From Russia to Tunisia

From Russia to Tunisia
Oksana Chelysheva, 17.07.2007

In the first two weeks of July, there were two events in Helsinki and Madrid, both dedicated to the state of human rights, freedom of speech, and democracy in Russia. The goal of both these events was to give the public first-hand information from those who are at the forefront of the struggle for these rights.

The main question in today’s Russia is that of survival. Everybody is surviving as best they can. The old lady in the house next to mine sells sunflower seeds every day at the open market. My former classmate, who is now a teacher, runs around looking for schoolbooks. Journalists, ashamedly reading the list of questions dictated to them by the editor-in-chief, lament that they are afraid of losing their jobs.

Liberal politicians on the sidelines and in the limelight, such as Boris Nemtsov and Grigory Yavlinsky, are trying to legitimise their views: in their opinion, some politicians are too red, others too populist. They have to justify their “noninterference” somehow.

NGOs are also trying to survive. Some of them changed their agendas, some are still hanging on to illusions about possible “positive” dialogue with those who are oppressing them.

Yet there is still one way to survive: uniting in common effort. Only two years ago, many liberal politicians referred to the silence of the masses to justify their own silence; how could we be louder than our own people, they asked.

The people stayed silent, having received some more nourishment. The people only kept yearning for the spectacles that all Russian television channels churn out regularly. Such a disdainful attitude was, of course, sickening, but it was hard to object to. The people stayed silent, waiting for someone to come and solve their problems.

In the past year, the situation in Russia has changed rapidly. People are gradually learning how to formulate their claims and demands to the government. They are demonstrating a new ability to organise themselves.


In July, two European cities — Helsinki and Madrid — hosted two conferences devoted to human rights and democracy in Russia. Both events were out of the ordinary, in that their purpose was not to bring together a narrow circle of people who already knew each other, and who would simply read out from official presentations.

The meeting in Helsinki was organised by the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum (, which was established immediately following the killing of Anna Politkovskaya. Its aim is to put all its efforts into supporting those who are trying to oppose Russia’s slide into despotism.

Anna was a close friend of many of the Forum’s founding members. In the evening when Anna was killed, her friends — politicians, journalists, and writers — gathered to remember her. It was then that they decided that the next day, there should be a meeting in Anna’s memory.

They began to send SMS messages to their friends, who, in turn, sent a new wave of messages to their friends. The following evening, over 3,000 people gathered outside the Russian Embassy in Helsinki. No slogans. No speeches. Everyone held candles. Silence. It was too beautiful to describe.

The Finnish-Russian Civic Forum is a coalition of differing political and social forces in Finland — from conservatives to communists. In this respect, it is similar to the Other Russia coalition. The Forum’s founders and organisers of the meeting in Helsinki included Amnesty International’s Finnish section, the Finnish Helsinki Committee, Finnish Peace Association, Finnish Peace Committee, Finnish PEN, Union of Journalists in Finland, businessmen, and other public figures. Many of them have long understood that there is no better way to get to know people than through direct contacts.

Many contacts were forged at the meeting. The film director, Andrey Nekrasov, had a long discussion with the writer, Zakhar Prilepin. The Forum’s Chechen friend, Azman, who has lived in Finland for the last three years after the tragedy in her hometown of Samashki, had a long talk with Zakhar, who fought in Chechnya as part of a special forces unit from Nizhny Novgorod.

Finnish MP Heidi Hautala found herself at the centre of attention of young members of the opposition’s Other Russia coalition. She arrived at the event riding a bicycle. In the 1970s, she took part in organising direct action to protect the environment of her native Finland. At the conference, she did not shy away from helping the Chechen women who prepared the dinner and set the table.

Heidi explained that no one has ever suggested removing the statue of Czar Alexander II from the main square in Helsinki. “Alexander II greatly expanded Finland’s autonomous status within the Russian Empire, and the period when Finland was part of the Russian Empire, an independent Finnish nation began to take shape,” she noted. Nationalism is good, but only when it is sound, without patriotic jingoism…

As you can see, it is very hard to accuse the participants of the Forum of prejudice [against Russia and the Russians]. The event was yet another proof of the necessity of consolidation to achieve common ends, and of the fact that it is always possible to reach a consensus, if only there is a will…

At the conference in Helsinki, there were representatives of public, political, and human rights organisations from Moscow, St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Chechnya, and Vyborg. The Russian participants represented a wide spectrum of parties and public organisations, many of which are members of the Other Russia coalition: Oborona, Yabloko, United Civic Front, Vanguard of Red Youth (AKM), Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, Moscow Helsinki Group, Youth Association of Finno-Ugric Peoples (MAFUN), Popular Democratic Youth League, Bellona Foundation, All-Russian Civic Congress, and Glasnost Defence Foundation.

International human rights organisations, including the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights First, and London-based “Reach All Women in War” (RAW in WAR), took part in the conference also.

The meeting was held on the island fortress of Suomenlinna (Sveaborg), which is located just off Helsinki. Despite the differences in life experience, age, and political ambitions between the conference participants, they agreed that the main thing is to unite all forces against rising despotism, and that, in unity, there is hope for the future.

In the opinion of many participants, the main characteristic of Russia today is the qualitative change that has taken place in the protest movement. People of different ages and from different social groups have begun to join the movement. Olga Kurnosova, representative of the Other Russia in St Petersburg, encapsulated the main task ahead in the following words:

“The main prerequisite for unity is that which is now taking shape — consolidation, which is the main condition for survival. The situation in the country is difficult and dangerous. The choice is simple: either to unite or to follow in the lead of those who take their marching orders from the Kremlin. Democracy has been sacrificed for the sake of the personal interests of those who are now in power.”

There is another important detail which gives rise to some optimism about a positive change in the balance of power. The opposition is turning into a real coalition, even if the “leaders” of the opposition often find it hard to agree on things. The reason for this is very simple: conflicts between personalities. However, the leaders will soon learn that actual leadership is only a possibility, not a given. There will soon appear a social demand for a united candidate, and the “leaders” will have to learn to agree.

The organisers of the meeting in Suomenlinna regard the event as a success. Firstly, the meeting demonstrated that civic society in Russia is much wider than just a few organisations that were already well known. Lyudmila Alekseeva, who took part in the conference, said that the ability to organise is an indication of the stability of civic society.

Many of the participants suddenly spoke of being full of hope, and that there were good grounds for this optimism. This may seem like a paradox: many of the Forum’s participants have a long history of arrests and police harassment. Nevertheless, the main component of this optimism is their conviction that the future of our nation depends on us.

It is hard not to agree with Andrey Dmitriev, editor-in-chief of the Russian news agency, APN North-West, and one of the coordinators of the Other Russia in St Petersburg, who said that he just wanted to live in a Russia which was a normal European country, where people were free and where they were not tortured. Only afterwards did I read in the news that, at the Other Russia conference in Moscow, Andrey had called for holding a March of Dissent against [the Chechen strongman] Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny.


A few days after the meeting in Helsinki, I was on a Finnair flight to Madrid. At the airport of Barajas, we were unexpectedly approached by a group of passengers in the business class, who asked us to let them exit first. It turned out that the President of Estonia was on the same flight… They were very apologetic about the inconvenience. What strange people, these politicians from the New Europe, I must say! They simply make no issue of their status.

The University of Madrid and Amnesty International’s Spanish section had invited me to attend a two-day student seminar, “Fear and freedom of speech in Russia, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, China, and Colombia”, as part of a summer course held in El Escorial, a small town high in the mountains, where the main sights are the university and a 16th century monastery.

What unusual company I was with, I must say! However, there was nothing strange about it: human rights activists and journalists from Russia have long since stopped feeling like “fish out of water” among colleagues from such exotic countries, where people are threatened, suppressed, abused, and smeared.

The first meeting with the colleagues from Morocco and Egypt was difficult. When he heard that I was from Russia, the Moroccan journalist, Ali Lmbaret, commented sarcastically: “Are there still non-putinists in Russia?” However, we got to know each other quite quickly. Ali now works as a reporter for the Spanish newspaper, El País. He was banned from working as a journalist in Morocco for ten years under a law which prohibits doctors from practicing if they have inflicted damage to patients.

Ali told me that if someone compared one of his colleagues in Morocco with Putin, that person could get his teeth bashed in. It would be such an insult, you see! The name “Putin” equals to “dictator” in Morocco. Even more so as the King of Morocco, who does not hesitate calling himself a “direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad”, often tells his subjects that Morocco has no better friend than Vladimir Putin. True, the Russian Club, which operated for a long time in the capital, Rabat, has now been closed. There is now a McDonald’s in its place.

The Egyptian journalist and human rights activist, Gamal Abdel Aziz Eid, now heads the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. The network publishes material in several languages about the situation in the Maghreb and North Africa. In Gamal’s words, “the Arab world produces oil and oppression”. He noted with sarcasm that Egypt has not had former presidents around for years, given that they have long since gone to see their maker.

In Gamal’s opinion, more and more parallels can be drawn between Egypt and Russia. How can one forget the famous visit of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Russia, when he advised Putin “not to leave office; it is so easy: you only have to change the Constitution”. Mubarak knows what he is talking about: after all, he has been President since 1981 with the help of a state of emergency, a hand-picked parliament, and a change in the constitution in 2005.

Sihem Bensedrine is a journalist and human rights activist from Tunisia. I have known this soft-spoken and lovely lady for three years now. She is well-known in the Arab world as an adamant defender of human rights. She has been beaten, illegally arrested, her family has been threatened. When we met, Sihem said: “How did they dare kill Politkovskaya… When I heard about her death, I felt as if they had torn a piece of my soul”.

Sihem herself knows what repression is, given that she has been harassed by the direct orders of the President of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, under the pretext of the war on terror. Her organisation, National Council for Liberty in Tunisia (CNLT), was banned immediately after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Sihem noted that Putin is waging the war on terror with the exact same methods as his colleagues in Arab dictatorships. All my colleagues in Arab countries agreed that the situation in Tunisia was the worst due to the open cynicism [of the authorities]. There, the war on terror has become a bogeyman, which the dictatorial regime uses to hide the complete absence of civic rights for all those not holding the reigns of power.

The former Beijing University sociology professor, Lun Zhang, now lives in Paris. He cannot return home after the massacre of student demonstrators on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. He was one of the organisers of the demonstrations and was responsible for contacts with officials. They gave him the go-ahead, called off the police, but then sent in the army. Zhang recalls that they were set up as a lesson for all other opposition activists.

Zhang hid in a remote village in West China for three months before making his way to Taiwan. Asked whether it was worth calling on the students to demonstrate in the square, his firm answer was that it was and remains the only way to show that there still does exist a liberal opposition in China.

Hollman Morris is the author of one of the best-known talk shows on Colombian television. He has lost many friends who had investigated the crimes of drug cartels and their links to paramilitary groups. Hollman himself has been arrested many times by men in uniform. His parents received a call and were told that their son was dead.

I heard from Hollman that my Colombian friend, Claudia Julieta Duque, has finally decided to leave the country together with her daughter Alejandra. She lived one year in Spain, but yearned to return home all the time. In her last letters, Julieta said that in the last three months, there were another two attempts on her life. Someone had damaged the breaks in her car, and she only escaped a car crash by a miracle. A few days later, a black car blocked the road. Her 13-year-old daughter was with her.

Hollman saw much in common between the situation in his country and Russia. UNESCO chose Colombia as the venue to award its World Press Freedom Prize posthumously to Anna Politkovskaya.

Impunity is the key factor in the system which makes crimes against journalists possible. Impunity is the most effective method to instill the disease of self-censorship in journalists and human rights activists. In all the countries we focused on in El Escorial, self-censorship is the scourge that is destroying freedom of speech.

In Morocco, it is absolutely forbidden to cast doubt on the history of the royal family, even if it runs counter to elementary facts of history. It is absolutely forbidden to mention the armed conflict in Western Sahara and even to call it an armed conflict, even if this runs counter to UN resolutions.

In Egypt, where bloggers are becoming a political force to be reckoned with, and whose opinions are heard, state oppression is directed on them first. A terrible story is that of the 20-year-old student, Kareem Amer (Abdul Kareem Suleiman Amer), who was condemned to four years of imprisonment for daring to criticise his own university in his blog. Not the authorities, but the rector! He did not call for violence, and he was not an Islamic fundamentalist. He was arrested in 2005. His university professors took part in questioning him. Kareem refused to renounce his views.

In Tunisia, the journalist, Mohammed Abu, dared to criticise the government for inviting the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for a visit and for using torture. In 2005, he was given a prison sentence of three and a half years.

We found many common things in the realities of our countries. Nevertheless, it was not hard to notice some differences. Firstly, Russia remains a member of the elite clubs of Western democracies. This is probably a good thing, given that it may restrain the regime from showing its true colours to the rest of the world. However, the most striking difference is in the sense of solidarity within the narrow segment of society concerned about human rights and having liberal views, among the victims of the ruling regime in each country.

Gamal Eid told me the story of a female taxi driver who was raped by policemen. The culprits were so confident about their impunity that they filmed their crime using their mobile phones, and threatened to inflict “eternal shame” on their victim. They carried out their threat by posting the video on the internet. However, the victim found the support of all Egyptian bloggers, who initiated a powerful campaign to protect victims of police abuse. Egypt’s public prosecutor was forced to launch a criminal investigation against the rapists, and they were brought to justice.

Egypt differs from Russia in another respect: the Egyptian Ministry of Information protects the rights of internet users. Thanks to the efforts of the ministry’s officials, internet access is now free of charge throughout Egypt!


What is the main value of these sort of meetings? Not in giving presentations and providing figures of the extent of human rights problems throughout the world. It is, no doubt, very important to see the similarities in the methods employed by the governments of the countries with the most striking human rights violations and which are worried the most about hanging on to power.

However, the most important thing in all these meetings is the establishment of informal networks among people willing and capable of supporting one another. It does not matter one bit that we are spread out in all four corners of the world — from Russia to Tunisia.

Oksana Chelysheva, 17.07.2007

[Translated by: Kerkko Paananen].

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