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The memory of the Norilsk Uprising is an argument for the EU

For the first time since 2001, parliamentary hearings on human rights abidance took place at the Verkhovna Rada, but the officials did not use their chance to hear the civil society
18 June, 09:31
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Last year, 87,000 applications were submitted to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, 40 percent of them being complaints about officials. Overall 42 proceedings on obstructing journalists’ legal professional activity are being considered by the General Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine. One-third of crime victims in Ukraine does not address the law-enforcement agencies.

These are some of the figures announced at the Verkhovna Rada on June 12, during the parliamentary hearings on the state of human rights abidance in Ukraine, which took place for the first time since 2001. Of course, skepticism in relation to such actions is completely justified. To a great extent, parliamentary hearings are a formality, part of the facade democracy, which can hardly influence the disgusting “interior.” However, the mere fact that certain human rights activists, who openly speak about political repressions, have a chance to speak from the rostrum, seems to be a positive signal. Yes, there were almost no MPs present in the hall, as well as those officials who are supposed to be interested in the topic of human rights abidance in the first place; yes there are reasons to doubt that the response to the problems will be appropriate, but, for example, in Russia, where protests took place on that day by the way, parliament is “not a place for discussions” at all.

To summarize the hearing in a few words, it should be said that the assessment of the state of human rights by the government and the civil society is opposite.

For example, the Minister of Justice Oleksandr Lavrynovych said in his foreword that it would be not true to say that the situation with human rights now is worse than it was in 2005. Just a slight hint on the ill-famed “improvement.” Meanwhile, the civic sector stated just the opposite – the screws are tightened, political persecutions spin up, and citizens have increasingly fewer rights and freedoms.

So who is right?

Representatives of the public had some miserable three minutes to deliver their speeches at the parliamentary hearing. Perhaps, as Hanna Herman said, for some two minutes is enough, but such people as Yevhen Zakharov, head of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group and chairman of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Group, or Yevhen Bukalov, head of “Donetsk Memorial,” deserve enough time for a regular speech. It is their reports, rather than the empty rattle of the Supreme Court and the General Prosecutor’s Office, that should have become the key points of these hearings. They definitely have things to tell: about political repressions, about newly introduced practice that “looks like old KGB cleanup”; about the illegal mass surveillance of citizens; even about slave labor in a European country in the 21st century. Instead, the lion’s share of time was wasted on quoting the president. By the way, did you know that, as it turns out, the main problem of the Ukrainian judicial system is work overload? After rattling off their text, the officials grabbed their stuff and left. With just a few exceptions, they did not think that the hearing was a chance to listen to the civic society. It is a rather post-Soviet format of parliamentary hearings, with all our twists. It is not the state listening to the society, but the other way around again.

It was perhaps ombudswoman Valeria Lutkovska who saved the honor of the civil service. She spoke about the dreadful conditions in pre-trial detention facilities. She spoke about investigatory isolation wards, special vehicles and train cars. Instead of fancy words, she showed graphic pictures of filthy toilets and sinks, bloodstains on cell walls, and buildings not suitable even for cattle. Seems like those who claim the situation with human rights in Ukraine is fine live in a different country.

Politicians’ speeches were set off by this background. The level of populism reached its maximum in loud appeals to fight poverty. The absolute majority of Ukrainian society still does not understand what human rights are and why the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly are very important. And at the same time, they do not think it is necessary to implement state education programs on human rights. Instead, it is considered okay to abuse the situation. It is a very controversial matter whether the problem of poverty in Ukraine is the key issue of human rights. But there is no doubt it is a breeding ground for political PR.

All this shows how important it is to talk about overcoming totalitarianism in the context of human rights in Ukraine. Thanks to the invitation of the Verkhovna Rada’s Human Rights Committee chair Valerii Patskan, the author of this article as a representative of the initiative group on celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Norilsk uprising, also had to deliver a speech during these hearings. Lithuania’s experience, where, ironically, the matter of signing the Association Agreement will be settled in November this year, is revealing for us. The presence of information on the Norilsk uprising in textbooks and public space is an indicator which shows that THEY are THERE, and WE are still HERE.

It is not about celebrating an anniversary, not about history for the sake of history, not even about the illusory justice. The following excerpt from the short three-minute speech helps understand what it is about.

“The Norilsk uprising started in May 1953. This unique display of unarmed resistance to the totalitarian system became one of the reasons of dismantling GULAG, rise of dissidence, and after all, the collapse of the USSR.

“Why are we talking about the Norilsk uprising in the context of human rights in Ukraine today?

“Firstly, 20,000 of political prisoners of more than 80 nationalities, about 70 percent of whom were Ukrainians, demanded to stop the tortures and closed trials, and remove the number plates from the prisoners’ robes. They demanded that state should abide by its own laws and called their protest “the fight for freedom and democracy.” While the European Convention was adopted, thousands of kilometers to the east of the geographic border of Europe, people also fought for human rights. Remembering the Norilsk uprising is very important on the eve of the probable signing of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU.

“Secondly, the experience of solidarity in fighting against the system is becoming valuable again in the post-Soviet space, where ‘foreign agents’ and ‘espionage’ are coming back to legislature, trials over dissenters are taking place again, and fundamentalism becomes the basis of state policy. An ‘authoritarian club’ is being formed on the vestiges of Stalinism in the governance systems of post-Soviet countries. Only a ‘democratic club’ of civil societies can oppose it.

“In May, public hearings were held in Kyiv. They were organized by the East European Development Institute, newspaper The Day, Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and studio ‘Zapovit,’ which created a documentary series about the Norilsk uprising, for which it was awarded the Shevchenko Prize.

“We invited one of the leaders of the Norilsk uprising, Yevhenii Hrytsiak, participants Stepan Semeniuk and Ahafia Knysh, as well as Alla Makarova, a Russian researcher of this topic.

“Then MP Valentyn Nalyvaichenko proposed a draft resolution on the official celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Norilsk uprising. These days it became known that the committee for culture and spirituality issues supported the resolution.

“With regard to this, the Initiative Group

1. Urges all the MPs, who realize the importance of the European choice, to vote FOR this resolution, which will rank Ukraine next to Lithuania, a member of the EU, where the 60th anniversary of the Norilsk Uprising was marked by the Seimas with the participation of the Lithuanian and European parliamentarians.

2. We urge the MPs to create an interfactional group and jointly install a stone for a monument in Norilsk. Five Ukrainian participants of the uprising were never honored. We have begun to raise money for the monument.

“Our Initiative Group will continue working. We urge the civic society to keep its large-scale work for overcoming totalitarianism. Otherwise human rights will never become universal in Ukraine and the post-Soviet space. Instead, the so-called “traditional values” will be imposed.”


Valerii PATSKAN, MP (UDAR), chairman, parliamentary committee for human rights, national minorities, and interethnic relations:

“I know that my fellow party member Mr. Nalyvaichenko has already proposed a relevant document, and our committee has also tried to promote this topic in the parliament. In my opinion, it will be passed by the Rada. It is necessary to honor the memory of the people who fought for our freedom, so we could be here now. That is why I think the resolution will be passed. But let us see what kind of atmosphere will dominate the session hall at that moment. We can be absolutely sure that a certain draft will be passed, but if the sentiment is wrong, it never happens.”

Are the human rights committee members prepared to support this resolution during voting?

“Yes, we will support it.”

Hanna HERMAN, MP (Party of Regions):

“I think this issue will get a majority of votes when it is deliberated in the parliament. I believe that there will be a lot of people in our faction who will have an insight when it comes to it. Indeed, however hard and tragic, but this is an important experience, which we must use for the development of democratic processes, preservation and spreading of human rights in Ukraine. Therefore I am optimistic in this respect and believe that the resolution will be supported by the parliament.”

History textbooks still ignore this topic. Do you think it is fair? Can the situation be changed?

“It is unfair. It is wrong. We all understand the reasons for the problem of purging history, distorting historical facts, and erasing very important moments from Ukraine’s history. And we all want to see the day when all these wrongs will be righted. I believe this will happen. I think these practices will end soon.”

Interviewed by Viktoria SKUBA, The Day

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