Interview in St. Petersburg Times

An interview of Heidi Hautala about the 31. May demonstrations in Russia was published in St. Petersburg Times.[:]

Euro MP Visits City To Support Protesters, by Sergey Chernov/ The St. Petersburg Times

Hautala, wearing a Strategy 31 button, takes part in a demonstration in downtown St. Petersburg on Monday.

Finnish politician Heidi Hautala, who has been referred as the Grand Lady of Finnish Human Rights politics, came to St. Petersburg to support Monday’s rallies in defense of the right of assembly on behalf of the European Parliament, where she chairs the Subcommittee on Human Rights.

Known as Strategy 31 after Article 31 of the Constitution that guarantees the right to freedom of assembly, the rallies were conceived by oppositional politician and author Eduard Limonov and draw more and more participants as time passes. The first was held on July 31, 2009 in Moscow.

In St. Petersburg, two rallies were held on Monday, one of which was violently thwarted by the police, with more than 100 participants arrested and some beaten, while the other group, including Hautala, was allowed to march from Palace Square to Senate Square.

Hautala spoke to The St. Petersburg Times in the afternoon, before the rallies took place.
What are the reasons for your visit to St. Petersburg?

I often come to St. Petersburg because it’s Helsinki’s neighbor, but I also have political friends here. The particular reason this time is that our friends in Moscow wrote a letter to the European Parliament asking us to come to participate in these peaceful actions, [Strategy] 31. It was not difficult to convince me to come. The European Parliament has many times already voiced its support of these peaceful actions defending the freedom of assembly and Article 31 of the Russian Constitution.

I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry, but I saw that in Rostov-on-Don, where the EU-Russia summit [is being held] today, the reason for banning the Strategy 31 action was that today is the international day against tobacco. It’s a very important day, but it should not be a reason to ban free gatherings. Freedom of assembly is vital; it’s one of the three basic freedoms, all of which are denied by the Russian Federation today to its citizens.

Is there anybody from the EU at the Moscow rallies today?

As far as I know there’s nobody, but I can’t be absolutely sure. You may know that Amnesty and the Greens – I’m from the Greens – are organizing a solidarity demonstration in front of the Russian embassy in Brussels today. I already organized with Amnesty another, very small event in Helsinki last time – I think it was March 31 – and I heard that there’s something in Prague, so it’s really our common cause, and I think all of us from the EU must be very determined to give our full support to our Russian friends in this important struggle.

As you may know, after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya I took the initiative in Finland to establish a network, an association for cooperation with civil society and human rights associations in Russia. It’s called Finnish-Russian Civic Forum, and we have already successfully organized three big events in Finland.

I have many friends in the Russian democratic opposition and human rights circles. When I was elected back to the European Parliament last summer, I got the wonderful privilege of chairing the Subcommittee for Human Rights. I knew immediately what I wanted to do with our Russian friends and how to support them. We have been very active in the European Parliament, and I must say it’s also been very pleasant to see that the President of the European Parliament [Jerzy Buzek] has at least twice already condemned the oppression of these Strategy 31 demonstrations. So at the highest level, the European Parliament is very supportive of the democratic movement and human rights groups here.
How do you see the situation in Russia – is it changing for better or worse?

I think one positive change that I understand exists now is that there is a little bit more free debate in the media. It’s not just one or two [media outlets], not just your paper, Novaya Gazeta and Ekho Moskvy. I have this feeling that there are simply too many Russians already who want to debate freely. I don’t think that you can stop that. There will be some backlashes, punishments, harassment, intimidation, but I see this as a positive change – more free debate in the media and in the society.

But then I can give my observations on the negative side. I’ve been particularly concerned about prisoners. I mean firstly political prisoners, people who are convicted on the grounds of their opinions and for being in the opposition. I’ve been closely following two cases in Yekaterinburg – Alexei Sokolov and Alexei Nikiforov. I visited [Nikiforov] in prison in December. I wanted to visit both, but I was not allowed to visit Sokolov.

This young man Nikiforov is, as far as I know, the first person who has been put in prison on the grounds of the anti-extremism law. This law is very dangerous for freedom of expression.

The Sokolov case for me is a landmark. This young man exposed abuses of powers and corruption and torture in Russian prisons, [things that] should not exist, and then somehow, it seems to me, a criminal case was fabricated against him.

And I’ll mention a third case, the lawyer [Sergei] Magnitsky. I’ve been in close cooperation with William Browder, whose lawyer Magnitsky was. It’s incredible that a person didn’t agree that their property should be confiscated by state officials, and then the same officials make a case against him and he dies in pretrial detention. I’ve joined everybody who has called for a full investigation into the case. For me, this is a case that could open up how the Russian prison system works.

I’m not saying that in other countries there are no problems – there are problems – but still the penitentiary system [in Russia] is a big human rights problem.
There were a lot of hopes about democracy in Russia – when did it start to go wrong?

In the West we were all very naive. I was here in St. Petersburg in 1992 because my Finnish and Russian friends organized a big international conference on environmental protection. It seemed that everything would go very smoothly, but then around 1996 I started to hear about people who were convicted for treason and revealing state secrets.

So I perceived a change around ’96. For me the case of Alexander Nikitin [the former naval officer charged with treason through espionage after he contributed to a damning report on nuclear safety within Russia’s northern fleet] was a sign that something was changing.

Around that same time there was the First Chechen War. I know that many people who belong to the democratic opposition now actually supported the war then, but it seems to me that that was one of the biggest mistakes that has ever been made in this country.

I’ve been very involved with the question of the North Caucasus crisis, and I know many people who work there in human rights organizations.

1999 was a kind of confirmation of that trend, because then Putin took power. I’m very familiar with the story of the need to put stability in place instead of chaos, but I think there is a kind of mythology around this whole issue of how chaos was turned into stability. I think Russia would really be able to speak about modernization if it had allowed more civil freedoms at that time already. Because it’s very difficult to modernize if you don’t allow people to be creative and innovative.

How did you get interested in Russia?

It started back in the Soviet times. I was very young, and I was the leader of the Finnish Green party, and in 1987 I was invited to the First All-Union Human Rights Conference in Moscow. It was the time of glasnost and perestroika, and so I got to know some of those dignified old dissidents. I could observe how they thought and how they were working. That was also the time when people started to collect signatures in the streets for a monument to the victims of Stalin. So it was a very exciting time. Then, when revolutions in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe started, I was very interested to see what would come out of that. I have a long-time interest in Russia.

One obvious turning point was when the Finnish parliament celebrated its 100th anniversary in June 2006. There was a big celebration in the parliament with guests from all kinds of countries, including the Russian Duma. All the political groups were allowed to speak for three minutes. I made my speech on behalf of the Greens. I mentioned that it was interesting to note that the Finnish parliament, as we know it now, and the Russian Duma had the same origin: The first Russian revolution in 1905, when the tsar had to make concessions.

But then I said, “If we continue the story, we cannot help but notice that the powers of the Russian Duma have been degraded to the level they were at before the revolution.” And that was a big shock [to the audience].

Finland has this cautious attitude toward Russia. People think that we should not irritate our big neighbor. So the only thing that was reported from the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Finnish parliament was what I said about the Russian Duma.

The result was that the deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, Oleg Morozov, invited me to see how wonderful democracy was in Russia – and of course, I went!
What is your book about?

It’s called “Theses on Russia: Stability or Freedom.” Two years ago [when the book came out] it was plain to me what was going on in the North Caucasus. In the book, I asked whether the war in Chechnya was over. My answer was no: It was spreading to other republics around Chechnya, and a lot of very bad things were happening there. And, of course, now – after the attacks in the Moscow metro – everybody has seen that there is real chaos and crisis in the North Caucasus, and to me it seems that this is very much the result of Kremlin policies.

I also asked whether it is true that Russia has to choose between stability and freedom. My thesis is that no, stability is only possible when there are freedoms. And Russia should choose freedom so that it can really be stable.
The photo on the front cover shows National Bolsheviks throwing a portrait of Putin out of the window of the Ministry of Health during a protest against the monetization of the benefits law in 2004.

The reason I chose this photo was that the story of this man, Maxim Gromov, who participated in this action moved me deeply. I was told they bought this picture in a shop: They didn’t take it from the wall and throw it out. He got three years in prison. I met him right after he was released, that must have been about two years ago.

In any Western European capital, if people did something like they did in the Ministry of Health, it would be considered a normal nonviolent action, and maybe they would get a little fine or something. No one would ever be imprisoned for three years for such a thing.

I saw how those three years sort of broke his life. It’s very tragic to see what the prisons are like, how hard they are on people. But he survived.

I only wanted to show some solidarity. Some people asked me why I chose a National Bolshevik. It’s only because I think it’s such a dramatic example of what the consequences can be for such a normal political action.

I have followed the fate of some National Bolsheviks, and it’s very tragic to me. I’m not their supporter, but I think there’s no reason to ban the party.
Many Western political leaders have been accused of taking a “pragmatic” approach to Russia, buying oil and gas without caring about democracy and human rights in Russia. Do you think that is true?

I think it’s true, but I see a little change in the European Union now. For instance, last week, before this EU summit which is being held today and tomorrow, the Commissioner on Home Affairs, the Swede Cecilia Malmstrom, met with her colleagues from the [Russian] Interior and Justice Ministries. She raised individual cases, like that of Magnitsky – the European Union really wants to see a proper investigation of the case.

I do see that the contacts between human rights organizations and the European Parliament are in some way causing some pressure on our top leaders, who meet at these summits. It is not acceptable anymore that there’s some kind of third-level discussion between officials on human rights two weeks or a month before the summit, and then when the actual summit comes, there’s one sentence and we go on with business as usual.

The parliament has not spoken anymore of a strategic partnership between Russia and the EU because it sees that strategic partnership is only possible if it is based on common values, and values are not words, they are deeds.

I hope that we can move things forward, and for that we need the support of the Russian democratic opposition and human rights movement. Because if our officials in Brussels see that they are deeply dissatisfied and our actions aren’t helping them, they must change their policies. That’s what we are trying to do.
* When asked on Wednesday to comment about Monday’s rallies, Hautala replied by email:

I was of course shocked by the police brutality, and by the total cynicism of the authorities as they keep on flagrantly denying people their legitimate rights. I agree with Ombudsman Lukin that the oppression of these demonstrations demands an investigation. In normal countries the police are bound by law, and the Constitution is above everything!

But I am greatly encouraged by seeing so many citizens come to defend their right of freedom of assembly. I am convinced that next time there will be many more of them. I feel privileged that I have been able to participate, and will make sure that the European Parliament continues to express its support to the democracy movement of Russia.