Russia. Thirty-one years later, Memorial is in danger of disappearing

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In the heart of Moscow, several dozen people came to support the NGO Memorial before the Supreme Court. To applause, one of the lawyers, Henri Reznik, condemned “appalling and disgusting application of the law” at the end of this first hearing. The future of the human rights organization is currently being played out before the highest judicial authority in civil cases. It risks dissolution at the end of hearings which must finally resume on December 14.

It all started two weeks ago. Thursday, November 11, the International Memorial Society receives a letter from the Russian Supreme Court. The latter informs him that the office of the Attorney General of Russia brought legal action on 8 November aimed at obtaining his liquidation for repeated violations of Russian legislation on “foreign agents”. The next day, the Memorial Human Rights Center was in turn informed by the Moscow City Court that the capital prosecutor’s office had filed a similar complaint. In the letter, he accuses the NGO that some of its publications justify “activities of extremist and international terrorist organizations”. He is accused of having inscribed on his list of political prisoners Jehovah’s Witnesses and Islamists from Hizb ut-Tharir, two movements banned in Russia. “The recognition of a person as a political prisoner does not imply Memorial’s agreement with his opinions, nor the approval of his statements or actions,” retorts the NGO.

During the hearing of November 25, the lawyer of the organization Tatiana Gloushkova defended that “the principle of proportionality should be taken into account during the liquidation of an organization. The resonance caused by the prosecution of the Attorney General’s office is a testament to the value and importance of Memorial’s work ”. And to build on the online petition that has been signed by more than 100,000 people.

A pure product of perestroika

How did the NGO get there? Created during perestroika in 1989 by the physicist and 1975 Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov shortly before his death and quickly led by the young physicist Alexander Tcherkassov, it already brings together several activists. The goal is to get the truth about the crimes of the Soviet regime, including the deportations to the gulag. It became extremely popular in Russia during the 1990s with the wars in the Caucasus and the first conflict in Chechnya. With the committee of mothers of soldiers, the NGO appeared at that time at the head of the most influential public organizations. Today, little publicized, she also fights for the education and defense of political prisoners and is regularly accused of not respecting the administrative constraints related to the status of foreign agent, imposed in 2016. “These In recent years, Memorial has come under increasing pressure like many organizations. This hardening is general. It also targets associations, elected officials, activists, intellectuals. Tackle Memorial appears from the symbol. No one is immune, ”says film critic Naum Kleiman.

A turning point took place in 2012 with the adoption of the law on “foreign agents” by Parliament. This text embodies the fears of the power of a scenario of “regime changes” after the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine and the large mobilizations of 2011 in Russia. This law obliges all non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funds to register as such. Over time, it will be modified and hardened several times. The mobilizations in Ukraine in 2013-2014 on Maidan Square, which brought down President Viktor Yanukovych, increased this anxiety tenfold. “Since then, this law has targeted civil society organizations and the media, journalists and individual human rights defenders and bloggers, among others. Thus, many organizations have been the subject of repeated audits and heavy fines for the slightest violation of the regulations and some have been forced into liquidation, ”the UN condemned in a statement.

Power hates instability

This procedure worries the whole of Russian society. If the Constitution has been amended to leave the possibility for Russian President Vladimir Putin to stand for re-election in 2024, his fourth term, which began in 2018, seems much less open to any form of criticism. In an unfavorable social and economic context (rising prices, inequalities, corruption, etc.), the various circles in power (military, elected officials, oligarchs, liberals, senior administrative officials) do not want to risk any instability. “A political battle can break out. We note that the gatherings have multiplied in recent years on pension reform, housing, electoral fraud, arrests … This fed-up which is mainly urban is also explained by the hardening of power, “said a elected from the Communist Party (KPRF).

In Russia, the possible liquidation of Memorial shocked only part of the Russian population. “It is the most educated, the youngest part of society, the most liberal, and whose scale remains around 20%. The other part of the population being very poorly informed about Memorial’s activities, ”notes Lev Goudkov, who heads the Levada analytical center. For the sociologist, whose institute was classified in 2016 as a foreign agent, “like others, this event illustrates the general repressive policy. But he seems to me to have a certain extraordinary character and to stand out from all the others. Of course, there was a lawsuit against Yuri Dmitriev (historian of Stalinism – Editor’s note) but the attack on Memorial is not just an act of sheer wickedness on the part of the state. It is also just a crime, in the literal sense, because it is an attempt to destroy the only organization that deals with the history of state crimes ”.

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