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Mark Feygin: ‘Crimea is at risk of becoming the next Chechnya‘

Translation of an interview published on

Russian lawyer Mark Feygin became famous for his participation in the high-profile case of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, and no less scandalous was the ending of their partnership. Prior to this, the politician and journalist from Samara was better known for being the youngest member of the State Duma. Elected at the age of 22, after his parliamentary term he returned to his hometown intending to stay there for a long time.
In 2007, he moved to Moscow and soon became a confidant of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov during the presidential election. Recently, many high-profile cases appeared on his list of clients – he defended the left-wing oppositionist Leonid Razvozzhayev, nationalist Ilya Goryachev, accused of creating a ‘Military organisation of Russian nationalists’, Kazakh opposition politician and businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov, ecologists from Artctic Sunrise. Currently, Mark Feygin is trying to defend the right of Mustafa Dzhemilev to return to his native Crimea.

You defend Dzemilev’s interests in the case regarding the ban preventing his entry to the Crimea in the Russian court, in which you intend to challenge the decision.

Mustafa and I signed a client-lawyer agreement. Our mutual friends had recommended that he chose this very path.

What friends?

People from Russia, with whom he is associated due to his activities in the organisation protecting the interests of the Crimean Tatars. Dzhemilev had huge doubts about whether it is worth trying to challenge the decision regarding the ban on entering the territory of the Russian Federation, in Russia. But he is convinced that as a native resident of the Crimea, a former political prisoner, who has finally found his homeland, he has the right to stay at his home. Returning to his home is the main driving motivation. I managed to convince him that challenging the decision of the Russian authorities is a necessity. The point is that he has never been handed a notice prohibiting his entry.

Until now?

Yes. And this is one of the main reasons for the legal protection of his interests in Russia. I hope the case will reach the European Court of Human Rights. The first thing we did was file a statement with the Federal Migration Service, demanding that the document which we intend to appeal (regardless of whether we obtain it or not) be provided to us.

How long ago did you file the statement?

At the beginning of June. The response is expected in early July. But the situation in Russia is such that the lack of response is also a signal for further action. Next, we will file a complaint in a civil action. After all, in order to file a claim with the ECHR one needs to go through two stages – consideration of the claim on the merits and appeal. This is the purely legal aspect of this issue. In parallel, Mustafa Dzhemilev himself endeavours to act, both in Ukraine and in European instances, with varying degrees of success. Because making an impact on Russia is an extremely difficult task.

But there is also the political aspect of the issue.

Certainly. the FSB is directly involved in running his case. I know the sentiment there, they are not going to permit Dzhemilev from entering the Crimea under any circumstances. And, likewise, they intend to take repressive measures against activists of the Crimean Tatar nation, in order to suppress any resistance on their part.

The case of Dzhemilev is a message to the entire Crimean Tatar nation?

Undoubtedly, it is. From a political standpoint, they show how they are going to act against dissenters. The FSB is afraid of the activity of Crimean Tatar activists, an increase in the influence of Islamic organisations. In their understanding, any disagreement leads to terrorism. They have felt hatred towards Dzhemilev since the Soviet years, although he is more of a humanist.
In addition, it is important to understand that if Putin chooses for himself a personal enemy, a target, he will operate for a long time until the work is completed. He talked with Dzhemilev, he tried to convince him to become a loyalist in relation to the new government in Crimea. But Mustafa Dzhemilev refused. And Putin is a very touchy person, to him it is a personal challenge.

Can we expect a successful resolution in this case?

In Russia, there is no independent judiciary whatsoever, so we are looking for public means of defence, which appeal, in their substance, not to the jury in the domestic court, but rather to international community international organisations and courts. Due to the large public pressure that occurs, I do not exclude there being a chance of compromise. I would not rule out the Kremlin letting Dzhemilev enter the Crimea because it adequately assesses the risks of international pressure, which it is actually afraid of.

How are Dzhemilev and Crimean Tatars perceived by the Russian society?

Propaganda has done its job. For example, social networks and the Russian press spread horror stories about the Crimean Tatars and about Dzhemilev. They say that he’s done too much time. And no one realises that during these 16 years he was incarcerated on political charges. In Russia he is perceived as an ordinary criminal. So, of course, the opinion of him is mainly negative.

What is the current situation of the Crimean Tatars in the annexed Crimea?

I believe they are on the verge of a large-scale persecution. After all, most of them do not support the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Security services are acting in accordance with a proven pattern, trying to buy the loyalty of the Crimean Tatars. A purchasing of elites is going on, rather than giving people opportunities for social, economic and political development. The reverse process is being carried out, and the Crimea is at risk of becoming the next Chechnya.

Do you think the Crimean Tatars will not be able to fight for their interests?

In order to protect the interests of the Crimean Tatars, one needs to redirect the whole work of their organisations to the protection, both legal and political, of human rights. I think it should be done by September, when the composition of Russian officials in the Crimea is fully formed. Because we know these officials – they are part of the corrupt machine, the one that Ukraine has could never have imagined before. In Ukraine, corruption is some vestige of the post-Soviet system, and in Russia – it is an organic сhain of power, an Asian-type feeding system.

Does Russia really intend to solve the conflict in eastern Ukraine?

First of all, I doubt that there will be a direct invasion of troops. It’s because the Kremlin is not ready for a confrontation with the whole world, despite its impudent statements. This rhetoric is for the citizens who demand mesmerising actions from their authorities. I think this situation is going to continue, although it’s hard to say for how long. This will depend on the determination of the Ukrainian authorities and to what extent they will be ready to share their authority with the nation. It is important to make the population of Donbass, an ally. If they understand that their future is more promising when together with Kiev; they are heading towards European integration, they will respond.

But what about the activists who are now in the hands of the Russian judicial system?

Do you mean the case of Sentsov? There is information that he and three other activists were tortured in the Crimea, and they are now in Moscow. But the information is sketchy, incomprehensible. You must understand that in Russia it is common practice. For Ukrainians and Crimean residents it will be a shock.

Do Russian authorities agree to such drastic measures as in the days of the Soviet Union?

No, they never go the extreme of terror which, during the totalitarian system, was of an operational nature. In the authoritarian system, which is in Russia today, they apply selective prosecution; they search for people who pose a direct threat to the authorities.

Is it still possible to return the Crimea to Ukraine?

This is possible only in the case of a collapse of the system of power in Russia, which, in principle, I wouldn’t exclude. Currently, there are more external factors which could foster this, although, there are some internal ones as well.

For example?

Isn’t Putin’s ageing a factor? Not to mention the deterioration of the elites in the sense that they are all corrupt. And they can play with the population only when it comes to things like the current policy towards Ukraine. In December 2011, with the beginning of the opposition rallies in Russia, Putin’s approval rating fell to 35%.

But now his approval rating is higher than ever before.

Yes, because he motivated even those who had been critical of him. Now they have forgiven him even for corruption for the sake of ’a greater goal’. This is a typical feature of the mentality of the Russian people: they are willing to make such sacrifices, bear the costs for the sake of a great intangible purpose. Now, we are watching the recovery of a new-Russian empire. Therefore, it is only if it loses faith in a large project that it can become part of this destructive, revolutionary process.
As regards the Crimea, within half a century it has repeatedly passed from hand to hand. Therefore, I wouldn’t dare to say that nothing will change.

Recently, you were running quite a lot of high-profile cases. Now, for example, you are defending the interests of the Kazakh businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov?

Oddly enough, this is a very important case for Ukraine – it is no different from all other political cases. In the case, you will find common features with the cases of Tymoshenko and Khodorkovsky. It’s because the main driving force of this case is the hatred of Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev for Mukhtar Ablyazov, his former minister, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, which is currently banned in Kazakhstan, a successful businessman, one of the main sponsors of the opposition and independent media. They just went and robbed him of his bank, which he had created; one of the most successful brands in the CIS, and they presented him with all charges typical for this kind of case.

How are Russia and Ukraine involved in the case?

The bank operated not only on the territory of Kazakhstan and Russia, but it also had a subsidiary in Ukraine. At the request of the Kazakh authorities, a criminal case was initiated against Ablyazov and it was in connection with this criminal case against Ablyazov that they actually robbed the Ukrainian bank’s shares, owned by the companies related to him. Also, other persons were involved in this case only for the purpose of fabricating various episodes in the criminal case. Ukraine did not suffer any damage. No money belonging to Ukrainian investors was stolen. The only injured entity is the Kazakh bank that that regime in Kazakhstan took away from Ablyazov. In Ukraine, the commercial conflict transferred to the criminal sphere. In Russia, the situation is similar. After the authorities changed in Kiev, I was really hoping that they would resolve Ablyazov’s case. Thus far, my hopes have failed to materialise. I can only explain it by the fact that there is a war in the country, and the authorities have more important matters to deal with right now.

But what is the situation in Russia?

In Russia, this case is being run by the Investigative Department of the Interior Ministry, whose investigators are persons who are now on the Magnitsky List. In particular, the investigator Nikolay Budilo is on the Magnitsky List. He loathed admitting me to the criminal case. I understand that a person analogous to him in this case is Maxim Melnik, who is running the case. He is carrying out someone else’s orders. The case was initiated by officials of Yanukovich’s administration.

You have mentioned the investigator, Maxim Melnik. But this investigator is merely one of the cogs in the machine that has evolved in law enforcement bodies. What strategy of combatting corruption do you have, if it has penetrated the entire structure, from ministers to investigators?

It is fundamentally wrong to say that the investigator is merely a cog in the machine and nothing depends on him! His activity requires careful verification, the same as the activity of the initiators of the case, and the companions of the former General Prosecutor Pshonka.

And the only strategy now is full, unconditional lustration of all corrupt elements of the law enforcement system. And there is no need to fear that justice will stop. There is the experience of Georgia, the countries of Central Europe, which proves that there is no other way. This path can be painful, but it is the only correct one.

And I am sure that the new Ukrainian government also has the strength and resources needed to start this process.

You were the counsel in the Pussy Riot case. Why did they terminate relations with you?

I think that we carried out these proceedings successfully, under those circumstances there was nothing more we could do. But this is how it always happens in all cases, in which I participated. I was removed from the cases of the Russian oppositionist Razvozzhayev and Artctic Sunrise. Everywhere, the main task of the authorities was to get rid of the independent counsel and replace him with their own one instead, to force people to confess and sign some confidential agreements with the investigation. It happened in the case of Pussy Riot.