Russian activists stand firm against Putin

By Kathy Lally
Published: September 27

MOSCOW — She entered the room slowly Thursday, bent over her cane but still unbowed at age 85. She has stared down Soviet authorities, stood up to KGB interrogations and endured exile.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, has no intention of giving up the struggle for human rights and freedom now, despite new obstacles and threats that seem to arrive every day — a law requiring her to register as a foreign agent; rules constraining demonstrations; last week’s expulsion of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has provided grants and moral support for 20 years.

“My friends, hard times are ahead,” she said Thursday, “but we must live through them as we have many times before. Our human rights movement was born in the 1960s, when you could easily get a sentence or forced psychiatric treatment or exile.”

She added, “We are still here, and where is the power that tried to kill us? Gone.”

Alexeyeva and other Russian human rights leaders met with journalists at a small independent press center to explain how they plan to contend with the new limits Vladimir Putin has been imposing on activists since his return to the Russian presidency in May. Among their tools, although they did not use the word, is courage.

“Repression makes you stronger,” said Alexeyeva, a tiny woman with a firm voice.

She and the others, longtime campaigners all — Lev Ponomaryov, head of the Movement for Human Rights; Valery Borshchov of Social Partnership; and Liliya Shibanova of Golos, an election-monitoring group — said the members of their groups refuse to comply with the new law requiring nongovernmental organizations that receive money from abroad to register as foreign agents.

Penalties for violating the law include up to three years in jail, seizure of bank accounts and fines equivalent to tens of thousands of dollars.

To the Russian ear, “foreign agent” sounds like “spy.” “Once they called us anti-Soviet,” Borshchov said, referring to a typical criminal charge in earlier days, “but even then they didn’t call us foreign agents.”

The law goes into effect Nov. 21. As soon as legal papers ordering compliance are received, Ponomaryov said, the organizations will challenge the law in court. But with judges usually following the government’s wishes, chances of success are small. “It’s premature to talk about what we would do next,” he said.

USAID has been ordered to stop its operations in Russia on Oct. 1. The government accused the agency of meddling in internal Russian affairs by providing grants to civil society groups. Ponomaryov predicted that was only a first step and that other donors would soon also be ordered to leave.

Of course, the rights groups would be pleased to have Russian benefactors, he said, but that is unlikely.

“They will never give us money,” he said. “You all know why. They are afraid.”

Winding its way through parliament is a bill that would broadly expand the definition of treason to include the provision of consulting services to foreign governments or agencies.

“This law is the scariest one of all,” Ponomaryov said. “Anyone who provides any information to a foreigner could be in prison for 10 years.”

Another proposed law would impose a jail term of up to three years for religious insults. “I am Orthodox, and I go to church, but this is an awful law,” Borshchov said. “It threatens your right to argue for your point of view.”

Alexeyeva has said she feels as if a new Iron Curtain is being drawn around her. She and the other activists called on the United States to expand the operations of Radio Liberty. Last week, the station, which has broadcast to Russia since 1953, said it would stop medium-wave (AM) broadcasting in Moscow on Nov. 10 because of a law then-President Dmitry Medvedev signed last year keeping foreign-owned companies off the airwaves.

It was a blow to dissidents. “I have been listening to Radio Liberty since my childhood, and it helped me become a human rights activist,” Ponomaryov said.

Yelena Glushkova, director of Russian operations at Radio Liberty, said the station, which receives financing from Congress, would develop a more vigorous online and multimedia presence.

The Moscow Helsinki Group was founded in 1976, Alexeyeva said, and operated without grants until 1993. Those involved in the organization all know how to survive, she added, her voice clear and confident over a battery of loudly whirring cameras.

“We lived through Soviet power,” Alexeyeva said, “and we will live through this power.”