Valentina Cherevatenko is the first rights campaigner in Russia to be charged with evading the 2012 law on "foreign agents". Source: Facebook.On the morning of 24 June this year, a search began of the office of the Women of the Don human and civil rights organisation, based in Novocherkassk in southern Russia. Three days later, the organisation’s coordinator Valentina Cherevatenko became the first person charged with an offence under the law which punishes those who “maliciously evade” the 2012 law against “foreign agents” — the term used to define Russian NGOs that receive funding from abroad and “engage in political activity”.
Cherevatenko is charged with “malicious evasion” of the requirements of the Russia’s “foreign agents” law: not only did she refuse to register her organisation as a “foreign agent”, but she set up a parallel charitable foundation of the same name which she also refused to register. Having refused to register, she also continued her work at Women of the Don, a serious breach of the law in itself.
The investigation into Cherevatenko is due to end next week, and I sat down with her to find out what’s going on.
Flowers for Savchenko
The Union of Women of the Don is unique. Set up in 1993 in Novocherkassk to help local women who were left unemployed in the wake of the Soviet collapse, over the past 23 years of its existence Women of the Don has turned into one of Russia’s largest human and civil rights NGOs.
It now runs a huge number of projects over a wide range of areas: it provides legal aid for conscripts and soldiers’ mothers and socio-psychological help for those who have lived through armed conflicts, terrorist activity or natural disasters; it organises peacemaking dialogues in conflict zones. “Wherever things are most difficult at a given moment, you can always find us there,” says Valentina Ivanovna, a lively woman brimming with sincerity.
The office of this “foreign agent” reminds me of a small local library, but its reach belies its size
The office of this “foreign agent” reminds me of a small local library, but its reach belies its size. This October, Cherevatenko received an Anna Politkovskaya award, founded by the RAW in War organisation, for her work in building trust between communities in the North Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine, as well as her organisation’s support for victims of armed conflict.
The Memorial human rights organisation has spoken out against Cherevatenko’s prosecution, calling it politically motivated. Cherevatenko herself believes that the investigation was triggered by her involvement in a project to establish civilian control of the implementation of the Minsk Agreements on the Donbas conflict, and specifically an article that criticised her for supporting Nadiya Savchenko, the Ukrainian pilot accused of murdering two Russian journalists in 2014.
In March this year a number of “patriotic” websites published an angry post (link in Russian) by Aleksey Zotyev, who heads up the regional “Russian Community” organisation — the article was headed “Flowers for a murderer”. Zotyev was incensed by the fact that Cherevatenko brought Savchenkoa bouquet of tulips to mark International Women’s Day as part of a Public Monitoring Commission prison visit. Zotyev called Cherevatenko a “foreign agent” and reminded his readers that her NGO received foreign funding and “was engaged in openly and aggressively stirring up the Russian public”.
“This [article] set off the media attacks against us and calls by ‘patriotically’ minded people for us to be punished,” Cherevatenko tells me. “Articles appeared claiming that I was a traitor to the Russian people, that I gave flowers to a murderer, that it was time I was dealt with, and where were the police, the FSB, the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor’s office when we needed them?
Source: Yury Blokhin. “I had been on the side of those who believed that Savchenko was innocent of the crime she was accused of. And then people started writing to me and saying that it would be a good idea for PMC members to visit her and persuade her to drop her hunger strike.” Cherevatenko agreed and started visiting and talking to Savchenko, and on the evening of 9 March the pilot wrote a statement saying that she was giving up the hunger strike.
“I was so pleased, because I had big plans for her, as a member of the Verkhovna Rada [Ukrainian Parliament], to take part in the peacemaking process in Donbas,” Valentina tells me.
Bringing peace to the Donbas is the main project that Cherevatenko and her team are currently working on. And Mikhail Fedotov, who chairs the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, believes that the project “has a real chance of bringing peace to the Donbas”.
One of projects of this “Civilian Minsk” is a “School of public diplomacy”, which is designed to bring together women who have been victims of the conflict. It works by developing a dialogue between women still living in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples republics (DNR and LNR), as well as those who have left the region for Russia and those who have moved to other regions of Ukraine.
February 2015: pro-Russian rebels walk past a destroyed building in Vuhlehirsk, Ukraine. (c) Petr David Josek / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.At meetings organised by volunteers in Novocherkassk and Odessa, people can talk about their experiences and why they chose one or other side of the conflict. The aim of the project is not only to give people the opportunity to talk to one another but to stop them believing blindly in the propaganda from both sides and instead decide to get information from various sources and analyse it. “All our work is aimed at understanding whether these people want to talk, to do something together, to bring peace closer,” says Valentina Ivanovna. ”Our job is to make these women’s voices heard — the voices of the women who have been directly affected by the conflict.”
One result of Cherevatenko’s project has been joint working with officials to solve problems faced by people living in the DNR and LNR. “For example, in May, when the Orthodox Church holds memorial services for the repose of the dead and military check points in the conflict zone are open, people are almost prodded with gun butts as they queue to go through, so we asked local officials to help us ease the situation.” It may not seem like a big deal in the scheme of things, but it’s a real problem for people living in the conflict zone, and doing something about it can make life easier for them.
21 July 2016: members of Russia's "National Liberation Movement" picket Women of the Don. Source: Public Verdict.These attempts to enter into a dialogue with Ukraine, along with the tulips for Savchenko incident, triggered a rude reaction from patriotically minded groups. On 21 July, members of the so-called “People’s Liberation Movement” (often referred to as NOD) attacked the organisation’s office, armed with posters that read: “Traitors - come here”.
“The interesting thing was that they didn’t even know what I looked like; they just stood there when I walked past them,” Cherevatenko tells me. “Then we discovered that the local authorities had sent Cossacks to sort us out, but they refused to picket our office so this lot came instead.”
How to become a demon of decay
The rights campaigners’ office had been the target of attacks even before the “foreign agents” law and much earlier than Russia’s general patriotic hysteria. In November 2011, after a visit to Novocherkassk by two representatives of the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the whole town was plastered with posters carrying photos of Cherevatenko surrounded by American politicians.
Cherevatenko's organisation, which was dubbed “a US hireling” and she herself a “demon of decay”, was accused of preparing the ground for “the bourgeois Americans to run a bloody experiment on our mother Russia”. On the same day, the office had its windows broken and the words “USA State Department reception Area” scrawled on the façade. The vandals were never found.
The NGO “foreign agent” law was passed in 2012 to fierce criticism from human and civil rights campaigners, who believed it to be anti-constitutional
A month earlier, members of youth movements attempted to break up a working meeting of Russian language teachers and their Georgian colleagues, as part of the organisation’s “dialogue between the women peacemakers of Georgia and Russia”. Young men holding placards with slogans such as “Yankees go home!” and “NATO, hands off” picketed the building and closed off the street next to the hotel where the meeting was taking place. And planned round table discussions were cancelled by the venues hired for them, without explanation.
The NGO “foreign agent” law was passed in 2012 to fierce criticism from human and civil rights campaigners, who believed it to be anti-constitutional. At various times, such major respected organisations as Golos, The Dynasty Foundation , Memorial, the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, the Sakharov Centre, Agora and the Committee for the Prevention of Torture have all been on the “foreign agent” register.
In March 2013, investigators from 10 different government agencies descended on the office of Women of the Don (as indeed on many other NGOs) without warning to “inspect” the organisation, after which it was advised to voluntarily declare itself a foreign agent. The Women of the Don refused. By law, for any organisation to be so declared, it had to have been in receipt of foreign funding and be engaged in political activity. The Union of Women of the Don had indeed received funding from abroad, from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, as part of a grants programme supporting women’s voluntary sector organisations in the North Caucasus. But it was not engaged in any political activity.
November 2014: Women of the Don hold a training on conflict mediation for teachers and students in Novocherkassk. Source: Women of the Don. At the time it was, however, unclear what constituted political activity (as Tanya Lokshina discusses), and the term could be interpreted in whatever way anyone wished. In the case of the Women of the Don, any activity that “might influence public opinion” was deemed political. In 2014, the organisation was forcibly added to the register of foreign agents.
During the inspections, the Public Prosecutor’s office ordered the NGO to correct certain infringements of the regulations — to clarify its main activity, for example, and change its name. “They explained that we, as a regional organisation, had no right to work in other regions,” Cherevatenko tells me, “we only work in the Rostov region. But practically all our work is tied up with the consequences of armed conflict, terrorist activities and natural and human-made disasters. In other words, things that happen outside our own region. We have been working like this for 20 years, filing reports on our work every year, and it has never come up as an issue.” This point may seem insignificant, but it was later to become a key element in the charges against Cherevatenko.
Following instructions from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, in 2013 the Union of Women of the Don set up a foundation of the same name, to avoid any infringements of the law while preserving the name, aims and activities of the organisation and enabling them to work in other regions. The foundation had no foreign funding and engaged in no political activity, but the Ministry of Justice nevertheless added it to the foreign agent register two years later.
The search for political activity
“While we were appealing against the ministry’s decision it turned out that the Public Prosecutor’s Office supposedly had proof of our engagement in political activity,” Valentina Ivanovna tells me. One example of this proof cited by the prosecutors was a statement by a convicted prisoner, Aleksey Solntsev.
According to the investigators, Solntsev wrote, in a statement dated 28 April 2013, that Cherevatenko, while visiting him in a labour camp, started talking about the need for “active measures to change the Russian Federation’s prison system”. One of the areas of work with which the Don Women and Cherevatenko are involved is the Rostov Region Public Monitoring Commission. Cherevatenko, as a member of the Commission, had received a letter from Solntsev’s wife, complaining that he was being subjected to constant punishments. So she went to the prison to sort out the problem.
“I noticed that he had no bedding or prison clothing, as he was supposed to,” she says. “But the way the prison system is organised, it’s impossible not to be issued with clothing because everyone has to go through an isolation period. But for some reason Solntsev skipped this isolation period. They started trying to work out how this had happened and asked to see his ID card, which he didn’t have either. I didn’t give this much thought at the time.”
“I don’t want to have to prove anything to anyone, I’m just fighting because I am not a foreign agent and I haven’t broken any laws”
The Women of the Don only found out about Solntsev’s statement eight months later, more or less by chance, during one of their “foreign agent” appeal hearings. The organisation asked the Prosecutor’s Office to produce the statement so that they could read it, but it couldn’t be found — and this was the basis on which they made suppositions about Cherevatenko’s “political activity”.
Valentina Ivanovna doubts whether the statement even existed: “I managed to visit the labour camp and photocopy the log of outward bound communications, and there was no statement from Solntsev among them. They then had to make another log, as though there were two. The investigators visited the camp, questioned staff members and prisoners, and from the way they asked the questions, it evidently appeared to them as though I was attempting to instigate and organise riots and mass disturbances throughout the prison system.”
Round table discussions of possible police reforms and a project to support community leaders in the North Caucasus provided yet more evidence of political activity by the Don Women.
“As part of this one project we ran a competition to decide which organisations to support,” says Cherevatenko. “There were five women’s organisations — two from Dagestan, two from Chechnya and one from Kabardino-Balkaria. The Kabardino-Balkaria group studied the history of women who had become successful in some field. One Chechen group researched pre-marital courting traditions in their community as a way of reducing the divorce rate.
“Another project team organised seminars on women’s rights and dealing with the problem of domestic violence. In Dagestan one group worked with young people who would be moving to other regions after finishing school and needed guidance on the etiquette of interaction with people from other ethnic groups. And the last project was about supporting a women’s club in the city of Kaspiysk. Each project lasted from four to five months, and then the groups met, told one another about the outcomes of their projects, and that was it –our work was done. Now it seems that this was political activity.”
The five organisations who took part in the competition also had to be checked by the Prosecutor’s Office, but none of them were discovered to be foreign agents or to be engaged in political activity.
“Peacemaking is my life’s work, because I have seen, I know and I am sure that war will not go away and it will affect everyone”
“I don’t know what I am being accused of and would like to hear the actual charges. The absurd stuff being thrown at me now is just a cover story. If they redefined the case and told me I was being prosecuted for holding talks with Ukraine, I would admit to that and ask them to try me for it. But this case is about something else entirely,” Valentina Ivanovna tells me.
“I don’t want to have to prove anything to anyone, I’m just fighting because I am not a foreign agent and I haven’t broken any laws. And I don’t need anyone’s permission to carry out my peacemaking activities. I’m just doing what I believe is necessary and important, and I won’t stop.
“Peacemaking is my life’s work, because I have seen, I know and I am sure that war will not go away and it will affect everyone. In 2014 it seemed that it wasn’t about us, but with each day it’s coming closer and closer. And I don’t want my sons and grandchildren, and the children and grandchildren of my friends to ever find out what war means.”
We don’t know how the prosecution of Valentina Cherevatenko will end. She has received support from Amnesty International, Memorial and the Presidential Human Rights Council. The Public Prosecutor’s Office has asked for an extension of its investigation until 22 November.
Want to know how you can help Valentina Cherevatenko? Find out more how you can send a message of solidarity with Frontline Defenders here.
Translated by Liz Barnes.