Russia: 'Common Attitude Of Suspicion' Behind NGO Struggles
Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
PRAGUE, June 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In January, Manana Aslamazyan was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport for failing to declare nearly 10,000 euros she was carrying from Paris. Aslamazyan, who heads the Educated Media Foundation (formerly Internews), a Russian nongovernmental agency focused on journalist training, now faces smuggling charges. She has resigned from her post, and the future of her U.S.-funded NGO is unclear. Aslamazyan, who is currently in Paris, spoke to RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Andrei Shary about her case, which comes amid a continued crackdown on NGOs and media groups in Russia.
RFE/RL: A source in the Interior Ministry has been cited as saying the investigation is essentially completed and that charges of contraband will be brought against you. It also says you are located on U.S. territory and have failed to appear for questioning despite numerous summons. Is this true?
Manana Aslamazyan: I haven't received any summons. I know that my attorney spoke with the investigator once. He was told that I was required to appear for questioning, and reasonably replied that I'm not in Russia. I'm not in the United States; I'm currently in Paris. I sent a letter to the investigative committee that says where I am and how to contact me.
RFE/RL: Smuggling contraband sounds like a serious charge.
Aslamazyan: According to Part 1 of Article 188 of the Penal Code, the charges are punishable by a fine, the confiscation of all funds transported, probation, or a prison sentence of one to five years. I know all of this now, having familiarized myself with it. I'm absolutely certain that my guilt is negligible.
Recently there was a Supreme Court decree -- if I understand it correctly -- defining contraband as the discrepancy between funds authorized but not declared, and the actual amount of transported funds. By this standard, my entire contraband consists of about $2,000. It's clear that I will have to accept some punishment, but it should be minimal. I assume that it will be a fine.
RFE/RL: Your letter of resignation from the Educated Media Foundation was quite heartfelt. Are you sad to leave a position you've held for 10 years?
Aslamazyan: I think that there will be some kind of a happy ending. But I have to keep going and make a living. I suspect that it will be difficult for me to find work in Russia if the foundation shuts down, given my current public image. So I decided to take advantage of an offer to work at an international organization. If we manage to preserve the foundation, I'll be happy to return to it.
RFE/RL: Where will you be working?
Aslamazyan: It's an international social organization called Internews Network. It has representatives in different parts of the world. I'll be a consultant for different projects in different countries.
RFE/RL: Can you explain how what appears to be a relatively minor offense escalated into a campaign that brought about the closure of Educated Media?
Aslamazyan: It seems that there's a common attitude of suspicion toward nonprofit organizations financed abroad. We fell victim to this attitude. But we clearly worked within the legal structure of the Russian Federation, and we were extremely careful and accurate with all our documents and the registration of our funding.
All the international resources we received and spent were received with the authorization of the Russian government, and went through special government commissions that exempt these resources from taxation. They certainly knew the nature of our work. We kept regular records. All of them have been filed with these commissions. It seems to me that they're simply mistaken. I want to think that some groundless suspicion arose. It's a mistake, and it will soon be resolved.
RFE/RL: Do you ever suspect that the steps taken against your foundation are meant to frighten people working in the civil-society sector?
Aslamazyan: I don't think that this would be useful for us. Civil society is a society with different points of view, in which citizens trust their government and the government trusts its citizens. Civil society is a society in which there has to be a strong media that both the government and the people trust. This is what we were working on. So from this point of view, I don't think that what is happening around us is sensible or effective for the country.
Concerning what frightens me, when you read endless reports in newspapers about a man jailed for giving a mechanic a 100-ruble bribe just because he happened to fall into the middle of a campaign to clean up the ranks of the Government Automobile Inspection, then you start to wonder if they're making an example of you. So I'm scared. I've been working for a long time, and I've always had a flawless reputation. I don't want to become an example.
RFE/RL: What is stronger in Russia, the government or the people?
Aslamazyan: The governmental apparatus is certainly getting stronger; everyone is talking about it. Unfortunately, I'd say the citizens are undermotivated. They take offense, they feel bad, but they never do anything to help one another. This failure to take initiative is a very sad feature of our contemporary society. It touches everything: homeless children as well as homeless dogs, trees collapsed around houses, everything in the world. I'm not taking about political things, I'm talking about failure to take initiative in the most ordinary sense of the word. The government is obviously stronger. But I think it would be wiser if it trusted its citizens more.