Andrei Kamenshikov works with Nonviolence International in Moscow. Earlier this year, he spoke with Metta Spencer about human rights challenges in Moscow as well as in the strife-torn North Caucasus.
METTA SPENCER: What’s Nonviolence International doing in the North Caucasus?
KAMENSHIKOV: We have five people working now. We do most of our work in partnership with other NGOs in Stavropol, North Ossetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. One of our goals there is to improve interactions between youth and local self-government there. The other goal is to improve relations between the youth and the police.
SPENCER: Those are ethnic conflicts, not wars. Is all military resistance over?
KAMENSHIKOV: No, there is violence, but not active warfare like ten years ago. Now it’s traditional terrorist acts against officials and police. Last spring there was a sharp increase in these incidents, especially in Dagestan. The UN group that monitors these things say there’s been a three-fold rise in violent incidents.
SPENCER: All politically motivated?
KAMENSHIKOV: Mixed. Suicide bombings occurred more than weekly last summer. Obviously that’s not just a crime.
SPENCER: What are they demanding, these suicide bombers?
KAMENSHIKOV: It’s both criminal and political. Last year there were suicide bombings against the police force. Police were quitting the force and were afraid to go outside wearing uniforms. There are also Islamic jihadists.
On the other side, there were human rights violations on the part of the police. Often you could consider the pro-government forces also as terrorists. Grabbing people on the street. Death squads. Torture. A lot of hatred has developed toward them. Yes, there are radical groups with international connections, but you can’t explain everything in those terms. You have to look at the reasons why there is so much hatred.
SPENCER: So the jihadist political insurgents are mixed with criminals and people who have been abused and want to fight back. Can you envision interventions that would make a difference?
KAMENSHIKOV: In the Caucasus we train police officers in techniques for understanding youths, to help them win over the sympathy of young people. We work behind the scenes and give the key roles to the local police force, who show young people that, yes, they do care about them. The other projects are similar. We’re trying to develop a dialogue between young people and local government — so they can make positive changes in their lives.
SPENCER: And Nonviolence International is working on ethnic intolerance throughout Russia. Tell me about that.
KAMENSHIKOV: Yes, ethnic conflict is increasing, especially in Moscow, because of rapid migration. Today probably one-third of the Moscow population is non-ethnic Russian. Mainly they came in the past two decades from the Caucasus and Central Asia — but also Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus. There are up to a million Azeris in Moscow, a city of 10 or 12 million — mostly living here without official registration.
SPENCER: I thought that they had made it legal for people to live where they want.
KAMENSHIKOV: That’s what they announced, but that’s not true. You need a local registration, which is basically the same, but you can pay a bribe for the permits. This is a major source of income for the authorities. Eventually migrants get some kind of official registration — sometimes by fake weddings — but the regulations enrich officials, police, and bureaucrats. Corruption is embedded in the fabric of society.
These groups have different cultures and often their behavior irritates the local population. It’s a vicious circle; the negative attitude of the old population toward the newcomers strengthens the newcomers’ desire not to integrate but to live separately and solve their problems through their own communities and through bribes. For example, the Azeris on the police force are seen by the community as “their people.”
We have two discourses now. One is on the migrant, ethnic side and the other on the side of the traditional population. There’s little attempt at constructive dialogue. That’s an area for our work in the future but so far we have barely touched it.
The issue relating to tolerance is mainly in Moscow. We would like to have a continuous round-table dialogue between groups that represent the two sides, the ethnic communities and the groups that are against migration. They don’t speak to each other. We had a roundtable in November where some of these people met for the first time. The dialogue was tense but also constructive.
We have a number of groups who claim to be working against xenophobia, against intolerance, but what they wind up doing is registering crimes against ethnic minorities. They characterize these as hate crimes, which is not always the case. There are many but not every crime against an ethnic Azeri in Moscow is necessarily a hate crime. Lots of groups engage in illegal activities where crimes take place.
SPENCER: Are Azeris the largest population of immigrants to Moscow?
KAMENSHIKOV: I don’t have statistics. If you walk the streets, that’s the impression you get. The migrant workers from Central Asia — Tajiks, etc. — are not as visible. The Tajiks usually work cleaning the streets, but are usually not registered as official public service workers. Usually you have some Russian person registered as doing that job. The city bureaucrats pay the Tajik a third of their official salaries, then divide the rest among themselves and the leaders of the Tajik community.
Azeris control the Moscow food market, which creates tension because the interaction between the seller and the buyer is not always good. Also, the behavior of people from the Caucasus can be annoying and there is considerable crime.
What has begun happening in Moscow is hate-crime attacks by anti-migrant youths. There were court cases where young people were on trial for killing ten or fifteen people. But for the last couple of years, people from the Caucasus formed their own gangs and started attacking ethnic Russian youths. Lots of nasty things are happening. We want to have a forum where people can speak to each other.
SPENCER: I remember hearing a lot about Chechens when I was in Moscow.
KAMENSHIKOV: Yes, but Chechens are not so numerous or visible. The Azeris are from Azerbaijan. They control the markets but the Chechens control the Azeris.
SPENCER: People can tell a Chechen from an Azeri?
KAMENSHIKOV: No, Chechens appear the most European of all Caucasus people, so it’s difficult to spot them in a crowd.
SPENCER: What about funding? Are your members all Russian or do you have assistance from abroad?
KAMENSHIKOV: For the last two years we’ve received money from a federal fund that supports NGO activity. But a large portion of our funding still comes from donors outside the country.
SPENCER: What is legal now? When I was in Russia last I heard of laws prohibiting NGOs from accepting foreign funds for any political activities. I’m not sure what “political” means.
KAMENSHIKOV: That’s the thing. It’s always a question. It often depends on the mentality of the specific person you’re speaking to. We try to be as cooperative as possible. Whatever reservation we might have about the current course of the government — and there are many things that obviously I can’t agree with — we can’t see any way to get ahead except by co-operating with the government. There needs to be interaction with the police if you want to stabilize the situation.
SPENCER: If you were out in the street, protesting against the government, you couldn’t accept foreign money, but probably they think what you’re actually doing is okay.
KAMENSHIKOV: Yes. We’re trying to show the government better ways of dealing with problems. So we’re in a better position than groups that focus on human rights violations. We are peace activists. We have lots of respect for human rights groups but you can’t play it two ways at the same time. We work cooperatively with anyone who wants to achieve change. Nevertheless, we run into bureaucratic opposition. Sometimes we are told “We don’t need you here.” The bureaucratic philosophy is “Just leave us alone.”
Are we involved in political activities? We definitely don’t participate in election campaigns. We don’t go out into the streets protesting. But we can’t say that the things we do are not political. We feel obliged to do something constructive about the problems and we’re not there for revolution. Over the last century Russia went through so much turmoil. Now the only effective change has to be done by co-operating.
SPENCER: What are the prospects for democracy?
KAMENSHIKOV: Grim right now. Democracy, unfortunately, became associated with the collapse of the economy and government in the early 1990s and the immense price that the country paid. Unfortunately, most people associate this with the term “democracy.” For those who lost a lot during that period, democracy is not popular. People want stability, peace, and economic improvement. That has been happening over the past decade, so people don’t care much if their democratic rights are seriously limited.
Today, the results of elections are known well before they take place. Most people don’t care. In 1996 there was massive fraud. We don’t know whether Yeltsin won that election or not. Probably he did but with a much smaller margin than the announced results. And in 1993 the Russian president used tanks to shell his own parliament. Those times were seen as times of democracy. Well, you can’t build a democracy when you violate your own constitution and send tanks to fire at the parliament. You shouldn’t be surprised when, ten years later, the system changed in a very undemocratic fashion.
SPENCER: I’ve heard people blame Bill Clinton for not having called Yeltsin’s regime undemocratic.
KAMENSHIKOV: Yes, the United States, which had much greater influence on Russia than it has now, should have said that certain lines should not be crossed. But at the time, the idea was, “Better Yeltsin than someone else.” That attitude existed in the United States and among so-called democrats in Russia as well. But once you become opportunist, you’re not a democrat anymore. If you close your eyes to violations of democratic principles, then, you can’t call it democracy.
Whatever democracy we had was more at the top than the bottom. In the Caucasus we’re showing young people that they can do something about their own lives by dialoguing with authorities and solving problems on the local level. Until people are used to being in charge of their own towns, they probably are not going to be in charge of the country.
SPENCER: Is it getting easier for them to influence their own fates locally?
KAMENSHIKOV: From a legal perspective, yes, because we have so-called local self-governance. Moscow appoints the governors of regions, but people elect their own mayors.
SPENCER: Do they represent particular parties? How can they know whom to vote for as mayor?
KAMENSHIKOV: We work in villages of 2,000 population where people know each other. But recently the state parliament adopted a law that even in local elections, candidates have to be supported by some political party. That reverses many of the principles of local self-governance. You’d have little chance to become mayor if you’re not supported by one of the parties officially recognized by the ruling party.
SPENCER: Meaning United Russia?
KAMENSHIKOV: Yes, but United Russia isn’t really a party in the traditional sense. It doesn’t have any real program. Among the four parties in the federal parliament the only party in the traditional sense is the Communist Party — even though their ideas are now not communist. They are social democrats.
SPENCER: If they were elected now, they’d act more like Swedish social democrats than the old CPSU?
KAMENSHIKOV: It’s hard to say, since there is no chance that they will be elected. Many Communist leaders feel comfortable having all the benefits of being in the local parliament and criticizing the federal government without having to be responsible for anything. So they’re not a hard opposition.
SPENCER: When I interviewed Ludmilla Alexeyeva in 2008 she said: We can’t be a democracy now. We just don’t have the skills. But, she said, we will in fifteen or twenty years because we are creating civil society here. Independent organizations are forming that will give people social capital — skills, and networks who know and trust each other.
KAMENSHIKOV: Maybe that’s true. And the Internet is playing a big role today. There are lots of good discussions. This new medium plays into the hands of the government because it’s a nice channel for people who do not buy the official propaganda. It keeps them out of other mainstream media. I do read the discussions but usually I’m too busy to participate actively.
SPENCER: What kind of people do so? Young people?
KAMENSHIKOV: It’s hard to say. They use nicknames. During Soviet times there were kitchen discussions. People were open when they got together with other trusted people at home. Today the Internet culture has replaced the kitchen discussions of thirty years ago. At some point it should lead to something.
Recently there were elections in various places, including Moscow. There was massive fraud. You had statistical proof in Moscow. A couple of days ago someone asked Putin about it and he dismissed the Internet as just pornography. He asked, how many cases do you know where people went to court with their complaints about this? Well, people do not go to court. Everybody knows, but officially it is never recognized. We know that the United Russia party stole about 20 percent of the votes in Moscow. The data was published for all of several thousand polling stations. There were some where the voter turnout was about 20 or 25%, which seemed realistic because most people did not vote. In those polling stations you had a very different picture of who the people voted for. As the voter turnout went up, the percent of votes for United Russia went up, so that it got about 35 or 40 percent of the vote. With higher turnout, all the extra votes went to United Russia. So you can calculate how many votes they added.
SPENCER: If you discuss that, you’re safe? Nobody is censoring the Internet?
KAMENSHIKOV: No, in fact this data was presented to the president and the prime minister. They know about it. I have a print-out of it somewhere.
SPENCER: Medvedev is proposing a more pluralistic party system and is lowering the threshold of votes required for each party to be represented.
KAMENSHIKOV: Yes, but those changes are very minor. Tiny steps. Medvedev is number two. Without much power, he’s trying to do something positive. I like many of the things he says, but there are few actions.
SPENCER: It would be good to boost transnational Internet discussions. What proportion of the young Russians know English?
KAMENSHIKOV: A lot, but if they are discussing Russian matters, the conversation is going to be in Russian. People write from other countries but they are mainly Russian people living abroad.
SPENCER: It should be possible to have conversations about other issues, such as the environment. Are people addressing the climate crisis?
KAMENSHIKOV: Unfortunately, it’s surprising how little concern this is getting. In the mainstream media there was a lot of talk about a scandal involving climate scientists.
SPENCER: Uh huh. That deception incident in Britain.
KAMENSHIKOV: You hear much more about that than about climate change. People just don’t think about it.
SPENCER: That was my impression when I was there. I was surprised. Even my friends and my interviewees didn’t know much about climate change.
KAMENSHIKOV: People know hardly anything about it. It’s certainly not something that people are concerned about. There was a televised meeting of President Medvedev with some of the top scientists just before he went to Copenhagen. They said, “This is still not a proven concept. It’s probably overblown.” It was very sad to hear that. The scientists were very skeptical about it, even though Russia is already being affected.
SPENCER: That scandal has affected public opinion here too. Even people who believe that the climate is changing often say that they don’t know by how much. This single event sowed doubt about the research. Surveys show about a ten percentage point decline in the belief in climate change.
KAMENSHIKOV: Also, climate change is a slow process. People are capable of adapting to gradual changes. My children won’t realize that winters in Moscow used to be different from now.
SPENCER: My journalist friend visited your environment ministry and says they do worry. In Siberia, houses are collapsing because the melting permafrost makes soil unstable. But I am thinking about how to create Internet conversations on a larger scale between Westerners and Russians. The international peace movement once had influence on Soviet policy, but it hardly exists anymore. I’d love to see a new transnational civil society discussing climate and environment issues, as well as peace.
KAMENSHIKOV: It’s a great idea, but I have no idea how.
SPENCER: Many Canadians are concerned about climate change. For example, I’m interested in biochar. I don’t think we’ll successfully prevent climate change just by cutting back on fossil fuels. We have to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. The best way is to make charcoal from organic waste and bury it.
KAMENSHIKOV: I never heard of it. In Russia it’s a non-existent problem.
Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.
For more information on Nonviolence International’s work, see NI-Russia.org.