CIVICUS speaks with Leonid Drabkin, a coordinator with OVD-Info, an independent human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that documents and helps the victims of political persecution in Russia. Through a hotline and other sources, OVD-Info collects information about detentions at public rallies and other cases of political persecution, publishes the news and coordinates legal assistance to detainees.
Can you tell us about the work of OVD-Info?
We work primarily on the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly in Russia, tracking violations and assisting victims, but we also cover other cases of political persecution unrelated to protests. We understand that political persecution means persecution by the government or someone affiliated with the government and implies the violation of civic freedoms – the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of expression, the freedom of association and some electoral freedoms. So we work in two directions: we help individuals whose freedoms have been violated, and we gather and disseminate information, which in turn feeds into advocacy and campaigns to achieve change.
We assist people who have been detained through a hotline that functions 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This is both an easy way to report persecution and an opportunity to consult with professionals who know what you can expect in such situation, what to do and how to do it. Our hotline receives calls from all over the country and we also receive text messages on Telegram. We provide legal help through these emergency channels and also by sending lawyers to police stations where people are detained. We then help those who are prosecuted in court. For instance, in October 2020 we provided legal help in 135 court cases – about five or six per working day – in different regions of Russia, because this year has been quite special due to several reasons, including big ongoing protests in Khabarovsk, in the Far Eastern Federal District. In this particular case, the time difference has been a big problem for us. We are based in Moscow, and we used to receive calls during normal working hours, but now we get calls at 4 or 5 am and we have had adapt the ways we work.
We also work with the European Court for Human Rights and we provide people with help there as well. What distinguishes us is our motto, ‘information protects’, which means that we help people not only by providing direct assistance but also by disseminating information, which is why we also function as a media and news agency. We have our website, which we keep up-to-date, and we have journalists who do research and write articles and reports. This is another way in which we help people, because this information is used to try to influence change, through advocacy and through work to enlighten people. We publish datasets on a variety of topics. We keep good records, so if you want to know how many people were detained in Russia in 2019, you will find it on our website.
I’m proud to say that between 70 and 80 per cent of our budget comes from private sources. This reflects the strength of our donor community, made up of approximately 6,000 people who contribute on a monthly basis. Our organisation began in December 2011, in the context of a mass protest wave that resulted in mass arrests. It began with a Facebook post and was founded as a small group of volunteers, and nine years later here we are: a more sustainable organisation with professional and specialised staff, in which volunteering and community support still play a significant role. We have approximately 600 volunteers, some of whom help us on a daily basis, while many others do so monthly or sporadically.
From your perspective, what are the main risks that activists and journalists currently face in Russia?
Activists and journalists face many threats, but maybe as a result of the focus of the work we do, I would say the biggest ones are related to restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly. These restrictions operate at each step of the way. If you hold a peaceful rally, it’s highly likely that you will end up in detention, although this truly depends on the topic, the region and sheer luck. There is a lot of uncertainty, so you never know if you are going to be detained or not.
Before protesting, you need to let the local government know that you want to hold a meeting and you need their approval. In many cases, the process of seeking approval is unsuccessful. The very fact that there is this procedure to follow is a threat in itself. According to international standards, this is not how it should work. In Russia, you need to apply for authorisation in advance. How long in advance will depend on the region, but let’s say you need to apply with seven days in advance, then wait for the permit to come through, and only then, if it does, you can hold your rally. This means that you are deprived of the means to react quickly when something serious happens, whether it’s someone getting killed or doubts about election results. You cannot protest in reaction to events; you need to apply for a permit and wait several days. However, the emotion and the energy that these events elicit tend to decrease with time, and it is highly likely that they will cool off in a week or two, which is precisely what the current legislation seeks to achieve.
If your rally is approved, most likely you won’t be detained. But rallies about controversial issues are often not approved, and if you don’t have authorisation and you rally anyway, you will probably be detained, then sent to a police station and then to court. When demonstrations are suppressed, you can also be beaten by police forces. It is not too frequent, but it sometimes happens that police officers hit protesters with their batons, or ‘democratisators’, as we call them.
If you are prosecuted and it’s your first violation of assembly rules, you will only get fined, but if you are a repeat offender, you may be sent to jail for 10 to 15 days. If you are an activist, it is just a matter of time for you to get caught for a second or third time. Now, the system is absurd, because it implies that the nature of the offence changes when it’s committed repeatedly: when you violate assembly rules for the first time, it is considered a misdemeanour and it’s dealt with by the administrative court system, but when you violate them for the third time, it becomes a felony so it is dealt with through the criminal system, along with serious crimes such as murder and kidnapping. We call this the only political article of our criminal code, because it is meant to be used politically, and it is a big threat for activists.
Have the rules or their enforcement toughened under the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes, the Russian government has used the pandemic as an excuse to violate human rights. Russia has been among the worst-hit countries in terms of COVID-19 infections and deaths, but it has also been one of only a few countries in Europe to allow people into football stadiums, cinemas and theatres; even the metro system, which is really crowded all the time, is functioning as always, while all rallies and protests have been prohibited, allegedly because of the pandemic.
Civil society understands better than the government all the negative impacts of COVID-19, and it does not intend to call for a big rally. All it wants is for people to be able to hold small demonstrations, even one-person protests or single pickets, which are supposed to be the only kind of demonstration we are allowed to hold without giving prior notice to the authorities. That is one reason why single pickets have been on the rise over the past few years. But repression against them has been on the rise as well, and restrictions have also applied during the pandemic, even when they pose no threat to public health at all. In the first half on 2020, there were around 200 detentions of solo protesters, more than in any previous year. In fact, I was among those arrested, although not for reasons related to my work with OVD-Info. As a CSO we try to remain politically neutral, while I, as an individual civic activist, held a solo picket and was detained for it. I am now bringing my case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Have there been restrictions on any other civic freedoms?
While I think our main problem is the restriction of the freedom of assembly, of course there is also censorship in Russia. Sometimes websites are banned, but that’s not a very common occurrence. In fact, where the freedom of expression becomes problematic is usually in connection to the freedom of assembly. For instance, there was the case of a person who was arrested for 30 days because of a Facebook post in which he proposed that people participate in a demonstration that wasn’t approved by the government. While he was arrested for exercising his freedom of speech, the violation was closely linked to a restriction on the freedom of assembly, which makes it illegal to call for a demonstration that has not been approved.
There is a growing amount of laws that ban certain forms of speech, from being ‘disrespectful’ of the government to spreading ‘LGBT propaganda’. You can be accused if you say or post something that is critical to the point of being viewed as disrespectful, or if you even speak about LGBTQI+ rights, because a so-called ‘gay propaganda’ or ‘anti-gay’ law was passed in 2013 with the alleged purpose of protecting children by criminalising the distribution of ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships’ among minors. So it basically bans people from talking to children, or anywhere where children might be present, about LGBTQI+ issues.
Over the past years, restrictions on the freedom of association have also increased, with several dozen CSOs being labelled as ‘foreign agents’ and many activist groups being treated as terrorists and extremists, even if they have done nothing. A clear example was seen a few months ago, when seven young activists were convicted on extremism charges and some of them were received long prison sentences. They had only been having discussions on a chat group that was infiltrated by an undercover FSB (Federal Security Services) agent, who pushed a radical political agenda to entrap the other participants, who were later coerced into false confessions.
Given OVD-Info’s focus on information, are you particularly worried about disinformation tactics being used by Russian state officials?
I follow a lot of politicians on Facebook and I usually see next to their posts a sign that says something like ‘please check this information because it could be false’, like what happens with Trump’s tweets. I don’t think this is such a big problem in Russia, or maybe we are not completely aware of it because it’s always been like this. Internally, I don’t see disinformation as a novel tactic. In Russia, we have never ever trusted our government, regarding anything – not about COVID-19 statistics, nor about inflation or unemployment rates. It’s always been like this. Numbers are made up and nobody believes them.
Regarding sources of information, I think in Russia we have two distinct audiences – TV audiences and internet users – which rarely intersect. Older people and people in rural areas tend to watch TV, while younger urban populations typically use the internet. Most of what appears on TV is propaganda, so it is not really information – and if you refer to it as information, then it is ‘fake’. But if you surf the internet you will at least have an opportunity to find trustful information. You need to search for it, because there’s a lot of it, and true and false are often mixed up, but you will at least have a chance.
Can you tell us about the constitutional referendum that took place in June 2020?
I think you, from the outside, have paid more attention to this than us in Russia. In fact, referendum is not really the right word for it. The government never referred to the vote as a referendum; they called it a ‘national survey’. But it is not even necessary to hold a referendum to change the Constitution – quite recently, when Russia conquered the Crimean Peninsula, the Constitution had to be changed to include an additional region of Russia, but no referendum was held; other mechanisms were used.
They could have gone the legislative way this time as well, but they wanted to have the changes legitimised by a supermajority of the population. However, they couldn’t hold a referendum because it implied giving notice several months in advance, and rules only allowed people to vote from their home if they had a health issue. So they called this a ‘national survey’ instead, which is not regulated by any law, unlike a referendum, which should be conducted according to specific guidelines, so it allowed the government a lot of flexibility around dates and rules. People in several regions were allowed to vote remotely by electronic means, which would not be a bad thing in itself, but presented additional opportunities for violations. A whole week of voting was added in advance of the actual voting day, which from a health perspective was a good decision, but added extra opportunities for fraud. And there was no independent monitoring, so the results – an overwhelming 78 per cent in favour of reform – are not to be trusted.
I was quite angry about the possible changes to the Constitution, which included new provisions regarding term limits and not counting previous terms held by those already in office, which would allow President Putin to run again for two more six-year presidential terms, as well as a focus on ‘traditional families’, the introduction of patriotic education in schools, an explicit mention of faith in God and the statement that the Constitution stands above international law.
I was also upset to see that nobody around me was angry enough. Major opposition parties and politicians didn’t call for people to vote against reform, they just said nothing. They didn’t even object to a vote under the pandemic. For me, this was a criminal decision, unnecessarily endangering dozens of millions of people by having them go out to vote in the midst of a pandemic. I am in an election committee and in every election I serve as a poll worker – I go to the local school and sit there all day looking for people’s names on registries, handing them their voting papers, signing next to their names – but this time I didn’t do it because I feared for my health. I didn’t want to be in a room with so many people in the middle of a pandemic.
Civil society was not too active either. One of the best-known Russian CSOs, Golos, which focuses on voting monitoring, has shed light on the issue, denouncing that the vote was rigged and the results were falsified. But civil society as a whole didn’t really face the problem, and I think the pandemic might have something to do with it, because in normal times they would have rallied in protest, but right now the pandemic makes it extremely complicated.
Have human rights activists found any alternative, creative way to fight back?
Human rights activists are like mushrooms after the rain: we multiply in reaction to human rights violations. After each new wave of repression, activism increases and new CSOs arise. OVD-Info was established in reaction to the repression of the big protests that were held after the parliamentary elections, and nine years later we are still growing. 2019 was a year of mass persecution and many promising projects were developed in reaction. For example, we now have a big Telegram chat called ‘parcels to police stations’, which is activated when someone is detained and needs water, food, a phone charger or any other essentials, and we coordinate so someone will just go to that police station and deliver them to the detained person. This is a way for anyone to show solidarity. By participating in this, those who are afraid to rally can still make themselves useful without being at risk. We have another initiative, ‘taxi for prisoners’, through which people will volunteer to give you a ride or get you a taxi if you are under arrest and let go from the police station in the middle of the night, when there is no public transportation. When I was detained earlier this year, I was fined, and I benefited from another initiative called ‘picket man’, which resorts to crowdfunding to pay the fine for you. There is always a new initiative to fight back against any rights violation, and as new restrictions are imposed, human rights activism is expected to increase.
Civic space in Russia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.