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Russia

Exiling Dissent, How Putin Is "Killing" Russian Civil Society

Le Temps meets up with Olga Abramenko, head of a human rights organization that Russian authorities have deemed a "foreign agent" and banished from the country.

Thousands of people march in Moscow to honor Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, killed February 27, 2015
Thousands of people march in Moscow to honor Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, killed February 27, 2015
Luis Lema

GENEVA — Olga Abramenko, who's not the kind of person who is easily discouraged, is nevertheless fatalistic about the state of her country. "Russian civil society has been destroyed. Two laws were enough to kill it," she says.

The current atmosphere of coercion in Russia regarding anything that looks remotely like an opposition movement wound up getting the best of the director of Memorial, the well-known anti-discrimination organization based in Saint Petersburg. Along with some of her colleagues, Abramenko was forced to leave her country. She and her co-workers are now trying to continue their work from Brussels, hoping the grip doesn't somehow tighten.

"We're reduced to doing like the Ancient Greeks," she jokes. "We watch the sky and try to interpret its omens. But these omens are rarely good."

These mysterious signs are sometimes linked to Geneva. The wave of "inspections" started two years ago. It was the result of the first of the laws the Memorial director mentions, which allows the Russian justice system to register any non-governmental organization as a "foreign agent" from the moment it benefits from foreign funding and is engaged in "political activity."

In its Saint Petersburg offices, a squad of agents came to perform an "inspection." The security of the premises was deemed insufficient because the entrance wasn't wide enough. That resulted in a $3,000 fine. In terms of cleanliness, the agents said there could be rats, so the fine was doubled.

"Above all, the inspectors left with kilos of documents," Abramenko recalls. Among them was an investigation intended for the UN's Committee Against Torture in Geneva. This was enough to confirm the "political" aspect of Memorial's activities, and so it was identified as a "foreign agent."

Like a scarlet letter

"From now on, in each of our documents, on each of our letters, we must add this sign," the director adds. As a result, for fear of also being branded as spies for foreign enemies, people are turning their backs on the organization. In other words, the Russian government realized its objective.

Even though Memorial's case is the most well-known, others have been targeted. A few days ago, in the Chechen capital of Grozny, armed men plundered the offices of another human rights organization, the Joint Mobile Group (JMG). The work of these activists had been recognized two years ago in Geneva with the prestigious Martin Ennals Award.

"This prize rewards the activists who are on the front line," the award's founder Hans Thoolen said at the time. If he knew how right he was. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov accused the group's head Igor Kalyapin of staging the attack and burning his offices himself to "make himself known abroad." On Instagram, Kadyrov's favorite way to communicate, the president added, "I am the only qualified person regarding human rights in Chechnya."

Kadyrov's henchmen may well have had a role in last February's assassination of Russian opponent Boris Nemtsov. "Lately, the Joint Mobile Group was trying to prevent Grozny's authorities from getting at the families of the so-called "terrorists' by destroying their homes," explains Abramenko, who was in Geneva to participate in a roundtable discussion on human rights.

Among other projects, Memorial is working on the issue of refugees fleeing combat in Ukraine, including the Roma population, which the group says "is very far from being received with open arms in Russia, unlike what the media propaganda is trying to make people believe."

Even in exile in Brussels, the omens are threatening. Russian President Vladimir Putin passed a new law at the end of May allowing "foreign" organizations created in Russia to be banned for good, for the simple reason that they are deemed "undesirable." Memorial knows it's a target.

"When a law refers to the president's "desire," it's always a bad sign," she says.

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