Last night I attended the Human Rights First 30th annual award dinner in New York City, where I had the opportunity to meet with the admirable Russian civil society leader Oleg Kozlovsky – a brave young man who is well known to my regular readers. As previously reported here, Kozlovsky was in town to receive an award from this organization along with the Egyptian blogger Nora Younis, presented by the well known actor Sigourney Weaver. Other notable attendees included Ted Kennedy, Mary Robinson, and Lyudmila Alexeyeva. Oleg blogs about his experience at the awards ceremony here, and an interview from the day before was also published here. My editor James caught up with Oleg in New York today for a quick Q&A, which you’ll find posted below. It’s always a pleasure and honor to meet with one of Russia’s brave young democratic activists, and I wish him the best of luck and success in his important work. – Robert Amsterdam Q: Tell me about the ceremony last night … what was it like to be thrust into the limelight alongside so many notable figures to receive this award? Oleg Kozlovsky: Well, I certainly don’t feel like a celebrity, or that this is what the event was really about. I don’t believe that this organization was necessarily recognizing my humble work, but rather the award is in recognition of the work of many other people – the real, true democratic heroes of Russia. In this case I’m seen as their representative, and I accepted the award on behalf on all of them.
It was a really great event, and I have never attended anything like it. There were about one thousand people there, mostly diplomats, businessmen, and lawyers, but also some other guests. I believe the event brought great attention to the human rights issues in both Russia and Egypt – and it was very interesting to meet this blogger from Egypt – a very courageous person.The selection of Russia and Egypt shows that something is changing in the perception of problems. These used to be the countries that many Western leaders and NGOs tried to avoid criticizing because of political relationships. They often ignore many violations in these countries. I think that this shows that there is growing interest in Russia, which is a very positive trend.Q: On this blog, we carefully followed the state’s attempts to silence you by forced conscription to the army and other pressures against Oborona. What is the current status of the organization, and what do you have planned for the future?OK: Right now the organization is very active, and we are planing many actions related to the financial crisis. So far the crisis is having a very deep impact on the country, and we’ll see just how far it goes. Just earlier today I was reading the news about how far the stock indices have dropped this month. We really believe that this may be a turning point when Russian people abandon their illusions and realize that economic stability is over now and that the government has done nothing to prevent the crisis. One of our main issues is to address the economic crisis and show the people how the financial situation is connected to the failures of the political system. This will be our focus over the next several months and perhaps over the next several years.Q: Do you think that young people in Russia are hopelessly apathetic to politics? Why is there a lack of interest in public life, and what could possibly happen to change that?OK: This is clearly an obvious problem that we have to deal with every day. Most young people in Russia are either too cynical to participate in anything that doesn’t bring them money or career advancement, or they believe that all politics are just too dirty and that it’s always about money and corruption. And then there are even people who are both! Young people don’t really want to participate in any kind of political organizations right now, neither from the Kremlin nor the opposition, but I think that this is something is going to change, and that social activity and political activity is going to rise. With Oborona, we try to gather people together who already have some interest or are at least curious about public life, and we try to attract those people to show them that civic activity doesn’t have to be bad and it’s not that dirty, but rather it depends on how you do it.Q: Russia is currently going through a very serious economic crisis. Most people say that this is only hurting the oligarchs so far, but on the other hand, there are reports that Severstal is cutting 25% of its workforce and other companies may begin laying off workers. Then there is also the difficult issue of inflation and ruble devaluation, which could have a broad and political challenging impact on common people. How does this impact the work of the opposition in Russia?OK: I am not an economist, so I cannot predict how deep the crisis is going to go, but if it is deep, I believe that paradoxically it could be a good thing for Russia, because it will eliminate the illusions, make people wake up to see what is going on in the country, and make it possible to bring the changes that we need. It might be really good for the Russian political system to bring in some much needed fresh air.But of course the price of it is going to be quite high, I’m afraid, because the government doesn’t really seem to be trying to prevent the crisis, but only save their capital and the capital of their friends. This is the result of the evolution of the system and its deeply rooted corruption. This is a chance for Russia civil society to wake up.Q: In terms of constructive relations with Russia and the advancement of your organization’s goals, which U.S. president do you believe would be better for Russia, Barack Obama or John McCain?OK: Actually I don’t think that it makes too big of a difference, because although McCain’s rhetoric clearly sounds more aggressive and more opposed to Putin, I don’t think that the activities of either Obama or McCain will really be that different when it comes to Russia. They would both be pursuing rather similar national interests and objectives. I think McCain might be more active in trying to oppose Russian officials by expanding NATO or seeking the installation of the missile defense shield sites, while Obama would likely be more active in international organizations and working with civil society. There is some difference in the instrumental part of how they go about accomplishing their goals, but the general approach and objective will probably be the same.Q: There are many defenders of the current regime in Russia who say that it is inappropriate and hypocritical for the West to become involved in the support of civil society in Russia. The most frequent argument we hear is that of double standards – that it’s not credible for the United States to talk about democracy and rule of law in Russia when there are cases like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Do you believe that it is problematic to have foreign assistance? Is there a right way and a wrong way for the international community to help opposition groups in Russia?OK: I think that in helping Russian or any other organization, one shouldn’t look at where the support and resources come from, but rather what you are doing with it. If you get money from a transparent and reputable source but you do a horrible thing, than it’s a bad thing. If you get money from a villain but you spend it on the right things, this is an advancement for civil society. This is the general rule that should apply here.The funny thing is that Oborona has recently been accused of getting money from abroad and working for some foreign adversaries or something, but the fact is that we have never accepted one cent from any foreign foundations or institutions. The truth is that most of these types of foundations also work with officially sponsored youth programs and such, and they are often too afraid of being driven out of Russia by having any relationship with us. They really prefer to try to be loyal to the Kremlin in order not to lose their offices in Moscow. At the same time these organizations are also being accused of funding revolutions and unrest. It’s a very paradoxical situation, because those who actually get outside assistance are the same ones who hurl accusations at other civil society groups and seek to prevent and divert resources.These are the real double standards in Russia. It should be a question of what international organizations want to do – if they want to really help independent civil society groups, or if they would prefer to just sit back and write nice reports, which please their corporate sponsors and help their governments develop international relations. I think this is a real waste of an operation: if you want to help Russian democracy, you shouldn’t just work with the officially sponsored groups.As for the double standards argument, I would point out that both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo of course represent very serious human rights problems that deserve attention. But most international human rights organizations, in the United States and beyond, are actively addressing these issues with the equal attention they give to any other issue. It’s not like that for some groups in Russia. It’s not as though Western NGOs are just turning a blind eye to these violations while they solely focus on lecturing Russia. They try to more or less work with all issues, and this is very important.Are you optimistic for Russia’s future?Yes, I am optimistic, and I’m optimist by nature. I think that eventually we will go the same direction as the rest of the civilized world. It may take time, and I hope that it doesn’t take too much time, but I don’t see any other way for Russia to survive and develop other than becoming part of the democratic and civilized world.Photo: Oleg Kozlovsky and Robert Amsterdam at the Human Rights First 30th annual awards dinner, Oct. 23, 2008, New York City