Civil Society Under Siege: The Case of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 21

In recent months, Russian officials have faced touch criticism from their Western counterparts. The January adoption of the draconian NGO law and its subsequent enforcement in April is often presented as irrefutable evidence that Kremlin power brokers seek to curtail individual liberty and establish a quasi-authoritarian hierarchy. There is little doubt that the current law could result in the formation of a dictatorship with enhanced mechanisms for suppressing dissidents. At the same time, however, it is important to note this legislation does little more than legalize many existing methods for dealing with civil society organizations that the authorities regard as disloyal. As the experience of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society reveals, the NGO law merely makes the routine harassment of non-governmental organizations and the intimidation of human rights activists more common.

Headquartered in Nizhny Nogorod, with offices in Chechnya and Ingushetia, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society (ORChD) maintains a network of correspondents whose reports on human rights are published on a website and in a newspaper, Pravo-Zashchita. Yet despite espousing non-violence and working on humanitarian relief issues, the organization has been subject to systematic legal and administrative harassment by Russian officials. In January 2005, for example, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Federal Security Service began investigating ORChD following false allegations that the organization supported extremist activities. The case was later transferred to the prosecutor’s office in Nizhny Novgorod.

On September 2, 2005, officials charged ORChD manager Stanislav Dmitrievsky for “inciting hatred or enmity on the basis of ethnicity and religion” following the re-publication of two peace appeals by Chechen leaders Aslan Maskhadov and Akhmed Zakaev in the March and April 2004 editions of Pravo-Zashchita. The appeals urged the international community to help end the war in Chechnya and called on Russians to help end the conflict by voting against Russian President Vladimir Putin. On February 3, a court imposed a two-year suspended sentence and a four-year probationary period on Dmitrievsky. A panel of judges with the court of the Nizhny Novgorod Region considered the submitted appeals on April 11 and upheld the verdict. During this four-year period, Dmitrievsky is required to report regularly to local authorities, informing them of any change of residence or travel plans.

The criminal case against Dmitrievsky coincided with an invasive audit of ORChD’s bank accounts by the Federal Tax Inspectorate. In June 2005, the inspectors issued a report claiming that the organization had violated the Russian tax code and ordered the organization to pay fines totalling 1,001,561 rubles ($37,000). Most significantly, auditors claimed that foreign grants for peace-building and human rights reporting constituted profits—a decision that could have significant effects for similar organizations throughout the Russian Federation. ORChD appealed this decision to the Arbitration Court, but so far the court has postponed the case pending the resolution of the criminal matter involving Dmitrievsky. The rationale for this delay is simple. If Dmitrievsky is found guilty on extremist charges, tax authorities believe the finding could constitute proof that ORChD used foreign grants for illegal purposes. This would underscore official claims that funds intended to promote peace in Chechnya were spent to inflame hatred.

Parallel to these proceedings, the federal Justice Ministry’s Registration Department brought a civil suit in April 2005 to deregister ORChD, alleging the organization’s putative “failure to provide the Federal Registration Service with required documents.” Although a court rejected the Justice Ministry’s claims on November 14, 2005, the combined criminal and legal cases were accompanied by media campaigns against the organization and its leaders. On March 14, 2005, threatening leaflets were distributed in my neighborhood in Nizhny Novgorod, labeling me a traitor, linking me to “terrorist activities” carried out by Chechen fighters and revealing my home address. Similar leaflets were distributed again on September 9, 2005, threatening both Dmitrievsky and me. On November 28, 2005, unknown assailants broke into Dmitrievsky’s apartment. Although Russia’s law enforcement launched criminal investigations into these incidents following pressure on bodies from international NGOs, the Nizhny Novgorod police and prosecutor’s office have failed to identify the people behind the threats.

ORChD continues to defend itself through the Russian legal system and public campaigns aimed at raising awareness both within Russia and abroad. In some instances, the organization has appealed to international experts, including British barrister Bill Bowring, who in November 2005 was stopped at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport by FSB officials and denied entry into the Russian Federation. Despite these challenges, however, ORChD has managed to ensure that all relevant court sessions were observed by representatives of Russian and foreign non-governmental organizations. The last session of the criminal trial was observed by the press attaché of the German Embassy, who had been accredited to act on behalf of the European Union.

Thanks in part to enormous support both from renowned international human rights organizations and ordinary people in Russia, Europe and the United States, these extraordinary measures have proved effective in withstanding pressure from Russian authorities. We have also benefited by refusing to compromise. To date, ORChD has never attempted to compromise with the authorities and agree to any kind of “amicable settlement.” Our experiences suggest that Russia has ceased to be a legal state, and that its rulers view any concession to their demands as a sign of weakness. Civil society will inevitably be defeated if organizations attempt to mediate with a government that has become accustomed to disseminating lies and carrying out blackmail. Against that backdrop, the true threat to civil society in Russia is not good or bad laws, but how the laws are actually implemented.