Your excellencies, dear Rafto laureates, ladies and gentlemen—dear friends!
These are troubled times for the Russian civil society.
To be sure, never before has Russia seen such a multitude of competent organisations working to protect and promote human rights, the environment, culture and other fundamental values. Recently, however, non-governmental organisations have been singled out by the authorities as an obstruction to Russia’s further development. Over the last couple of years, hundreds of organisations have been subjected to harsh inspections.
In this context, the case of this year’s Rafto laureate, Agora, is doubly important. Established in 2005, they are an example of a new generation of human rights organisations that have emerged in contemporary Russia. They are based in the regional centre Kazan and are connected to a network of organisation throughout the world’s largest country. They are a professional organisation of people who use their law education to defend citizens and organisations that have suffered abuse from the authorities.
As a result of this, they have themselves been subjected to attacks by both local and federal authorities. This summer, Agora was labelled a ‘foreign agent’ by the Russian Department of Justice because they receive financial support from other countries and engage in what the authorities consider to be political activity. The new status obliges them to submit more bureaucratic paperwork, but most importantly: it stigmatises them as enemies of the very same people they work to protect.
Agora’s primary activity is to offer free legal aid to victims of abuse by state authorities and officials, something they do with great efficiency and professionalism. This work is important not only for the individuals they defend, but also for the development of a free and fair court system in Russia. The current Russian legal system was established only twenty years ago, and is still developing.
In addition to this, Agora uses its regional network to document and report human rights abuses throughout Russia. These include abuses by police, unhuman conditions in the notorious Russian army, and racism. In recent years they have published thorough reports on the situation for sexual minorities in Russia and on attempts to limit the free use of the Internet.
The combination of all these activities makes them a well-deserving recipient of this year’s Rafto Prize.
Russia is our neighbour, but a country more Norwegians will know from its great literature, than from travels. Few Norwegians have visited Russia, but we have all read the classics: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov. Or—if we haven’t—we are too ashamed to admit it. One of the reasons why Russian literature became so important was because of the great care with which Russian writers spoke up for ordinary people when they were suppressed by Russia’s rulers.
The prototype of such an ordinary man in Russian literature is Akakii Akakievich from Nikolai Gogol’s he Overcoat. A simple civil servant, Akakii Akakievich struggles to make ends meet. One day he realises that his overcoat is too worn out to protect him against the upcoming cold winter winds in his native Saint Petersburg. He spends several months saving up for a new one. Finally, he collects it from the tailor, only to have it stolen from him later the same day. The devastated Akakii Akakievich pleads help from a Prominent Person in the Saint Petersburg bureaucracy. However, he is told off in the most humiliating way and returns home, where he collapses on his coach and dies.
Gogol’s sympathy clearly rests with the small man who suffers abuse from the Russian statenapparatus. By displaying Akakii Akakievich’s grim fate, Gogol stands as a brilliant example of the Russian tradition according to which writers were seen as more than just writers. In a country without a functioning legal system, the job to defend ordinary Russians was left to the writers.
This was the situation in the Russian empire and its successor state, the Soviet Union. The post-Soviet Russia has a new legal system, and the job of Agora and other lawyers is to liberate Russian writers from this heavy moral duty to protect ordinary Russians. I am a great admirer of Russian literature, but I believe that Pavel Chikov, Irina Khrunova, Damir Gainutdinov and their lawyer colleagues are more competent than writers when it comes to
efficiently protecting the rights of Russians.
In these troubled times for Russian society, the Rafto foundation wants to highlight the very positive contribution made by Agora towards the promotion of basic human rights such as the right to a fair trial.
Mr Pavel Chikov, please accept our recognition for the work you and your organisation, Agora, have done for the promotion of rule of law and democracy in Russia. I call on you to come to the podium and receive the 2014 Thorolf Rafto Prize for Human Rights.
Agora logo, available from Rafto.no.