The danger of “business as usual” with Moscow

Human rights researcher Tanya Lokshina tells how she was blackmailed over her pregnancy.

As Brussels prepares for the EU-Russia Summit on December 21, it’s worth recalling a recent UK Foreign Office statement indicating that all was “business as usual” in Russia, with the human rights situation given its perfunctory place.  But “business as usual” is the most counterproductive signal that can be sent by an EU member-state to Russia today.   

Last December Moscow was not buried in snow as it is now, but was rather drowning in slush. On 5 December a group of activists held a public gathering to protest violations during the parliamentary elections the day before.  They had anticipated a turnout of about 500. Instead, as many as 10,000 people showed up, shocking the organizers, the media, and the Kremlin.

That rally proved to be the beginning of massive public demonstrations in Russia’s capital, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest authoritarian rule and political stagnation. Surely, this voice of discontent was so strong the government could not possibly ignore it?

But although some electoral reforms followed early in 2012, the authorities only intensified harassment of their critics in the lead-up to the presidential elections in March and Vladimir Putin’s inauguration in May. They used punitive lawsuits and arbitrary detention, threats from state officials, and beatings to intimidate political and civic activists, and to interfere with independent news outlets.  After the inauguration, the parliament pushed through a raft of highly restrictive laws, tightening the screws on freedom of expression, association, and assembly and giving the government ample tools to prosecute peaceful dissent.

Working for the Human Rights Watch Russia Office, I could feel the repression tightening and realized it was unprecedented in contemporary Russian history. Some of the elements — especially the new treason legislation and the heightening anti-foreign hysteria –are frighteningly reminiscent of Soviet times.

Then one morning in September, I started to receive threatening text messages revolving around my advanced pregnancy and my unborn child.  I caught myself thinking: “Last year this would have been unthinkable — whoever’s doing this has lost all sense of limitations.”

In Russia a pregnant woman is still viewed as off-limits, and the idea that of threatening an unborn baby would disgust anyone. Still, the new laws and the aggressive rhetoric of the Kremlin apparently signaled to officials at all levels that anything goes when it comes to the campaign against international groups or “foreign agents” (even if they are Russian).  As a result, the climate in the country has become so hostile that blackmailing a human rights researcher over her pregnancy is an acceptable addition to the arsenal of tools used to hamper the work of advocacy organisations.

In seven short months, Russia feels like a different country.  A new and expanded definition of  treason — essentially criminalizing international advocacy -- requires foreign-funded human rights and advocacy groups to register and publicize themselves as “foreign agents” (in Russian this unambiguously is interpreted as “foreign spies”). Two large donors — USAID and UNICEF — have been kicked out. A group of demonstrators face mass riot charges that are, at the very least, disproportionate.  And two members of the Pussy Riot feminist punk band are serving serious prison sentences for a political stunt following  an absurd and unfair trial.

This is not how I want to see Russia. Hopefully, this is not how its international partners want to see it either. But governments that should care about developments in Russia seem to be passively watching the country slide over the abyss of repression.  They need to speak up to help end the Kremlin’s onslaught on civil society, making clear that infringing on basic rights in violation of international law has a cost globally.  You can’t be a member of the prestigious international clubs without strict adherence to the rules. 

Tanya Lokshina is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and deputy director of the Moscow office

Russian opposition supporters shout during a rally in central Moscow on 5 December 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Tanya Lokshina is Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office. Having joined Human Rights Watch in January 2008, Lokshina authored reports on egregious rights abused in Chechnya and Ingushetia and co-authored a report on violations of international humanitarian law during the armed conflict in Georgia in the summer of 2008. Lokshina runs a column for the Russian current affairs website Polit.Ru. She is recipient of the 2006 Andrei Sakharov Award for Journalism as Civic Accomplishment.

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Beyond terror: how are the Paris attack survivors healing their “invisible wounds”?

For many who were present at the attacks in Paris last November, the psychological scars from that night have yet to heal.

Caroline Langlade sips on a coffee on the patio of a Paris cafe. She is smiling but visibly a little nervous, hands shaking as she raises the cup to her lips. She's startled by the low rumble of a passing motorbike and she spins round in her chair to make sure the source of the noise is nothing sinister.

Just a few minutes' walk away is the Bataclan concert hall where, on 13 November last year, gunmen shot dead 90 people in the deadliest of a string of attacks across the French capital that claimed a total of 130 lives.

Caroline could have been among them had she not been on the first floor balcony at the time the gunmen entered the music venue and opened fire.

She managed to take refuge with others in a locked side room.

"Someone, one of the terrorists, tried to get in but couldn't," says the 29-year-old media worker. "I was trembling the whole time. I'm trembling now just talking about it. We were there for three-and-a-half hours before the police let us out."

She escaped physically uninjured but, two-and-a-half months later, the psychological scars from that night have yet to heal. She hasn't been able to return to work since and says she finds it difficult to read a book, watch films or do anything that involves "letting herself go" mentally.


Caroline Langlade. Photo: Sam Ball

Crowds in the street, along with sudden noises like the aforementioned motorbike, make her nervous. Wherever she is, the first thing she does is look around for possible hiding places.

"We have invisible wounds, we were injured in the attacks but they're mental injuries," she says of survivors like herself.

Sometimes, those wounds can remain hidden even for those who bear them.

On the morning of 14 November, Laure Dumont (not her real name) woke up, went to buy groceries at her local market in northern Paris where she lives and then went to a bookshop – a fairly typical Saturday morning.

The evening before, she had been lying motionless on the patio of a bar targeted that night, Le Carillon, trying to play dead in the hope of avoiding the attention of the gunmen spraying the bar with bullets.

"I hadn't been hurt. I didn't really even cry," she says of the day after the attack. "I had things planned so I just continued life as normal."

Some of what Laure saw at Le Carillon, where she had been drinking with friends on the night of 13 November, was horrific.

She recounts how she was shocked at the strong smell of blood from the dead and injured that filled the bar; how she, along with another woman, tried to administer first aid to a girl who had been shot in the chest.

"I tried to help her but there was nothing I could do. She died," she says.

But it wasn't until some time later that she began to realise that what had happened to her had left a bigger mark than she had first suspected.

"As time passed, it started to affect me," says the 29-year-old administrative assistant for a concert production company. "Now it makes me nervous when I drink on the terrace at a bar or a cafe. I have moments of paranoia, like on the metro, for example. I ask myself where would I hide or run if something happened."

Sometimes the psychological wounds manifest themselves in unexpected ways. Laure says she can't stand the smell of alcohol spilled onto the floor, because it is strangely reminiscent of the smell of blood.

Both Laure and Caroline both make regular visits to the psychologist, part of the free services provided to victims of terror attacks by the state.

But for Caroline, it was the discovery of an online victim support group named "Life for Paris", founded by a 28-year-old childcare worker and Bataclan survivor named Maureen Roussel, which has proved to be the biggest aid to her rehabilitation.

The Facebook group, which now also has an accompanying website, was created on 1 December. Caroline joined the next day and soon became close friends with Maureen. Now, she is the group's vice president and effectively runs it alongside her.

"The idea was to create a group by and for the victims," says Caroline. It provides a platform for survivors to come together to provide each other with emotional support, find people they may have met on the night of the attacks or simply share their experiences.

They also help one another with practical tasks, such as accessing the free healthcare and other services on offer for every survivor of the attack – something that can prove particularly challenging for those from outside France who may not be aware that such help exists at all.

There has been an overwhelming response: the Facebook group has more than 500 members at last count, including some from as far away as the UK, Brazil, the US and Venezuela.

Members' experiences and the impact they have had on their lives are wide-ranging. While some have been able to return to normal life relatively quickly, others, says Caroline, have been unable to leave their homes since the attacks.

But one recurring theme is the phenomenon of survivors' guilt, something Caroline personally struggled with in the weeks following the attacks. She found solace in talking to other people in the group who lost loved ones on 13 November.

"They told me 'it's not your fault, no one deserves to die', and that really helped me a lot."

Above all though, the group has allowed her simply just to "make sense of things". For example, just swapping stories with other Bataclan survivors, she says, allows her to fill in holes in her memory about what happened that night.

"It helps to piece together the puzzle: there might be a person who will remember something you don't and that helps you to understand better, to put together the story so that you can digest it and put it aside."

Laure is also searching for missing pieces of the puzzle. Shortly after the attacks she returned to Le Carillon. "I just wanted to see the layout of the bar, the physical distances," she says. "After the attacks, I remember running for what to me seemed a long time. When I went back, I realised it had only been for three metres."

Like Caroline, she has found that connecting with other survivors has helped her come to terms with what happened.

She managed to get in touch with the woman who had helped her administer first aid to the injured girl, something that eased the guilt she was feeling about not being able to do more to save her.

"We exchanged some messages. She helped me remember what had happened. It was good to talk," she says.

For Caroline, the most important thing now is focussing on what can be done for those who escaped with their lives, but who will forever be touched by what happened.

"People died, but others are alive today and suffering – the families of those who lost their lives, victims with visible injuries, victims with invisible ones," she says. "All these people need to heal and it's important that we do it together, united."