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 â€" 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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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