Addressing the board of the Federal Security Service

An interview with Russian Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin.

Addressing the board of the Federal Security Service on February 7, President Putin once again advised Russian non-government organizations with sponsors abroad to be "more scrupulous". Here is an interview with Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin.

Question: What do you think of the spy scandal the Moscow Helsinki Group has found itself implicated in?

Vladimir Lukin: Nobody has proved yet that this human rights organization is tied in with intelligence services. All these statements should be contemplated by the court. I even think that our Federal Security Service has helped our human rights organizations and activists. It warned them, it was somewhat late but never mind that there were some foreign spies nosing around. If I were Alekseeva, I’d have thanked the security structures. Whoever are spreading lies, I’ll see them in court. As for the warning, thank you indeed. I will stay away from Dow from now on and deal with someone else.

Sure, there are articles in newspapers and TV programs maintaining that some human rights organizations have dealings with foreign intelligence services. But they are not the court which as you know rules in matters like that. These are but private opinions of some ladies and gentlemen that may be challenged in court if the human rights organizations in question are of the mind to sue.

Question: I do not think that the ladies and gentlemen that appear on state TV channels do so of their own volition. All of that smacks of a deliberate campaign to compromise the human rights community.

Vladimir Lukin: The Constitution permits us – you and me – to think so. Whether it is so or not is to be decided by the court.

Question: And what do you think is the purpose of the campaign?

Vladimir Lukin: I’d say that there is more to it than meets the eye. Our society possesses a certain historic memory code that is inseparable from the upbringing of the mature part of society. When speculations began over how the state and order should be reinforced (which in itself is correct, I think), that law should be enforced, and so on, they triggered in this part of the population – a quite sizeable part – a longing for the past. I mean, these people took it as a necessity to return to the Soviet past when everything was fine and dandy and correct.

I stand for a strong state too. I’m convinced that all and any progress is possible only when the state is strong. That goes for the reforms too. After all, there can be no reforms in chaos and anarchy, can there? And yet, a strong state is the one that regulates everything with the mechanism of checks and balances.

It takes certain rules which in their turn should be regulated by the state. In the meantime, the state is not supposed to substitute for society or encroach on it. Unfortunately, episodes of encroachment on society do occur.

Question: You objected to the new law on non-government organizations when it was on the floor. What do you think of the legislation now?

Vladimir Lukin: Its latest variant is much less dangerous to non-government organizations and therefore to the normal functioning of society. As I see it, however, the president’s opinion was neglected in at least two important nuances.

Item one: the law does not define political activities. What are they in the first place? The term “politics” is derived from “polis” which stands for “city” or “state”. In other words, whoever deals with the problems of a given state is involved in politics. In a narrower sense, however, it means an active involvement in a political movement or political party and a passive involvement in elections.

As I see it, non-government organizations should not be involved in politics in the narrow sense. Because involvement in politics in this manner inevitably affects impartiality. Say, a non-government organization actively supports some party in the election. Parties’ programs are drafted for some particular parts of society because every political party has its own voters. A human rights organization in the meantime is supposed to act in the interests of the whole of society. That is why I believe that the law should handle the problem of avoidance of active involvement in politics in the narrow sense. The law should say so but it does not. This failure enables bureaucracy to interpret what politics is the way it finds convenient.

Item two: the law as it is does not stipulate that non-government organizations are innocent in the first place. Presumption of innocence is what I mean. In other words, the form of control over non-government organization specified by the law nowadays initially assumes that they are guilty of something. And they are supposed to prove otherwise.

Question: What non-government organizations, save for human rights ones, do you think will be affected?

Vladimir Lukin: I do not know. I perceive two lines of reasoning the authorities may follow. The first one: the law is all right because it imposes restrictions on non-government organizations and makes them more controllable. Should this control become total, however, it will be very dangerous and may interfere with the thesis itself on the necessity of development of civil society.

The second one: non-government organization are all right and nice having about. The attitude with regard to them has not changed, let them go on doing whatever they have been doing. There is but one request: be more careful about foreign sponsors. They are legitimate in themselves, but when sponsors are only foreign, it may have a negative effect on the cause in question.

I accept this thesis. Unfortunately, the state is not doing anything to ameliorate the situation when non-government organizations have only foreign sponsors. Instead of destroying these non-government organizations, the state should diversify their financial sources. I’m convinced that it will be great and helpful to set the rules for domestic sponsorship of non-government organization. On one condition only: as long as it does not end up a means of transformation of non-government organizations from the state’s partners into clients.

Question: And how could domestic sponsors be attracted?

Vladimir Lukin: A mechanism is needed. Our first-generation businesses do not consider charity to be fashionable or worth the trouble. Problems of the state worry them less than moneymaking as such. Besides, our businesses are afraid of the state – and have valid reasons to be afraid. Should the president so much as hint that he wants domestic non-government organizations financed by domestic financial and business structures, the latter will immediately fall in line and open their wallets. The problem is who will distribute the money? If the state itself, then it will be a means of strangling independent civil society. If, however, representatives of the state and non-government organizations who meet and then decide where the money in the pool should be channeled do it, then it will be all right.

Question: But why would I want my money in some pool? If I like some society of dog-breeders (for example), why cannot I contribute directly?

Vladimir Lukin: Why not? Go ahead! If, however, you do not want the state to be the only and direct source of finances for non-government organizations, then some sort of pool is needed for contributions from all or many sponsors. That’s the only means for the non-government organizations that will not be financed otherwise to be sponsored. This is what I suggest: a pool with some council for civil society or ombudsman (in short, people who are trusted by the state and society alike) coordinating distribution.

Question: But my money in the pool may be transacted, say, to cat-lovers when I despise cats and do not want to sponsor them…

Vladimir Lukin: Ombudsmen are after results, not principles. We have the media and politicians to defend principles. As an ombudsman, I want results and I want them now. I suggest what I’m suggesting because I know what is happening in the country. Bureaucracy is coming to dominate society – with the latter’s quiet acquiescence. As a friend of the human rights community, I want to protect them. As ombudsman, however, I want to have them working without becoming elements of the state and without becoming overly dependant on some sponsors. It is possible, you know. Let them have foreign sponsors too. In the meantime, it affects human rights organizations themselves when their budgets depends on foreign sponsors 90% or even 100%. We need some domestic sponsors for human rights organizations – even the ones who do not sympathize with the state.