Maria Baronova, Russian human rights activist, journalist and subject of “The Bolotnaya Case”, addresses the 7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Hello. I am from Russia and as you know, things in my country are not as good as we would like them to be. And first, I would like to tell [you] about myself. I never planned to be involved in any kind of political activity but one day politics came to my house. Sometimes such things happen. And since that moment, it was in 2011, I started to participate in political activities as a volunteer. I also started to work for one of the opposition dumas deputies, this is the Russian parliament, and I worked as his press secretary, just press secretary. And this whole thing happened after mass fraud in the Russian parliament elections in December 2011.
But on the 6th of May 2012, the day before the new Putin’s inauguration, a peaceful protest – it was like just the protest that about 50,000 people of them that came to the protest – and it turned into violence. So people who came there, seniors and kids included, so nobody goes to the violent protest with kids or with your grandmother, right? They were brutally beaten by the riot police and we in Russia still have arguments and debates [about] what exactly happened there. But what we know for sure, nobody among the riot police was punished for that. The protest itself took [place] in the Bolotnaya Square just opposite to the Kremlin and at the end for taking part in it I was charged by the authorities with allegedly encouraging riots. But the real plot was actually that the man for whom I work, the deputy of the Russian parliament, was immune to any kind of prosecution. So they actually started to prosecute every assistant of his and so on. So I was one of the 27 activists who stood the trial. But what was worse in that story, the first four months of the Bolotnaya case, I was actually the only real activist. And at the same time I was the only person who wasn’t put in jail and under house arrest. I wasn’t allowed to leave Moscow, but they created some kind of Machiavellian environment. They didn’t charge the real opposition leaders, they half-charged me, and they put in jail people who came to the protest the first time, just in order to show that they are smarter than the opposition and they just do something like that and they won’t do anything with that.
So three years later, eleven people are still in prison for just coming to the peaceful protest. In advance of the Sochi Olympics two years later after that, several political prisoners were amnestied. You know about them like Pussy Riot, Mikhail Khodorkovski, like the most famous former political prisoner. And I was among those who were luckier than others.
During the last three years I also became a journalist and a commentator for a few so-called Russian liberal media. The most well-known media on the list is TV Rain, so-called TV Dozhd. Probably you also know about that TV channel because this is the only independent TV channel in Russia and which also has been under the pressure of the authorities during the last year. And in October 2014, I joined the Open Russia movement as a human rights coordinator. So the Open Russia Movement was established by Mikhail Khodorkovski, a former political prisoner and also former richest Russian man. So that’s who I am, and now I’m going to try to you explain my motives of what I do and the motives of other people who do the same.
I’m sorry I’m going to do it in Russian because actually in Russia all who came to, even to the UN, we are called national traitors right now. Well we are not and I really want to be heard in Russia. So since this speech is out, I’d like them to listen to me and to explain my motives and [the] motives of my colleagues. So, ok.
When I came to Geneva, I posted a question on Facebook. I asked a number of different people, what concerns you the most, what affects you the most, what moves you the most? Because people write me, people who are neutral. And so I asked them, what would you like me to talk about? What worries you about the current situation? Why are you demonstrating, for example? Even if you’re happy about the way Russia is going, what does bother you? And I got some answers.
Many people are very concerned about the current political situation. People are afraid to demonstrate, that’s true. There are many people who are afraid of being held hostage by this system, fearing revenge because the government is repressing the demonstrators. But what they are most concerned about is what will happen if they fall ill. Everyone is afraid of this. They’re afraid of having to depend on the health system. This is a major problem.
Most of the protest stories that I know of began because of the situation of medical care. Volunteer organisations were set up to help children who are ill. Some people try to help improve the catastrophic situation of people who need pain killers. We have suicides every year, every day because people are suffering and they cannot get painkillers. It’s an incredible situation in Russia. There are countries where the situation is even worse but we have this problem for the terminally ill, even for children. This is an enormous problem and this worries people and this has led the middle class in the large cities to demonstrate. We’re not used to having people talk about their personal lives, their personal stories in Russia. So how is it that people are now taking to the streets?
There are people who never would have thought of participating in this in the year 2000 for example. But today they do because everyone understands that the system is not functioning and that nothing will change and we can give up any hope of change. And that’s why people have taken to the streets. People thought that through their demonstrations they would be able to push the power to change. But the situation has actually gotten even worse.
Any desire to change anything leads to great repression and we have political leaders, scientists and ordinary people are now participating. And we have seen a new category of political prisoners since 2011 which had disappeared. The judiciary system has been destroyed. All is pre-decided. People see that everything has been pre-arranged. That there is no real justice. We have heard of Lev Vykovsky in 2003. But at the time people of my generation were detached from this but now it is becoming, it is looming before us. Putin is still in power and now we can say that we have no hope of finding the situation that we had before when things were better. The situation has gotten terrible. Why is it that the system that existed in the year 2000 has changed in this drastic matter?
Now people are rebelling against all their previous values. I’d like to remind you of something that Mr. Putin said in the year 2000. He had been asked, “what do you think of the European Union?” and he said “Russia is a European country by its mindset, its mentality, its culture.”And concerning the economy he said, “51% of all trade from Russia will be going to the European Union.” This is what he said. A man who is still in power today. But today his rhetoric is quite different. So we can say that today there’s very little connection with Europe.
Our generation grew up under Putin’s rule and those who demonstrated in 2011 were people who grew up under Putin. But today, we find ourselves in a situation where we are considered to be traitors to the country and I don’t know why.
So what about the people who were not granted amnesty? One of these people is Denis Lutskevich and in 2011 he participated in the victory parade on Red Square. That is also when we celebrate the victory against Nazi Germany. In 2012 he was put in prison and he is now a political prisoner. Alex Polisovic, 25 years old, he served in the Russian navy. He was denied discharge recently because, from the point of view of the Center E, Center for Combating Extremism, he is considered to be an anti-fascist militant. So we can say that it’s obviously not a good idea to be considered an anti-fascist in Russia. Alexey Gaskarov has been beaten on the Bolotnaya Square. Those who beat him were not ever found but he was sentenced to three and a half years. But the grimmest story is that of Aleksandr Dolmatov. After the searches and the raids on his home, he fled abroad and he asked for political asylum in the Netherlands. Many people were searched after the demonstrations and fled to Europe. But, he was refused political asylum by the Netherlands. They did not consider that he was truly at threat. And in January 2013, he committed suicide in a deportation prison in Rotterdam. And it was then that we realised the situation was hopeless and that we could not rely on help from outside.
Now we know that there are people who are in a worse situation when they ask for asylum in Europe and we won’t deny that Russia’s situation may not be as bad as that of others. But it is getting worse every year and Russia is beginning to threaten its neighbours and this is a threat for the world at large. And now we find a large number of people who have been the victims of Russian power, simply because they try to make Russia a better place. And they have not been able to find any help from Europe. We ourselves don’t know what to do or what action to take. The most glaring example of this situation, showing that Russia is going back to past practices, is that of Alexei Navalny who was one of the most promising politicians of the young generation. He was sentenced twice with a suspended sentence for economic matters, not for political matters, and he was given a suspended sentence so he was not jailed. But, his brother was put in prison, Oleg Navalny. His family was persecuted and this is typical of the Stalinist era. We cannot say that we are in a similar period as the Stalinist era, but the situation can tip at any moment.
Now I work with the movement started by Khodorkovski and I work in human rights. And militants, political activists, in our country are threatened by imprisonment and by repression, and we are afraid of being thrown into jail at any moment. Now to go back to what I said at the beginning about the state of medical care that concerns people the most, the situation is not improving. There is no hope that people will be treated like human beings. People are closing their eyes to what is happening. We want to help people to defend themselves so our message is you have nothing to lose any longer and the only chance that we can obtain some justice is to speak up and to denounce what is happening. Silence serves the interests of power so we intend to speak up loud and strong and to help families who have been victims of repression because Russian power is a financial scourge above all. For example, the Bolotnaya Square demonstrations led families to spend $200,000 for lawyers fees to help their families. This is a considerable amount of money. So power today has learned from the west by affecting people financially. Now there are people who have created projects to help the families of political prisoners financially and what I’m trying to do today is to make sure, within the opposition movement, that there is not any internal discord amongst the different groups because this will be very counterproductive.
Those who are following events in Russia from abroad well I entreat you not to just stand by and remain passive. We have the feeling here that Russia’s far away but we are not. A lot of war rhetoric is being used. In February 2015 we saw that the language of might no longer works so we must engage in dialogue.