s simpler to organise in chats on Telegram or create some ad-hoc groups.

I’ll risk the claim that the Youth Human Rights Movement has largely completed its task of growing and integrating young activists into the rights movement. And now it can leave, to make space for something new.

What results has your organisation had?

The initial mission was to create a new generation of human rights defenders in Eurasia, not only in Russia. The ideas which were born in the YHRM community continue to live, but many people who went through our education programmes now have key positions in rights organisations in Ukraine, Belarus, partially Kazakhstan. This generation of rights defenders was formed. But despite the crisis that the YHRM is undergoing, the connections between people will remain, even if the movement formally stops existing.

There’s a strong tendency towards professionalisation of human rights defence right now. There are human rights corporations emerging now, which are working deeply on several issues. This is a good thing, I’m ready to welcome it. But there should be a general movement, a general community.

I talk about the closure of our movement with a small dose of sadness - and a larger one of optimism. A new activist movement is already forming. And it’s impossible to get everyone jobs in human rights organisations, there has to be a group of supporters - and this group exists outside of any formal ties to organisations.

The most recent examples are “Case 212” in Moscow, which is a reaction to the “Network Case”. There are other models of self-organisation, and this is what the YHRM tried to promote in the rights defence community - often finding a lack of understanding from older colleagues who said” “And what should we do with all these young people? They can’t write complaints to the ECHR, nor reports, and it takes a long time to make them into experts… Why do we need them?” But now many people are starting to work with groups of supporters - from crowdfunding initiatives to other attempts to draw in as many people as possible to actions.

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