Late in May, a couple of weeks ago, the court proceedings in the case of the Medjlis Deputy Head Ilmi Umerov started. He is charged with having violated Part 2 of Article 280.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. The reason for starting a criminal case was Umerov’s interview, which he gave to the Crimean Tatar TV-channel ATR a year ago.
Back at the first, preliminary session of the court Ilmi Umerov stated that human rights defender Alexander Podrabinek would represent his interests in court, together with the lawyers.
Umerov’s decision wasn’t accidental. Soviet dissident, human rights defender and journalist Podrabinek is linked to the Crimean Tatars with many years of friendship. He, in particular, was one of the dissidents who supported the protest actions of the Crimean Tatars in Moscow back in 1987.
In an interview for QirimInfo, Alexander Podrabinek told when it was the right time to impose sanctions on Russia so that they would work; what Alexey Navalny replied to his question about the Crimea, and whether the Kremlin could do without repression against the dissenters.
You are involved in Ilmi Umerov’s case as a civil defender. How and why did you take such a decision?
I am rather a defender by contract. There are professional lawyers who work under an order, and non-proferssional ones, who work under a contract, like me. Earlier, for instance, I participated in the Pussy Riot case as a non-professional defender. When Maria Aliokhina was in a camp and they announced penalties against her, we appealed them in court. Most of them were abolished due to our lawsuits.
Then, I participated in the “Beware of Religion!” case, when the organizers and the curators of the exhibition in the Sakharov Museum in Moscow were subjected to responsibility. The people were tried only for having organized an exhibition which allegedly insulted the feelings of the faithful. This Article [Art.148 of the criminal Code of the Russian Federation Violation of the right to the freedom of conscience and religion] didn’t exist then. They stood trial for the incitement [of inter-ethnic hostility].
When they started persecuting Ilmi Umerov, I offered him my help. I talked with [lawyer Mark] Feygin, coordinated it all with him and took the decision.
The benefit of such a lawyer, a non-professional one, is that they can say the things that the lawyers cannot say due to their professional ethic, in court. Lawyers remain a little limited in their procedural capacities, as there is always a risk to be thrown out of the bar association, if they break the [advocacy] code. And I cannot be dismissed from anywhere. In this sense, there definitely are certain benefits.
What is your strategy of defense in this case?
I don’t have any strategy. I see my role as follows: I can be freer than the lawyers in my behaviour. Still, this doesn’t mean I will not present legal arguments during the trial. It doesn’t exclude the own line of defense either. As they say, two heads are better than one, even if one of them is public.
What are your impressions of the Crimean justice?
There’s no justice. The case will end in a guilty verdict. Given that they chose non-leave obligation as a pre-trial measure, the sentence will not be connected with imprisonment. He is too noticeable a figure, I don’t think they would dare to imprison him for some real term.
You are connected with the Crimean Tatars and Ilmi Umerov in particular with long years of cooperation and friendship. Do you have a feeling of a deja vu, that the story with their persecution is repeating?
It’s not even a deja vu, no allusion, no memory. Deja vu means a light hint, like «it seems to me something like this already happened». And what is happening now, with Ilmi Umerov in particular – is a trivial continuation of that Soviet practice. Maybe the situation in Russia is not as harsh as in the Crimea, but, generally speaking, we are witnessing the Soviet mechanisms of the state administration coming back.
In Russia, the mentioned mechanisms started actively reviving in 2000, when Putin came to power. In 2014, they included the Crimea in this process. The Russian realm, which had been deteriorating, becoming more and more Soviet-like since 2000, suddenly fell over them. This is one common tendency, it just manifests differently in different places.
Considerable efforts of the national secirity bodies are focused on the Crimea. To a higher extent than in any other region. They do rezlise that it’s not exactly a Russian region, that it is a stolen piece of territory.
That is why they are suppressing any resistance spots. If something happens here, the whole international community will have a clear argument of support. Thus, resistance in the Crimea would be the struggle for the restoration of justice, including the national and territorial return to Ukraine.
Moscow’s reaction to the events in the Crimea looks much sharper than, for instance, in any other Russian region. However, in general, disappearances of people, or murders in Moscow remain the phenomena of the same nature, of course.
What is the nature of this repression then?
There are two aspects – objective and subjective. The first one is, they don’t feel as confident as it may seem to us. They often repress people for no particular need. This is the pointer of disconfidence. This is called outsized repression.
Secondly, they have to do it. Repression is an unevitable element of the composition of any authoritarian regime. An authoritarian state is being constructed in Russia, it has already been built. For its survival, political repression is necessary, without it, the regime will collapse. If they don’t persecute political opponents, the latter will consolidate, turn into the opposition, it will receive the society’s support and the regime will fall down under this pressure in the end. That is why they are trying to go proactive and do away with any discontent.
Have the repession in Russia toughened after the Crimea?
I wouldn’t say there’s some clear line. The Crimea played its part, but it wasn’t the first. Georgia was before, for instance. The liberal intelligentsia here often writes [after yet another notorious case of human rights violation]: «That’s it, we woke up in a new country». And this happens time and again. You know, there is a great phrase by [Polish philosopher, satirist] Stalislaw Jerzy Lec: «When I thought I had already reached the bottom, they knocked from there».
This process has been going on since 2000 [referring to Vladimir Putin coming to power – edit.]. The massacre of NTV [TV-channel] was the first step in this direction. If no one stops this maniac, all this will develop further, to the global war.
Why does Russia need the Crimea?
It’s not Russia, it’s the Kremlin, the government. They need a permanent trouble spot. This is the nature of an authoritarian regime. They need either the external expansion, or the internal tension, or all together. Take any authoritarian regime. They either annihilate own population, or make a blood bath in other countries. This is a natural environment for them. It is so by definition. Nothing good should be expected from them.
I visited the Crimea in 2013. I was invited to the radio then. And I told the Crimea was under a serious threat. It was always obvious. This is the territory that can be played, a fire can be ignited there.
How is it possible to solve the Crimea issue?
It can be returned within 48 hours: withdraw the Russian administration, the military, and restore the border. If I were a president, I would do it straightaway. Because, the law ends where the war starts. Moreover, in 2014, when the annexation happened, it was needed to send the [American] naval forces in there. It would have been sufficient. However, now I don’t believe everything will resume its normal course soon. It doesn’t seem possible that the power in Russia can change. On the other hand, it can happen unexpectedly. No one expected the February Revolution in 1917. No one presumed the Arabian Spring could start with a self-immolation of a merchant in the market. Such events are unpredictable.
Does the Crimea factor still play any role for the Russians?
No, of course not, not to the extent it was before. Everything settled. First there was an agiotage. There was a great contradicition, families quarrelled about the Crimea. Now it’s not the case, everything got quiet. No agiotage. However, when the authorities need consolidation of the society...
For example, the upcoming election.
There are no elections. This is a formality. They are pretending they are afraid of the elections. This is a picture, a piece of propaganda. He cannot lose. Because there are no elections – it’s only an illusion. Thre will be another term, and I don’t think it will be the last one. And then they will debunk that «little cult». They are going to need someone to shift all problems off to, just like Putin did to Yeltsin.
However, can the Crimea card be played again?
No, the Crimea faces the destiny of an ordinary Russian region. The right moment for resistance is lost..
What about Navalny?
Well, he is stirring the pot and this is good. However, he is an unclear figure. Apparently, many people come out to protest not because they support Navalny, but because they’ve had enough of sitting at home. They are tired of the deadening atmosphere.
As for Navalny... For me, he does seem a not-so- understandable figure. He has some strong imperialistic features. Especially in the past. Now he has learnt to hide them. However, there was the «sandwich» statement [referring to Aleksey Navalny’s renown saying about the Crimea] or the attitude to the aggression in Georgia.
Have you asked him a question about the Crimea?
Yes, and he said: «There are many people who believe Russia is their Homeland, and we cannot ignore their opinion». I replied: «You are a lawyer. We must obey the law – this is the territory of Ukraine». First we need to restore justice under the law, and then start legal proceedings, if the Crimea wants to be independent on in another state.
He needs the voters to love him, he should say he is for Russia. This is a game. In Russia, no one will hold on to the Crimea till death. No one is going to take on to the streets, to sacrifice something for it either. When in 2014 there were the «demonstrations in support of the Crimea», they brought the people there in buses. They gave money for coming, so why not, if you are a budget employee.
Do the sanctions against Russia work?
They way they are intended to – no, of course not. The Western idea of sanctions looks as follows – having put the country on the edge of economic well-being, the authorities will come to senses. As the voters might not re-elect them in the future. This is the logic of the West. However, it doesn’t work in Russia, because the government here does not depend on the society. I don’t know what should be done so that people would take on to the street in Russia.
Okay, but is there a mechanism of influence which could work with regard to Russia? Something else, not sanctions.
The sanctions should have been imposed in 2000, when the attack at civil freedoms, the freedom of word just started. This was the proper reason for sanctions. The Western politics is vicious in the sense that they start reacting when it’s too late. Now it’s needed to support Ukraine with lethal arms. The war is going on. What economic sanctions?
What about the Minsk agreements on ceasefire?
Well, has there been a ceasefire? Have they stopped killing people in Ukraine?
You mean, the moment for the adquate reaction is lost?
How to take the aggressor down?
Sanctions will do nothing. It’s necessary to help to return Luhansk, Donetsk.
Will something change after their return?
Sure. If they receive a flick on the nose - it will make them come round. The only thing they are afraid of is resistance.
What is the difference with the Crimea here?
There’s none. It’s just Ukraine gave a proper reaction in case with Luhansk and Donetsk. But the Crimea was given away for nothing. Even with the weapons.
In your opinion, everything looks hopeless. The war in Donbas will last for a long time to come.
There’s no point guessing. There are plenty of examples when wars stopped. Even more. Yes, there are examples of smoldering conflicts. Also, there are cases when the international interference occurred, in Yugoslavia, for instance. There, they stopped the war with a war. They fighted fire with fire, as they say.
Do you suggest international interference? The blue helmets?
Yes, create a dimitarized zone at Donbas. However, on the other hand, this will not solve the problem. Ukraine must restore its borders. All of them. So this is what Ilmi started to call for. To call for the restoration of the borders of Russia and Ukraine. This is very correctly.
So, is this an exemplary case?
It gives an occasion to reflect on the restoration of the country's integrity. There are many more arguments for the restoration of the Russian-Ukrainian border than the ones for annexation. Because this border was established by the international legal agreements. Including the border with the Crimea. And its annexation – only by the internal Russian laws. Even according to the Russian Constitution, the international law takes precedence over the national. This is a stronger argument.