After Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov receives an EU prize, what prospects for solidarity?

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was recently awarded the annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. This should put more pressure on the EU to rethink their relations to Russia, says Green MEP Rebecca Harms.

Editors of OpenDemocracy Russia
22 December 2018

Rebecca Harms. Image: Rebecca Harms / Jurgen Olczyk.In December, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was awarded the 2018 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Sentsov, an outspoken opponent of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence for terrorism offences.

The Sakharov Prize is awarded to individuals “who have made an exceptional contribution to the fight for human rights across the globe, drawing attention to human rights violations as well as supporting the laureates and their cause”. Oleg Sentsov is certainly among these people. In May 2018, Sentsov started a 145-day long hunger strike, asking for the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. He was forced to end his hunger strike in October 2018. But even in prison, Sentsov continues to fight for his convictions – and his work as a filmmaker.

The award ceremony took place in Strasbourg on 12 December 2018. Held in a prison in Russia’s Far North, Sentsov was not only unable to attend the ceremony (Natalia Kaplan, his cousin and legal representative, accepted the prize instead), he is even illegally prohibited from collecting parcels of warm clothing. “It is a strange feeling to be pressured to survive on boiled water and thin soup, while the whole world is supporting you,” Sentsov wrote in an address to the Sakharov Prize Committee.

What will Sakharov Prize mean to Sentsov and other political prisoners in Russia? oDR speaks to Rebecca Harms, a Green MEP (Germany) closely involved in Sentsov’s case.

Oleg Sentsov is, in the first place, an artist – a filmmaker and playrighter. What do you make of his film and theatre productions?

I saw his 2011 film Gamer. I come from a family of filmmakers. My husband and all the people I live with in my house in the countryside are involved in producing films –writers, directors, editors. It is probably because of this personal background, that I feel a specific responsibility. 

I think that for Oleg it was very important that solidarity with a colleague in prison spread among filmmakers at a time when his case had already been forgotten in Europe. What happened here in Berlin during the Berlinale, in Cannes and at other film festivals – all this was very important. I was also pleased that the film academy helped to produce The Trial: State of Russia against Oleg Sentsov, by Russian filmmaker Askold Kurov, and that this film was presented first in Germany at the Berlinale.

“For Oleg it was very important that solidarity with a colleague in prison spread among filmmakers”

Natalia Kaplan’s speech during the award ceremony and in many briefings in Strasbourg – with different groups and people from different political background as well as with representatives of the European Commission – has shown us the artist Oleg Sentsov, who needs his work and tries to continue under the most awful circumstances. I hope that European governments and diplomats will become more involved in Oleg‘s case. The Sakharov Prize makes it a duty for us to work for Oleg’s freedom. But since we don‘t know whether we will see him soon becoming a free man again, we have to support Oleg’s capacity to work as a filmmaker even in prison.

Is this support already being provided in any way?

Oleg continues to work, but not yet with our support. We have learnt during Natalia Kaplan’s visit to Strasbourg that he is already working on a new movie. It could, potentially, become a very good co-production: Ukrainian, Polish, German, French. That would strengthen the artist and hopefully his way to survive in prison.

Why do you think Oleg Sentsov’s case is so important for other people in the European Union?

Right now there is a group of Ukrainians, 70 people, who are imprisoned in Russia. They are recognised as political prisoners according to international standards. When you have this kind of a situation, with such a large group of prisoners, you never know who will be the face of the group, the face representing all of them. There are others who also became very visible, like Nadiya Savchenko, Roman Suschenko or Akhtem Chigoz, the Crimean Tatar leader, who was released already some time ago. But last year – when Oleg went on hunger strike when the world came to visit Russia for the FIFA football championship –his face became the face of all of them. Oleg Sentsov risked his life for the freedom of all the Ukrainian political prisoners. He connected his fate to their fate and therefore became the exemplary case. We have to understand this and this doesn‘t allow us to forget the others.

“We have to support Oleg’s capacity to work as a filmmaker even in prison” 

Perhaps another reason is that he is not a Crimean Tatar, he is a Ukrainian from Crimea, a sort of a bridge between different Ukrainians. Together with some colleagues in Strasbourg we recently have produced a little video in which we read the names of all the Ukrainian political prisoners. When listening to the names you understand that most of them are Crimean Tatars.

Do you think that the situation with Ukrainian prisoners of war in Russia will change in any way after the events in the Azov Sea?

These sailors are clearly prisoners of war, an undeclared but ongoing war which is now in its fifth winter. In the European Union, we aim to put pressure on the Russian side to free those Ukrainian servicemen immediately. It is completely illegal that these men were not only detained, but were also accused of illegal border crossing in a Russian court. I don’t know whether we will be successful in their cases. My proposal to introduce personalised sanctions against all Russian navy officials and judges involved in this case has been adopted in the Resolution of the European Parliament, but the European Council has not yet decided to follow this proposal.

“We need more pressure and more engagement from the West”

The documentary by Askold Kurov, The Trial, shows that Sentsov is Putin’s personal hostage. When Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov has begged Putin even twice to free Sentsov and gave good reasons for this, Putin rejected twice in a very clear and a very cold way. We need more pressure and more engagement from the West, supporting also Russian filmmakers, because I know that many Russian filmmakers are also asking to free Sentsov. My own husband and a young filmmaker from our family have been invited to a film festival in Saratov this year and won a prize. In the opening of this festival, the speaker talked about Sentsov and asked to free him. And he got a lot of applause for this. I think there is hope. Sokurov repeated recently and publicly his request.

How do you imagine those sanctions? What are the possibilities that could be used? Will those be personal sanctions as you mentioned or will they have a broader scope?

Personalised sanctions against Russian officials responsible for illegal detention, illegal trials, Stalinesque sentences and ill-treatment or torture should include the following: banning them from entering the European Union, freezing their accounts in European banks and also not permitting them to use the services of European Union like hospitals, schools or universities. I am convinced that the Magnitsky Act, which has been passed in several countries already, is a very important reaction against systematic violations of human rights. We need to establish such a legal instrument at the EU level.

Oleg Sentsov is not the only artist detained in Russia today. Alongside him there are other artists who are being prosecuted and put on trial, such as Kirill Serebrennikov or Alexey Malobrodsky. Is there anything the European Union can do to further protect the rights of Russian artists, or at least to provide them with some sort of refuge in the EU, in the worst case scenario?

There is a lot we need to improve. We should not leave the responsibility of organising exile and a secure life outside of Russia to Ukraine or the Baltic states alone. There is a growing crowd of Russian artists, journalists and political activists, who do not have an official exile status, but they work and live in Russia‘s neighbouring countries. We should contribute to improve the conditions for them to work. They have already an impact on people in Russia even when working from outside their country.

Oleg Sentsov. Photo CC BY-SA 4.0: Antonymon / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.In Germany, everybody, as a rule, wants a good relationship with Russia. So do I. However, having good relations with Russia cannot mean doing business as usual. We need a dialogue. But not a dialogue to cover the truth about Putin’s war against Ukraine or his support for anti-EU far right movements. We need good relations with Russian civil society. And this needs to be taken very seriously, otherwise we fall into the trap of what is promoted by people such as Alexander Rahr [German historian and political analyst] or Gerhard Schröder [former German Chancellor and now Rosneft chair] – who suggest that Putin’s authoritarian system is tailor-made for the Russian people. It is not, as we know from many people, from Russian civil society and from Russian citizens.

How do you feel this climate of relations with Russia is changing in the EU, among your colleagues, with the influx of conservatism in European politics? Is there more pressure on you?

The climate in the debate is becoming increasingly tense on all Russia-related issues. I see more and more clearly how far the Kremlin is involved in these success stories of the right wing, anti-democratic and anti-European camp. 

Will the EU sanction its own politicians for visiting Crimea?

I have always advocated that colleagues should respect Ukrainian laws. There are reasons for these laws. However, I am also encouraging Ukrainian authorities not to make a visit to Crimea a mission impossible. I believe that Crimea can and should be visited – but only if laws of Ukraine are respected. Those who visit Crimea illegally in violation of Ukrainian law, they face criminal charges in Ukraine. In the EU we should continue to advocate for respect of Ukrainian law and should reject to follow the rules or the invitations of the occupying force [Russia]. I think Ukrainians have to accept that independent journalism is not anti-Ukrainian, and to investigate the situation in Crimea, also in the other occupied territories, is to the advantage of Ukraine.

“Ukrainians have to accept that independent journalism is not anti-Ukrainian”

What do you think of the possibility of an OSCE mission being placed in Crimea and whether Ukraine could become a part of this mission?

Since the very beginning, it has been clear that this peninsula is confronted with the most awful human rights violations in Europe. You also see it when you look at the list of political prisoners that Crimean Tatars have not only lost their minority rights, which were achieved in Ukraine, but are being treated extremely badly. We know that every week the Russian security services search the houses of Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians in Crimea. Despite several requests and due to Russia’s reluctance, neither the UN, nor the OSCE have been allowed to deploy an observation mission in Crimea. Russia always tells us that Crimeans wanted to be reunited with Russia, but if this is true, why are they hiding the peninsula from international observation?

Over the years I have followed the reports of a German NGO called Gesellschaft für Bedrohte Völker (Society for Threatened Ethnic Groups), a well-known human rights organisation with a lot of experience in similar situations like in Crimea. They describe the deterioration on the peninsula very well in their annual reports. In addition, the UN reports reflect the worsening human rights situation.

Is there any possibility for the EU to cooperate with Russian civil society sector to implement at least some form of monitoring in Crimea?

There should be more attempts by the European Parliament to invite Russian civil society activists to Brussels, and also more efforts especially by Western EU countries to invite them to Berlin, Vienna and Paris. This could also change the view on Russia, and could debunk the mantra of the pro-Putin camp and the Gazprom lobby in EU that says all Russians are comfortable with Putin and his system.

I admire those Russian citizens who go to the streets, sometimes alone, to show solidarity with Sentsov or Crimean Tatars. I find it incredibly strong what these people are doing and we in the West should at least pay much more attention to Russian civil society.

From what I have experienced in my work in post-Soviet states over the last 15 years is that change always comes from the inside. It is a preposterous idea from Russian propaganda that CIA organised EuroMaidan in Kyiv. The Maidan was so strong because it was a Ukrainian movement that came from the very heart of Ukrainian citizens.

I advocate to take civil society in Russia very seriously. If we have no dialogue with Russian civil society there is no serious dialogue. And I am convinced that we should, even if this became more difficult thanks to Putin‘s NGO laws, support Russian civil society. Change can and will happen if Russian citizens want it.


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