Oleg Kozlovsky asks for Help

Writing on his blog, Oleg Kozlovsky publishes the text of a speech he recently gave at an OSCE conference in Helsinki, where he asks for the assistance of the West in standing up to dictatorship in Russia. Are you listening, Mr. Obama? Note that, as we’ve previously reported, Kozlovsky is now a Russia columnist for the powerful Huffington Post blog, and his first installment deals with the Politkovskaya trial.  An interview with Kozlovsky by Radio Free Europe follows the text.

I recall what I did at this very day a year ago. It was an election day but for me it was marked by another arbitrary arrest. Just seconds after I commented the elections to an foreign TV channel in the heart of Moscow, I was literally dragged into a police van, threatened and beaten by several anonymous officers. Then they brought me to a police station, held there for a few hours and released without any charges.

I was quite lucky, in fact. A week earlier, an opposition activist Yury Chervochkin was beaten to death, supposedly, by the colleagues of those officers who arrested me. These are just some of the many examples of what Russian “law enforcement” agencies are really busy with.

None of the police officers involved in these operations were brought to justice, as far as I know. Detectives and courts persistently fail to punish public servants who participate in political repression or other human rights abuses in Russia.

Even in rare cases when some part of the truth is revealed, like in the case of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, it remains unknown who gave the orders. I would like to remind that a former police officer and an acting FSB officer are now tried for involvement in this crime.

Human rights violations are not just occasional events in my country, they are in the very core of its system. Opposition political parties are banned or not allowed to register for elections; funding of NGOs is closely monitored and cut; press is unofficially censored; peaceful demonstrations are dispersed; dissenters are harassed and put in prisons as “extremists”; sometimes they even get killed. The ruling elite understand that it can’t keep its power without constant violence.

In Russia, like in some other OSCE countries, we have a failed or even reversed democracy transition. When the police are used to commit crimes, rather than investigate them, when courts obey to the phone calls instead of the law, when media manipulates public opinion instead of providing information, when elections represent a point of view of the government and not the electoral choice, when the state routinely violates human rights but not enforces them, the very role of the civil society changes.

It is said that the civil society is unimportant in authoritarian countries. Indeed, the ability of NGOs to influence public policy is severely limited, their resources are poor and their message often appears unneeded by the population. However, I would say that the role and the responsibility of NGOs is greater in such countries than in established democracies.

NGOs under non-democratic regimes along with independent media are the only effective counterweights to authoritarian ambitions of the ruling elite. No rational politician would like to voluntarily limit his own power, increase his responsibility and shorten his term. Nobody is genuinely interested in introducing democracy in a country except its own people. And thus there is no other way to make a country democratic but to do it from inside, from its own civil society.

This is why I believe that it is not just important, it is vital for stability, peace and development in Europe to cooperate with the civil organizations in countries like Russia, Belarus, or Kazakhstan. Intergovernmental relations are necessary but they can’t bring democracy to these countries. And as we all see, lack of democracy is a threat not only to the population inside these countries but also to their neighbors. There is no long-term security without democracy. There is no long-term cooperation without democracy. And there is no democracy without a strong civil society.

It is well-known that many governments prefer to speak about importance of democracy promotion rather than to really implement it. It is especially true when it concerns countries like Russia. Economical and political interdependency is so great that only few countries dare to risk their relations with the Kremlin by raising issues of human rights and freedoms. It is a sad phenomenon but this is something that we have to deal with. Finland is a rare exception here, by the way.

I want to ask you for help. I call you to establish and strengthen ties with NGOs in Russia and in other non-democratic countries. I ask you to put pressure on your governments to make them implement their declarations about promotion of democracy and human rights. One of the tasks, for instance, could be introduction of an international ban to enter European countries for public servants who are personally suspected of serious human rights abuses but haven’t been tried in their countries. This could be an initial step to break the tradition of impunity which is deeply rooted in authoritarian countries.

It is our common goal to make Europe a continent without dictatorship and tyranny, a continent where democracy, human rights and freedom are respected and protected in every country.

Kozlovsky has also been interviewed by Radio Free Europe.  Here is the transcript:

A founder of the Russian pro-democracy youth movement Oborona, Oleg Kozlovsky, says that so far, only Russia’s oligarchs have been hit hard by the global financial crisis. But in an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully while in Washington to receive a human rights award from the advocacy group Human Rights Now, Kozlovsky warns that he expects the global financial crisis to grip his country more deeply than any Western country. He predicts that Russians might lose the sense of economic stability that they’ve enjoyed for the past eight years and, as a result, demand change.

RFE/RL: What effect on Russia do you expect the worldwide financial crisis will have?

Oleg Kozlovsky: The effect of the crisis hasn’t been so strong on the general [Russian] population so far. Really it’s mostly the oligarchs and some few people who own shares who are affected by the crisis. However, I think that as the crisis deepens — and in Russia it’s going to be probably deeper than in any other country, at least any country in the West — I think that many people will see that the stability that they were promised would be forever is not going to be forever, it’s going to end now, and it may be a point of disillusion for many Russians.

So I think that one of the probable scenarios is that [the] Russian administration will very quickly lose its credibility among [the] general population. But of course it’s hard for me to predict how soon and to what a degree it will happen, because we don’t know exactly how soon and to what a degree it will happen, because we don’t know exactly how deep the crisis is going to be.

RFE/RL: Do you expect that the financial crisis will change the politics as it’s practiced in Russia? That is, do you expect a growing economic discontent among the population that Oborona can respond to? And is Oborona preparing new tactics — even a new strategy — to respond?

Kozlovsky: I think that it will really very seriously influence the politics and of course Oborona is already changing its tactics and its strategy. So we believe that one of our main goals is to explain to the people how this economical situation is connected to the political situation, and why it is important when you are in the crisis, or when you are not, to have a set of democratic institutions that will help you fight against the crisis, or prevent it, or at least to make its effects smaller on the general population. Because what we see now is that the [Russian] government and a group of people around the government are trying to save their own capital, rather than trying to fight the crisis and its effect on the economy. So what we’re going to try to explain to people is that as long as we have this highly corrupted political system in Russia, no efficient measure can be taken against the crisis.

RFE/RL: But how can you engage the population of Russia if — at least according to all the polls — the vast majority of them are satisfied with the status quo?

Kozlovsky: This satisfaction is in a great part based on the fact that we had a long period of economic stability. If [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin and [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev don’t have this advantage any more, they can only base their credibility on some other issues like propaganda or finding some external enemy so they can rally people around themselves. But in fact, the impact of [the] economic situation on [the] popularity of Putin is huge. So I think that this is something that may really change now.

RFE/RL: So Oborona may soon find itself with a more compliant population. But without an independent media, how do you expect to share the movement’s message with them?

Kozlovsky: This is a problem that we’ve always had and that we will probably have for a long time. What we do instead of using the media is we try to communicate to people directly over the Internet, which is almost a direct communication as well. So we will organize all types of street activity, from painting graffiti to large protest rallies. And there is, as far as I know, a dissidents’ march planned for December — or maybe it will be shifted to January — for example, which is a huge opposition rally, and it can affect quite a lot of people.

Of course we can’t have access to the television, and our word spreads not so quickly as we’d like. However, if the people are prepared to listen to us and to understand what we say, then I believe that spreading our message is just more like a technical problem that we can solve.

RFE/RL: As you say, some old obstacles remain in place. But surely there’s been some change, for instance in the six months since Medvedev became president, hasn’t there?

Kozlovsky: First, there haven’t been any positive changes, not even insignificant positive changes I can think of. I think that one of the most important results of this six months — in particular, the war in Georgia — was that many people have lost their illusions that Medvedev would have his own political course, and that his course would be more liberal and more pro-democratic. I think that what we’re going to have is just a continuation of the previous policy of [former] President Putin, who is still making all the major decisions in the country, that maybe this will be a slow deepening of this authoritarian regime, it will slowly be getting harsher, unless we can somehow influence it. However, I don’t think that this six months brought us to a very different situation than we had before.

RFE/RL: Finally, I should note that you’re in Washington to join Egyptian pro-democracy activist Nora Younis to receive the Annual Human Rights Award from Human Rights Now. How do you feel about that?

Kozlovsky: It was completely unexpected, and I’m proud to be one of the people who were awarded this Human Rights Award. I think this is probably more an award to the Russian democratic movement in general, rather than to me personally, because I don’t think that I am such a hero to be honored with such an award. We have plenty of heroes in [the] Russian democratic movement. So I believe that this is an award for all of them.

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