Leonid Drabkin Leonid Drabkin
Leonid Drabkin
Democracy and human rights

Human rights have no borders

A conversation with Leonid Drabkin on the situation in Russia

After the arrest of Alexey Navalny, there were mass demonstrations in Russia. Young people, who are dissatisfied with many things in the country, made up a large part of the demonstrators. OVD-Info supports people who are arrested and tried for political reasons. IJAB talked to the organisation's general manager, Leonid Drabkin, about the situation of young people.

19.04.2021 / Christian Herrmann

ijab.de: Leonid, what is OVD-Info? What do you do?

Leonid Drabkin: After the protests against the 2011 elections, there were many arrests and in many cases nobody knew where people had disappeared to and what happened to them - not even their closest relatives. Were they mistreated, were they charged? Our founders, Grigory Okhotin and Daniil Beilinson, put out an appeal on social media at the time, asking "who knows anything?". Since then, our motto has been "information protects", because only when arrests and court cases become public can we help those affected and exert public pressure.
In the meantime, we are 60 full-time staff and hundreds of volunteers. We help people who are affected by political persecution. We have a telephone hotline and a Telegram channel through which we can always be reached. We offer legal advice or support people who want to file a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. This year alone, we have handled 1,500 cases so far. We publicly stand up for civil and human rights and run campaigns. One of them is against the practice of closing police stations and not letting any information about what happens inside get out. This is legally possible if there is an alleged danger. We have collected 150,000 signatures against this and believe that our legal system is in urgent need of change.
We finance ourselves almost exclusively through donations. In the first quarter of 2021, that was over $1,5 Million. Most of the donations are small amounts, but together they add up to a big sum.

ijab.de: Young people were particularly active in the protests against the arrest of Alexey Navalny during the protests in January and February, and they were correspondingly hard hit by the repression. How are the Russian youth doing?

Leonid Drabkin: All opinion polls tell us that young people are more oppositional and critical of the government than the elders - this is even true of those under 18. The state reacts accordingly nervously, for example against student media calling for demonstrations.
Many of them no longer watch television, because they know that they will only see state propaganda there. Instead, they inform themselves on Youtube, because there they get a more diverse picture.
Of course, there are also young people who are apolitical or keep their distance from politics and are more concerned with their professional advancement. One problem is the participation of young people in elections. You can see many young faces at the protests, but on election day they stay at home. The government, on the other hand, is doing well in mobilising the older generation, the majority of whom it can assume will vote for Putin.

ijab.de: In Belarus, many young people have left the country because the situation has become too dangerous for them. Is Russia threatened by a similar exodus?

Leonid Drabkin: No, the situation here is not as dangerous as in Belarus and especially a megalopolis like Moscow offers a lot of opportunities for young people. I myself wrote my Master's thesis in the UK, but I came back.

ijab.de: What were the main demands during the protests at the beginning of the year?

Leonid Drabkin: The main demand was of course freedom for Navalny. Many people think that what happened to him should simply not be allowed to happen. But that is of course also a trigger for much greater dissatisfaction with politics and the current state of affairs.

ijab.de: Are the protests and the repression that followed them a sign of shrinking spaces of civil society or a sign of its strengthening?

Leonid Drabkin: We are under very strong pressure here and there are new laws targeting NGOs. But the stronger the repression, the stronger the resistance. OVD-Info is an example of this. In January we were 40 full-time staff, now we are 60. There are more and more civil society initiatives, but it is also made more and more difficult for them. Activists and journalists are persecuted. I hope that more people will join the civil society movement. We will know in a few months or maybe in a few years if they are successful. At the moment, nothing is decided.

ijab.de: Can international youth exchange do something to strengthen civil society?

Leonid Drabkin: Youth exchange is an important space of experience for young people. They can see what is considered normal in other countries and how things should be. This applies to good practices that you can take with you and learn from, and it also applies to the problems that other countries have. You can also learn from that. Our problem is that we did not manage to build stable, democratic institutions after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was an opportunity to do so in the early 1990s, but the chance was missed. And that is why it is so important to experience how other societies function. Of course, we also hope for the solidarity of our international partners and that their media will not remain silent about the fate of prisoners.

ijab.de: What could young people from Germany learn in Russia in return and how political may or must youth exchanges be under the current conditions?

Leonid Drabkin: First of all: we are not a political organisation. Anyone who is arrested for political reasons receives support from us and we don't care at all whether someone is for or against Putin. Countries should not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries either. But human and civil rights have no borders and apply worldwide. So you can't just overlook them.
Young people from Germany can learn a lot in Russia. We have many grassroots organisations and initiatives here. They receive no funding, have few resources, but are also free to make their own rules. We are also quite innovative; we can even protest virtually. At Yandex, the Russian alternative to Google, there is the possibility in the map tool to mark where you are. In this way, civic activists gathered thousands of people on Red Square in a very short time, when real life rallies were prohibited due to pandemic.

Ein junger Mann spricht in ein Mikrofon
About democracy and human rights

IJAB understands international youth work and youth policy cooperation as contributors towards a strong civil society, a democratic polity, and greater social justice.