House of Free Russia – KyivApril 15, 2017
No this entry has nothing to do with the John Le Carre novel or the 1990 film The Russia House.
In Kyiv the not for profit organisation House of Free Russia has officially opened its doors – which currently is about all there is, doors, and some sparse furnishing. No computers, no library and security comprising of little more an alarm system to protect the empty square meters of office space.
Nevertheless, perhaps from such acorns do mighty oaks grow – time will tell as it always does.
(Disclaimer: Of the current supervisory board (or Public Council as the management has labeled itself) this blog is familiar with two members. From decades past in Moscow, Evgeniy Kiselev, and a more recent acquaintance of but a few years, Vladislav Davidzon.)
The NFP is funded by the European Endowment for Democracy, Nemtov’s Foundation for Freedom, the collective efforts of the Russian diaspora, primarily in the US – and a perhaps deliberate and nefarious rumour relating to some Mikhail Khodorkovsky input that is denied by the organisation.
The House of Free Russia is positioning itself thus “an alternative Embassy of Russian civil society in Ukraine. It is an open platform for dialogue and research on contemporary Russia and its impact on the international community, on Russian-Ukrainian relations, the conflict in the Donbas and the annexation of the Crimea. This is a safe space for immigrants and refugees from Russia to Ukraine, the Russian diaspora assembly point in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, the transponder of the free world values in Russia.”
In short it aims to be “Russian Dissident Central” in Kyiv.
Naturally the opening of such an initiative is unlikely to receive the warmest of welcomes in some Ukrainian nationalist quarters. Others will see this organisation headquartering in Kyiv as a trolling of The Kremlin. Yet others will see it as a worthwhile exercise with some potential to achieve what its own stated aims. Some will see it as an exercise in futility.
Whatever the case the organisation has gone through all required legal hoops in Ukraine, and no doubt some SBU scrutiny, prior to opening its doors.
It goes without saying that both Ukrainian and Russian spooks will have some interest in the comings and goings, and what goes on henceforth – and in attempting to become “Russian Dissident Central”, it will not only be the Ukrainian and Russian spooks that will take such an interest.
It also has to be said that not all Russian dissidents in Ukraine will be particularly supportive.
For the most prominent there is the question of competing prestige (to a lesser extent funding) and “face time”/column inches when it comes to being a representative for Russian dissidents. There are clear schisms and an obvious clashing egos within the broad church of Russian dissidents in Ukraine (not unlike the opposition to the current regime within Russia itself).
For lesser mortals, the refugees, emigres and dissidents, there are not only the issues of a platform from which to employ their right to free speech and assembly, but there are also practical issues that Ukraine is perhaps more willing to solve for those of a high profile. Issues of documentation and bureaucracy – in short legally being in Ukraine (and issues not to dissimilar to those that many Ukrainian IDPs have yet to overcome).
By way of example, a young Russian currently residing in Kyiv (known to the blog) who for years has been a vocal and literary critic of the current Kremlin regime has seen his passport expire some time ago. Naturally attending the Russian Embassy in Kyiv to get a new one is not the most endearing of prospects. He cannot leave Ukraine to get a new Russian passport elsewhere as the passport has long since expired. He cannot apply for temporary residence in Ukraine using an expired Russian passport, and any and all supporting identity documents are in Russia even if there were a way to circumvent that issue.
Further, international obligations and domestic legislation provide for the return of Russians to Russia that are wanted and/or that have overstayed. International institutions do not overtly officially recognise that Russian justice can often be anything but. Thus there is no international trend when it comes to non-refoulment with regard to the return of Russians to Russia (and its judicial system). Each case is dealt with on its merits, and rightly so, despite any reservations held about Russian justice.
(To recognise Russia as a legal system whereby very often the (politically) guilty are identified and only then the crime found to fit – rather than a crime being committed and then the (politically) guilty identified – would hold many problems for States wanting to rid themselves of Russian citizens they deem (politically) undesirable for one reason or another.)
Thus, of course, this is not a black and white matter that can be dealt with via broad brushstrokes for such political issues such as Russians that claim to be refugees and/or dissidents – for some will not be despite their claims (for genuine reasons or political expediency).
Therefore when illegally in Ukraine (and otherwise stuck here) taking the risk of a return to Russia having publicly and regularly decried and otherwise “betrayed” the current regime, then approaching the Ukrainian institutions is also a less than inviting prospect.
Of course such matters are indeed recognised by the higher profile Russian dissident community and are not missed by the newly opened NFP, House of Free Russia.
There is a level of paranoia that organisations such as the House of Free Russia will have to overcome from among the dissidents and refugees. There is also a level of understanding (and a degree of trust) that will have to be reached with the Ukrainian authorities too. Neither will be easy.
Is an illegally present refugee or dissident any more likely to attend the House of Free Russia than they are any other location that they (perhaps reasonably) suspect will be under the watchful eye of Ukrainian, Russian (and other) security services (notwithstanding the possibility of some extreme nationalists)?
(For those legally in Ukraine there is perhaps a degree of Kremlin trolling to be had from being seen to frequent such premises from a dissident point of view.)
Such is the nature of self preservation and perhaps understandable paranoia, that among dissidents and refugees, there will be questions of organisational infiltration by security services and also of personal data security if any is stored for reasons of fighting a legal or lobbying their cause. Those concerns may be real and/or simply amplified by a little disinformation.
The apparent “understanding” between Kyiv and Minsk that those Belorussians who came to aid of, and/or fight for Kyiv would not be returned due to bureaucratic reasons such as document expiry is perhaps politically easy to justify for both capitals. Kyiv would not want to appear so ungrateful as to return them for overstaying and Minsk would not want to receive them thus creating avoidable issues with The Kremlin when it comes to punishment – or not.
However, there will be readers (and some Ukrainian nationalists) who would see it as a stretch to extend such an “understanding” to Russian anti-Kremlin bloggers, twitterati and commentariat currently in Ukraine. The pen (or keyboard) may be mightier than the sword (or Kalashnikov) – but insufficiently so to overlook such bureaucracy for many Russian dissidents.
There are also the issues of deciding who is a refugee and/or dissident and who is not. These are not only issues for the Ukrainian authorities, but also for organisations such as House of Free Russia.
Within the NGO, who decides? Who decides who decides? Upon what criteria is the decision to give assistance made? What boxes have to be ticked, how many boxes are there, and what percentage of boxes ticked equates to assistance? Are some boxes weighted more heavily than others? What messages are sent by the decisions made? How many success stories will equate to trust? How many failures will equate to organisational irrelevance?
To counter “irrelevance” organisations such as House of Free Russia, particularly as new, enthusiastic, and with an alternative vision for Russia, will not want to limit themselves to such bureaucratic issues surrounding dissidents and refugees illegally in Ukraine. A freedom of speech platform that shows The Kremlin the middle finger but with little process or structure will not be enough either. There will be, sooner or later, a desire to create outreach/aid/humanitarian programmes, think-tanking, the lobbying of Ukrainian and also those that have influence with the leadership, the structured countering of disinformation et al. Time will tell how quickly that occurs – but with organisational longevity it seems a very likely course.
As readers are aware, there are so many civil society initiatives in Ukraine to watch it is easy to be overwhelmed (which is a problem unto itself when expecting government to respond to everything in a timely and effective manner). It remains to be seen whether the authorities in Kyiv will see this as a PR opportunity (among others) or whether it will be seen as an irritation (particularly if the nationalists really go after it).
Nevertheless, first things first. We shall see whether House of Free Russia will gain the trust of those it aims to help, while similarly surviving the rhetoric of those “headline” Russian dissidents that will seek to undermine it one way or another. This not withstanding Kremlin efforts to undermine it should traction be gained.