Lyubov Sobol, Russian lawyer, anti-corruption activist and leader of the pro-democracy movement, addresses the 12th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy — see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.
On her election candidacy:
“This past summer I ran for election in the Moscow City Duma.”
“Independent, democratically selected candidates like myself were barred from running on the basis of absurd trumped-up charges, such as forging petition signatures to qualify for the ballot.”
On decision to become an activist:
“I was studying at Moscow University, and I was the observer at the election in the Moscow region. I was just literally kicked out from the election station by the police. I decided it was enough.”
On government response to post-election protests:
“The authorities reacted to these protests with a wave of repression, detaining several thousand people and filing criminal charges against pro-democracy groups. We were subjected to night searches in our homes, and dozens of people were arbitrarily detained.”
On lack of democracy in Russia:
“Unfortunately, the real voice of Russia—its citizens—often goes unheard.”
“In reality, the Russian people have no influence because all branches of government answer to Putin and his inner circle.”
“Putin wants the world to think that he represents the Russian people. But there can be no more compelling evidence that his power rests on a lie than his violent crackdown on Russians who are demanding that their representatives be allowed to put that power to the test in free and fair elections.”
On Russia’s future:
“It is absolutely obvious to everyone that Putin is obsolete and belongs in Russia’s past. The future of our country — lies with the Russian people who are demanding democratic change.”
“Foreign politicians and officials must not take money from Putin and his inner circle, because he thinks that he can buy anyone.”
Dear friends, I wish to begin with this rhetorical question: What comes to your mind first, when you hear about Russia? Viral videos from the dashboard cameras? Vodka? Putin? Russia certainly includes all the above, but not only.
Russia is not synonymous with President Vladimir Putin, nor with his United Russia party, nor with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of a private military company carrying out the Kremlin’s wishes in Syria and eastern Ukraine. Rather, Russia is embodied by its 146 million citizens, most of whom just want to live in a civilized world, and in a country where freedom and human rights are respected and upheld by credible independent institutions.
Unfortunately, the real voice of Russia—its citizens—often goes unheard, both within the country and abroad. Outside observers might think that the current government has the support of the population. Not so. The mass protests in Moscow and other cities this past summer show that while formal power remains in Putin’s hands, Russians are ready to assert their rights and demand democracy.
On the world stage, Putin falsely claims to wage his hybrid wars in our name. Yet there is no formal declaration of war. And the Kremlin consistently denies its military operations in Ukraine, because it knows they are illegal.
The Putin regime itself can be understood as a hybrid. Formally, Russia has a constitution that guarantees the rule of law, upholds the separation of powers, establishes an independent judiciary, and vests ultimate authority in the people. But, in reality, the Russian people have no influence because all branches of government answer to Putin and his inner circle.
Likewise, while Russia holds formal elections, political representatives at the federal and regional levels are selected by the regime. And at the local level, decisions are made by regional governors who are ultimately dependent on the central administration. Whenever necessary, the regime resorts to various methods to prevent genuine competition in elections: barring opposition candidates from competing, blocking media coverage of opposition campaigns, and engaging in outright election fraud.
In March 2018, Alexey Navalny, the effective leader of Russia’s democratic opposition, was prevented from running for president, and Putin easily clinched re-election in a field of Kremlin-picked candidates.
But in regional elections later that year, the Russian people managed to make their voice heard in a massive protest vote signaling their dissatisfaction with the regime. Many of United Russia’s gubernatorial candidates – particularly those who had been pictured shaking Putin’s hand before election day – were trounced, despite having had all of the administrative and propaganda resources of the state on their side. A funny thing happened in Vladimir Oblast. The incumbent, Svetlana Orlova of United Russia lost to Vladimir Sipyagin of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR). When asked by journalists why they had voted as they did, many answered that they did not even know Sipyagin, they just wanted “anyone but Orlova.” Pure protest voting!
This year, the authorities “corrected” their previous electoral “mistakes” by simply banning pro-democracy opposition candidates in particularly difficult regions.
This past summer I ran in elections to the Moscow City Duma. But, independent, democratically selected candidates like myself were barred from running on the basis of absurd trumped-up charges, such as allegations of forging petition signatures to qualify for the ballot. To the contrary, we had significant support from our constituencies, and we appealed these illegal decisions in the courts. But, because the judiciary, too, is under the Kremlin’s heel, justice was not served. Having been denied their choice of elected representatives, Muscovites took to the streets by the tens of thousands.
The authorities reacted to these protests with a wave of repression, detaining several thousand people and filing criminal charges against pro-democracy groups. We were subjected to night searches in our homes, and dozens of people were arbitrarily detained. The independent Anti-Corruption Fund was declared to be a foreign agent, and our bank accounts were frozen. In late July, opposition leader Alexey Navalny was poisoned while under a 30-day administrative detention.
Yes, this is the price of political dissent in present-day Russia.
Putin was so scared of the Moscow elections that he deployed the full power of the courts, police, prosecutors, the Ministry of Justice, Roskomnadzor (the official censorship body), and other resources to derail the democratic opposition. The reason for this full-court press is obvious: an opposition victory in the capital would have destroyed the myth that Russians actually support Putin and his party, and that the democratic opposition represents just a small share of the population.
The Kremlin could not permit such a dangerous precedent. Putin wants the world to think that he represents the Russian people. But there can be no more compelling evidence that his power rests on a lie than his violent crackdown on Russians who are demanding that their representatives be allowed to put that power to the test in free and fair elections.
Putin’s pressure did not deter us. We continue our work, as the current government’s trust ratings fall; and Vladimir Putin’s own ratings drop – according to recent polls, Putin’s confidence rating fell to 35 percent.
According to the polls, 60 percent of Russians are ready for significant change.
Now in response to these numbers, Putin has conceived a constitutional reform. While people do not clearly understand the details, it is quite obvious to everyone that Putin is redrawing the Constitution for himself, trying to maintain his crucial position in the power structure.
It is still an open question — will Putin remain at the helm after 2024, when his current presidential term expires? Will democratic changes occur in our country during the next election? — No one knows the answer. But it is absolutely obvious to everyone that Putin is obsolete and belongs in Russia’s past. The future of the country — lies with the Russian people who are demanding democratic change. I was told to address a couple of words to the audience at the end of my speech. I am used to believing that the changes in Russia that I was just speaking about, we can and must achieve ourselves within our country. But of course, the world community of young leaders, diplomats, and the opinion makers can help us achieve them by spreading the word, by expressing fundamental firm disagreement with Putin’s policy regarding the violation of human rights and freedom in our country. Not only by expressing “deep concern,” but also by forcing the Putin establishment to respond at international press conferences, private and public official meetings. After all, Russia is certainly part of Europe, and peace and prosperity in Europe depends — among other things — on our country.