Interview with the activist who enchanted the Plan ₿ Forum 2023 with her story, her struggles and her achievements.
An icon and prominent figure in the field of civil defence, Lyudmyla Kozlovska is not a woman who knows what it means to give up. From the very beginning, the career of the now Chairperson of the Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF) has revolved around her relentless commitment to the fight for freedom, from activism in Ukraine to international human rights advocacy. She has faced difficult moments, endless challenges and major victories, such as her participation in the Orange Revolution in 2004 or the campaign for the withdrawal of the Russian Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol during the period from 2005 to 2006. Since 2009, Kozlovska has also organised election observation missions in Georgia, Moldova, Russia and Kazakhstan, led protests for the release of political prisoners in Kazakhstan and, since 2012, worked for the reform of INTERPOL and other international legal aid systems.
She has faced a never-ending whirlwind of personal challenges that ended in her expulsion from Poland in 2018 following a negative assessment by the country’s Internal Security Agency (ABW) that believed her to be a threat, even though there was no tangible evidence to rely on. Despite nothing short of an odyssey, Kozlovska has continued her tireless efforts for human rights, also using Bitcoin as a tool to combat financial exclusion and to support activists subjected to political oppression. It is no coincidence that she was amongst the prominent guests of the 2023 Lugano’s Plan ₿ Forum. Therefore, in this column traditionally devoted to introducing public figures who have influenced this event taking place near the banks of Lake Ceresio, we have decided to hold an interview with Lyudmyla Kozlovska.
Lyudmyla, why did you decide to become a defender of human rights and how did you assume the role of Chairperson of the Open Dialogue Foundation?
“Well, defending human rights was a conscious decision which I made once I learnt about the repressions my grandmother suffered during her detention in a concentration camp under the Soviet regime. Moreover, the repressions against my brother and father under the Kuchma and Yanukovich regimes and then of all those associated with the pro-Ukrainian development of Crimea at that time had a huge impact on my future. The idea of the Open Dialogue Foundation came as a result of my engagement in the organisation of international missions of EU parliamentarians to Ukraine during the Orange Revolution in 2004 and coordination of the national student actions in Ukraine to expel the Russian Black Sea Navy from Crimea in 2006.”
At the Plan ₿ Forum you spoke about the role Bitcoin plays in supporting human rights. How do you see digital currencies transforming the humanitarian aid landscape?
“As an example, since the first days of the Russian invasion, we have been organising crisis aid for Ukraine. It was important for us to go to events such as the Forum in Lugano to meet with the creators and share our cases with them – that is, how Bitcoin and stablecoin Tether have become the key tools for many volunteers who have no opportunity to raise funds through traditional crowdfunding. GoFundMe, patronage platforms or traditional bank providers have simply denied us the right to help our friends and relatives because of the association with the so-called ‘risk zone’. This is an example of the inadvertent consequences of implementing the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) laws. This is actually one of the reasons why we started inviting parliamentarians with whom we have been working to defend human rights for the past 13 years to events such as the Plan ₿ Forum. We sincerely believe that educating both politicians and regulators about the social benefits to be derived from crypto assets, and meeting developers and bitcoiners in person will allow them to avoid overly rigorous regulations.”
Your expulsion from Poland in 2018 was certainly an important issue. How did it affect your perspective on the significance of financial independence?
“My expulsion was the result of a coordinated attack by at least three non-democratic governments that abused FATF recommendations and AML/CFT laws. Both I and the Open Dialogue Foundation were considered, without any grounds, a threat to national security and labelled guilty of money laundering and espionage by several countries at the same time. The smear campaign against us took on an unimaginable scale; it was translated into 27 languages and appeared on various fake and government-supporting portals, which were controlled for the purpose of attacking us. All this has also led to the denial of our access to financial services in Belgium, where I have lived since 2018 after my expulsion was recognised as politically motivated. Despite the fact that my family, my organisation and I have won dozens of defamation lawsuits, the judgements passed were not sufficient to restore our right to have a bank account. We found ourselves completely paralysed at the very heart of Europe as a result of AML/CFT laws abuse by those whom I consider to be dictators. It was an exceptionally painful lesson in how regimes can use your bank details against you, your donors, and the volunteers and even accountants and lawyers who work with you. It was a radical example of financial exclusion, all while remaining under political protection. It was only thanks to Bitcoin that we were able not only to survive the incessant attacks by non-democratic governments, but also to help hundreds of other families of people persecuted for political motives in authoritarian countries, to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine by delivering medical equipment and other aid of more than €8 million in total.”
How did the Open Dialogue Foundation use Bitcoin and other digital currencies in its missions?
“In our work to support and defend politically repressed persons, we use exclusively Bitcoins both for fundraising campaigns, through the Btcpay Server, and to support families of political prisoners and to pay their lawyers through non-custodial Bitcoin wallets. We cannot use custodial exchanges because governments could trace all transaction data, as they can with traditional banks, due to AML/CFT laws. If abused, financial institutions can become a real weapon for regimes. In authoritarian countries, almost every kind of dissent is persecuted on the pretence of counteracting threats to national security, extremism, terrorism, money laundering and paedophilia. In reality, however, these charges become a convenient excuse to abuse financial institutions’ FATF compliance requirements. As a result, persons subject to politically motivated repressions become financially isolated.”
It is obvious that you faced various challenges during your activist path. What keeps you motivated and focused in your endeavours?
“I vividly remember the sense of despair I felt as a teenager because of the political persecution of my family. I remember what it meant to me when complete strangers offered help and solidarity in defence of our rights. Throughout the 14 years of my work in the Open Dialogue Foundation, I have been seeing myself in the eyes of relatives of politically repressed persons who fought for their friends and family, and I see their joy when political prisoners are released. I truly believe that supporting and defending people who embark on a non-violent struggle against authoritarian regimes can contribute to keeping our fragile world a safe and comfortable place to live in. Entire generations have sacrificed their lives and dedicated themselves to the cause of human rights so that today we can live in safety, prosperity, comfort and enjoy rights and freedoms as stable as those of the United States or in the European Union. However, if even for a moment we forget the need to protect our rights – the price, then authoritarian regimes immediately take advantage of the situation. The ease with which your European bank account can be turned into a weapon to attack, kidnap and persecute all your loved ones is just one example.”
What feelings or impressions did you have during the Forum Plan ₿ in Lugano?
“As poetic as it may sound, every time this event gives us hope for more tools to defend human rights. During the Plan ₿ Forum in Lugano, we meet bitcoiners who understand and share our struggles. Not only do they analyse our experiences to improve their technologies, but they also introduce us to their colleagues and teams and offer solutions on how to fight financial exclusion. A prime example is the Fedi app developed by Obi Nwosu, which we are looking forward to and are ready to test at any opportunity. Besides, the Forum is a platform where for the first time we could invite parliamentarians who have been working with us for a decade in defence of human rights, such as Italian Senator Mauro Del Barba, to discuss how to avoid the over-regulation of crypto assets, including Bitcoin mining. The senator was the first to begin the discussion on the use of Bitcoins for human rights and humanitarian aid both at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA) and in the Italian Parliament. This approach will allow us to more effectively advocate for the views of regulators in 57 countries in the OECD region, including North America, Europe and Asia, based on our experience as human rights defenders in using Bitcoin for humanitarian purposes and as a tool for resisting transnational repression.
“We call upon bitcoiners to join our efforts and help us develop recommendations for the 57 member states of the OSCE region, following the Vancouver Declaration, which ‘urges OSCE participating States to ensure that Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) mechanisms are not used as tools of transnational repression to stifle dissent or target human rights defenders, anti-corruption campaigners, exiled dissidents and diaspora communities, taking into account the potential unintended consequences of prevention-focused AML/CFT regulations and their side effects, including the potential for increased financial exclusion and further malicious exploitation of strict AML/CFT and related provisions, and further urges them to reflect in relevant regulations the use of crypto-assets, such as Bitcoin and stablecoins, to defend human rights and to provide humanitarian aid.’”
Are there any specific projects you plan to develop in the future that you would like to share with us?
“Our short-term plans are to expand the capacity to educate activists on the use of Bitcoin as a human rights tool. On the other hand, we work on protecting our ability to use Bitcoin and non-custodial wallets from over-regulation. As the Chairperson and founder of the Open Dialogue Foundation I am happy to be able to collaborate with the creators of those technologies as well as tools aimed at data protection and crowdfunding, so that they can test the effectiveness of their products with advanced users like us. Their success translates into our protection, so we are happy to test new applications and provide feedback on their potential risks. On the other hand, we also coordinate the informal Building True Change Coalition (BTC Coalition), a global network of human rights defenders, political activists, Bitcoin enthusiasts and crypto service providers. The BTC Coalition advocates for the aforementioned goals as well as financial inclusion and information about the role of Bitcoin mining in the propagation of renewable energy. Given the ongoing work behind closed doors in the EU on the legislation and regulation of crypto assets, Bitcoin mining, non-custodial wallets, crowdfunding processes, and peer-to-peer transactions, we have made it a priority of our campaign to include as many bitcoiners as possible within the framework of a constructive educational dialogue with the institutions engaged in the discussion. We consider advocacy for greater transparency of this process (especially in the drafting stage of legislation/policy makers), as well as in those ongoing in the FATF and OECD organisations, to be a key element of our success.”