Russian NGOs Learn to Invest in Paper Shredders

At 3AM, on Saturday, June 22, 2013, Russian riot police and private security raided the offices of one of the country's oldest human rights organizations, the “For Human Rights” group [ru]. Those inside, including the group's leader, Lev Ponomarev, and the chairman of the liberal opposition party “Yabloko,” Sergei Mitrokhin, were forcibly evicted from the premises. Both Ponomarev and Mitrokhin claimed to have received cuts and bruises from the rough handling of the police. According to the authorities, For Human Rights’ lease expired in February and that the Moscow Government, which owns the building, did not wish to renew it due to unpaid rent.

The authorities claimed the organization had received ample warning and requests to leave the premises, but had not complied.

Lev Ponomarev speaks to journalists, as city authorities raid his downtown Moscow office, 21 June 2013, screenshot from YouTube.

Lev Ponomarev speaks to journalists, as city authorities raid his downtown Moscow office, 21 June 2013, screenshot from YouTube.

Some liberal oppositionists were quick to paint this as yet another example of Russia's growing clampdown on non-governmental organizations. For Human RIghts is one of Russia's oldest and most widely known rights organizations and its founder's activism goes back to the late Gorbachev years. Oleg Kozyrev made an explicit link [ru] between the raid and the anniversary of Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union.

Сегодня ночью, демонстративно в день и час годовщины Великой Отечественной войны, полиция и непонятные ЧОПовцы зачистили офис старейшего российского правозащитного движения “За права человека”.

Мы все знаем, почему это произошло. Потому, что это старейшее движение. Потому, что работающее и помогающее людям движение. Потому, что влиятельное.

Мы все понимаем, каким способом это сделали. Сперва массовой атакой в СМИ. Потом законами об НКО. Потом наездами прокуратуры и блокированием финдеятельности. И далее, лишив денег, создали формальный повод для выселения.

This evening, deliberately on the very day and hour of the anniversary of the “Great Patriotic War,” the police and unknown private security contractors purged the office of the oldest Russian human rights movement, “For Human Rights.”

We all know why this happened. Because it's the oldest movement. Because it's a movement that works with and helps people. Because it's influential.

We all understand how this was achieved. First, mass attacks in the media. Then, the laws on NGOs. Next, investigations by prosecutors and injunctions on financing. And later, having taken their money, [the authorities] created a formal reason for the eviction.

Not everyone agreed on this point, as wealthy socialite and occasional oppositionist Ksenia Sobchak demonstrated [ru]:

Собственник имеет полное право не продлевать аренду. По Любым своим соображениям. Это Его (собственника) право. Не вижу проблемы.

The owner has the full right not to extend a lease. For any reason they want. It's their (the owner's) right. I don't see any problem.

President Barack Obama meets Lev Ponomarev at the Parallel Civil Society Summit. Metropol Hotel, Tuesday, July 7, 2009, in Moscow, Russia.  Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, public domain.

President Barack Obama meets Lev Ponomarev at the Parallel Civil Society Summit. Metropol Hotel, Tuesday, July 7, 2009, in Moscow, Russia. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, public domain.

Soon, however, the question of the eviction and beating of Mitrokhin and Ponomarev was overshadowed by revelations from Maxim Mischenko, a 35-year-old former Duma Deputy in United Russia and founder of the pro-Putin youth movement, “Young Russia.” Mischenko announced online that his organization had recovered sensitive documents that Ponomarev had allegedly attempted to destroy. Writing on LiveJournal, Mischenko explained [ru] how his people came by the documents:

Сегодня была самая короткая ночь в году. Годовщина трагических событий начала Великой Отечественной Войны. Главной темой в твиттере стала тема выселения Льва Пономарева и его фирмы… Муниципальные депутаты и активисты общероссийского движения «Россия Молодая» стали очевидцами этих событий. Сергей Полозов случайно услышал просьбу забарикадирровашихся правозащитников уничтожить пачку документов. Проследив за посыльным, он сумел найти эти документы в мусорном контейнере в одном из соседних дворов.

Today [June 22] was the shortest night of the year. The anniversary of the tragic events of the start of the Great Patriotic War. [And yet] the main theme on Twitter became the eviction of Lev Ponomarev and his enterprise… Members of the local assembly and activists from the all-Russian movement “Young Russia” [ru] were eye-witnesses to these events. Sergei Polozov [ru] happened to overhear a request from the human rights defenders to destroy a bag of documents. Following the person they sent out [to do this], he managed to find these documents in a rubbish container in one of the neighboring courtyards.

Mischenko provided scans of the documents he claimed to have found (which appeared both in English and Russian), including one to US President Obama [ru], asking him to say if he personally considered For Human Rights to be an “American agent.” Mischenko uploaded a 20-minute video [ru] (see below) depicting Young Russian activists discussing their findings, with the documents laid out in front of them. On Twitter [ru], Mischenko also claimed that the documents prove For Human Rights had received at least 100,000 USD from the US [ru], was working with LGBT groups and foreign embassies [ru], and attempting to convince major international companies like Coca-Cola not to do business with pro-regime television station NTV [ru].

Liberals were quick to disparage the “discovery.” Roman Dobrokhotov tweeted [ru]:

Ничего компрометирующего в документах они, конечно, не найдут. Но могут найти имена правозащитников работающих, скажем, на Северном Кавказе

Of course, they're not going to find anything compromising in the documents. But they may find the names of human rights defenders working, say for example, in the North Caucasus.

One user, helen20011 [ru], pointed out that Mischenko's very interest in these documents showed that the whole ordeal was about politics and not rent:

штурмовики отдали документы ЗПЧ кремлевским гопникам. Вот прямое док-во что ночной штурм был погромом

The raiders gave over “For Human Rights” documents to the Kremlin scumbags. This is obvious proof that the nighttime raid was a pogrom.

For Eduard Limonov, however, the alleged revelations weren't entirely unsurprising [ru], particularly following a story in 2012 claiming Ponomarev had met with an official from the Japanese Embassy and was accused of plotting the return of the Kuril Islands to Japan in exchange for financing:

Лёва Пономарёв всё время искал денег. Я далёк от мысли, что он искал денег для самого себя. Он искал денег для организации, для оплаты оффиса в престижном центре Москвы, для оплаты сотрудников и оргтехники. Как для блатных бизнесменов дорогой автомобиль, офис стал для Пономарёва признаком статусности и авторитета.

Leva [a slightly mocking diminutive] Ponomarev was looking for money the whole time. It's hardly my opinion that he was looking for this money for himself. He was looking for money for the organization, to pay for the office in Moscow's prestigious city center, to pay his colleagues and for IT. Just as a blatnoi businessman needs an expensive car, the office became for Ponomarev a sign of status and authority.

There's little indication For Human Rights has committed any crime, according the documents Mischenko has posted online. But the move has put Ponomarev and his supporters on the back foot again, turning what should have been a propaganda victory into a PR quandary. For Human Rights’ current troubles offer a simple lesson for other NGOs in Russia: pay your rent on time and invest in a shredder.

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