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For Russia, journalist’s self-immolation is a wake-up call

Irina Slavina’s last message was: ‘For my death I ask you to blame the Russian Federation.’


By Eva Hartog


POLITICO (09.10.2020) – https://politi.co/3lInVlK – Before the pallbearers walked out there was a protracted silence. Then, as Irina Slavina’s two children led the white coffin carrying her scorched corpse toward the hearse, the crowd of several hundred broke out into spontaneous applause.


To many of her supporters, Slavina’s self-immolation was an act of stoic self-sacrifice and the ultimate rallying cry. Many compared her to Jan Palach, the Czech student who set himself on fire to protest Soviet occupation in 1969.


On October 2, Slavina made her way to the Interior Ministry, sat down on a bench between two bronze figures, a monument dedicated to Russian law enforcement “through the ages,” and set herself on fire.


There is no doubt she meant to die — footage shows her pushing away a bystander who tried to save her from the flames even as she must have suffered excruciating pain.


Several hours earlier she had written a post on Facebook: “For my death I ask you to blame the Russian Federation.”


Older social media posts that have surfaced since suggest Slavina had been considering the idea for at least a year.


In her home city of Nizhny Novgorod, some 400 kilometers east of Moscow, Slavina held celebrity status as the founder of the independent news website Koza.Press. A one-woman band, it was nonetheless among the most cited outlets in the region, providing relentless coverage of local misdeeds in a no-nonsense factual style.


“She was a straight shooter but very balanced, she never let her emotions affect her writing, ” Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, a prominent human rights activist, told POLITICO at a memorial service Tuesday. “But underneath it she suffered.”


He recalled her driving him home after he was released from the umpteenth detention and saying: “I can’t live like this. I keep writing about all of this injustice but nothing is changing.”


Though many in her circle could recall similar moments of despair, the 47-year-old was known for her stoicism and her suicide has come as a huge shock.


Above all, it has drawn new attention to the toxic triple whammy faced by independent journalists in Russia generally, and regional journalists in particular; of financial pressure, harassment facilitated by draconic laws and a seemingly apathetic readership.


A day before Slavina’s suicide she wrote that 12 law enforcement officers had raided her apartment at 6 a.m. after forcing open her door, confiscating USB sticks, phones and computers in a hunt for evidence of ties to Open Russia, an organization backed by former oligarch-turned-Putin-critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.


The case itself and its connection to Slavina are, to put it mildly, tenuous: She had merely attended an event organized by the election monitoring organization Golos, at a property owned by a local businessman who, to add a tragicomic spin, also heads the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a parody cult.


It is he who is under investigation for supposed links to Open Russia (a connection both sides have denied). But that hasn’t stopped the authorities from implicating Slavina alongside a number of activists and opposition politicians — supposedly as witnesses.


“The pressure she was under would have been bearable if it had just been about her personally. But it was affecting everybody who in any way raised their voice,” Marina Chufarina, who as a regional coordinator for Golos organized the event in question, said.


Chufarina said she was expecting a similar raid at her own home “any day now.”


Slavina was no newbie to harassment. In recent years, Russia has introduced a spate of increasingly restrictive laws and last year alone the journalist was given a taste of a number of them.


In March she was convicted of breaking protest laws for leading a small group through the city to commemorate the murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, a Nizhny Novgorod native.


Just before summer, she was convicted of cooperating with an “undesirable organization” (Open Russia again) for promoting a series of pro-democracy lectures on social media. And in October she was convicted of “disrespecting the authorities” after mocking a memorial plaque to Stalin online.


More recently, she was found guilty of “spreading fake news” after writing about an alleged first case of coronavirus in a different town.


Combined, the convictions resulted in fines totaling some 160,000 rubles (€1,700) — about five times the average Nizhny Novgorod salary. Moreover, every day spent in court was one she couldn’t spend writing.


The use of the lawbook over the fist or bullet — or other means of silencing independent voices which were popular in Russia in the nineties and noughties — might look like evolution. But especially for regional journalists, the constant court cases and raids, or risk thereof, pose an existential threat.


“For us crowdfunding the money to replace even a couple of laptops is a big problem,” Andrei Grishin, the editor of independent outlet Vesma in Russia’s Far Eastern Magadan, said.


Independent outlets like his face a bind: stripped of state funds they can’t accept foreign grant money lest they be labeled “foreign agents.” Meanwhile, local businesses are wary of placing ads in outlets that might be deemed anti-government. So even in good times, their futures hang by a silver thread — let alone in bad times.


“Irina made a radical choice in expressing her protest. But a huge number of editors and journalists at a local level are being pushed in that same direction by the Russian authorities. If nothing changes, I don’t know what will become of Russian journalism in the coming years,” said Grishin.


In Russia, harassment does not discriminate by size or location; journalists at large outlets in Moscow are persecuted, too. Famously, the investigative Moscow journalist Ivan Golunov was slapped with drug-dealing charges last summer and more recently the former military reporter Ivan Safronov was detained on treason charges.


But in both cases, visibility has acted as a shield, sparking public protest or at least ensuring the authorities’ actions do not go unnoticed. Sometimes, a regional case breaks through to national headlines such as that of Svetlana Prokopyeva, a journalist in Pskov, who risked landing in jail for “justifying terrorism” in a column but ending up receiving a fine.


Most of the time, however, distance from Moscow correlates negatively to visibility, even within the journalistic community. That leaves local journalists extra vulnerable to the grudges and gripes of local authorities equipped with increasingly draconian laws.


“For years we covered the news around Slavina. But we failed to see the systematic pressure being applied to one and the same person, our fellow journalist,” Alexei Venediktov, chief editor of the opposition-leaning radio station Ekho Moskvy, said in a broadcast. Venediktov is among those who have signed an open letter demanding the possible prosecution of officials who might have contributed to Slavina’s suicide.


Even the Russian authorities seem to have been cowed. Hours after Slavina’s self-immolation, investigators released a defensive statement disputing any link between their raid and her action, saying she had just been a witness. And in a highly unusual personal Instagram post, the governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, Gleb Nikitin, pledged he would take personal charge of a probe into her death.


But many in Slavina’s circle are unimpressed, asking: If Slavina was only a witness, why was her home raided and her property confiscated? And if the governor appreciated her work, why hadn’t he stopped the authorities from harassing her before? To them, the statements just underscore the arbitrariness of the repression she was subjected to.


At the memorial service on Tuesday, Slavina’s inner circle was adamant that her suicide was not the result of mental instability — a narrative peddled by pro-Kremlin media and hinted at by Russian investigators — nor of helplessness. To them, her self-immolation was a final act designed to change minds in a way she felt her journalism could not.


“She didn’t want to die tragically, she wanted change,” Maria Popova, an environmental activist whose acquaintance with Slavina goes back a decade, said.


Unlike in Palach’s case, however, Slavina’s death has largely been met with stunned resignation. In a city with a population of more than a million and a country of more than 140 million, the turnout of several hundred at the memorial is a drop in the ocean. “Where is everybody? Why aren’t there tens of thousands of people?” asked Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, the rights activist.


Some of Slavina’s acquaintances said she had become increasingly demoralized about the general apathy in Russian society and the lack of reader donations. A day after her mother’s suicide, Slavina’s daughter stood in the city center with a handwritten sign saying: “While my mother burned you stayed silent.” The message will have been lost on many of those passing by.


Still, to her followers and peers, Slavina is a source of inspiration.


Speakers at the memorial service did not mince their words and hundreds marched through the city center towards the site of Slavina’s death opposite the police headquarters, at one point chanting “Butchers!”


The website Koza.Press has continued to publish news, for now about Slavina herself. But there are plans to keep it running.


And in Magadan, too, work continues unabated. “You’re always internally bracing for some bad turn of events, so you have to take precautionary measures,” said Grishin, the editor of Vesma.


“But if they come for us, we’ll know what to do.”

Photo credit: Eva Hartog for POLITICO

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Belgium’s De Sutter breaks new ground for transgender politicians

POLITICO takes a look at those who paved the way before Petra De Sutter, who is now Europe’s highest-ranking transgender politician.


By Laurenz Gehrke


POLITICO (01.10.2020) – https://politi.co/30JkmDM – Petra De Sutter made history Thursday with her appointment as Belgium’s new deputy prime minister, making her the highest-ranking transgender politician in Europe.


De Sutter has previously broken new ground for the EU’s transgender community, becoming the first Belgian transgender woman on a parliamentary list of a political party when she ran in the 2014 European Parliament election, though unsuccessfully. She later also became the first openly transgender Belgian MP that same year and ultimately won a seat as an MEP last year.


Katrin Hugendubel, the advocacy director of LGBTQ rights group ILGA-Europe, praised De Sutter’s new role as “great news,” adding: “We’ll miss one of our strongest partners in the European Parliament, but are heartened to know such a committed equality and social justice champion will have a key role in the Belgium government.”


De Sutter — who is also known for her work as a gynecologist and fertility expert, and has advocated for legislation to improve access to medically-assisted reproduction — has previously stressed that being transgender is only part of who she is.


“I don’t want to be reduced to my transgender past, it’s [only] one part of my identity,” she said last year in while campaigning in the European election. “I have many others. I want people to talk about me because of my work, because of my political actions.”


A look at the history of openly transgender politicians shows it’s a relatively short list of people who came before De Sutter in Europe, as well as worldwide.


The 2017 book “A Path to Diversity: LGBTQ Participation in the Working World” identifies Germany’s Christian Schenk as Europe’s first transgender member of parliament, though he was not publicly out as transgender when he joined the Bundestag in 1990, and did not make the official legal transition until 2006, after he had left parliament.


Schenk, who served as an MP between 1990 and 2002, said in several interviews after publicly coming out that — having fought for women’s rights while he was still a woman — he would continue to do so as a man. “Testosterone changes the hormone balance and not the brain content,” he said.


The first openly transgender MP in Europe was Italy’s Vladimir Luxuria, who was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 2006.


While campaigning, Luxuria complained that Italy was “one of the very few nations in the European Union that did not recognize civil unions,” vowing to advocate for gay rights. The country didn’t start recognizing same-sex civil unions until a decade later.


When Luxuria left the Chamber of Deputies in 2008, there were no trans parliamentarians in Europe on the national level, until Anna Grodzka joined Poland’s parliament in 2011. She remained a member until 2015, a year after De Sutter joined the Belgian senate.


“Today, Poland is changing. I am the proof along with Robert Biedroń, a homosexual and the head of an anti-homophobia campaign who ran for office in Gdynia,” Grodzka said at the time, adding that she would be the only trans member of a parliament in the world — at least for the time being. The world’s first openly transgender MP, New Zealand’s Georgina Beyer, had left her seat in 2007 after entering office in 2005.


Despite Grodzka’s conviction that her election marked the beginning of change for Poland, members of the LGBTQ community have faced increased discrimination there since — in particular in the run-up to the country’s presidential election earlier this year.


The European Parliament’s first openly transgender member was Nikki Sinclaire, who served as an MEP for the UK Independence Party and later as an independent from 2009 to 2014, and came out as transgender in 2013.


Hugendubel from ILGA-Europe said De Sutter’s new role is especially significant at a time when “trans rights are being viciously attacked in Europe and the authenticity of gender identity is being called into question.”


“[It] means a lot for the LGBTI community to see a woman like her appointed to one of the highest roles in a European government.”

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Poland offers support for anti-LGBTQ towns refused EU funding

Polish minister says Brussels’ actions were ‘illegal and unauthorized.’


By Zosia Wanat


Politico (18.08.2020) – https://politi.co/3b1JauL – Polish towns that were refused EU money because of their anti-LGBTQ views can count on financial support from the government in Warsaw, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said Tuesday.


Ziobro, leader of the ultra-conservative United Poland — the junior coalition party in the government headed by Law and Justice (PiS) — and author of sweeping and controversial changes to the judiciary, said he would grant the southern town of Tuchów, which last year signed an anti-LGBTQ charter, 250,000 złoty (€57,000) — three times as much as the town was supposed to get from the European Commission under a citizens’ program for twin municipalities.


In July, Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli rejected grants for six Polish towns, including Tuchów, linking the decision to anti-gay declarations. Since 2019, dozens of Polish towns, counties and regions have signed such declarations and charters.


Ziobro on Tuesday called Dalli’s decision “persecution” and “ideological revenge,” claiming that local authorities such as Tuchów’s don’t discriminate against anyone but protect traditional family values.


“Ms. Dalli’s actions were illegal and unauthorized,” he said. “We can’t leave such municipalities on their own. The Polish state, in a legitimate reaction condemning the European Commission’s action, will stand together with the local authorities and the citizens.”


Ziobro said he’d talk to the country’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, about setting up a special “financial mechanism” to help those towns that have been “harassed” by the Commission. He also admitted that the ministry couldn’t identify the other five towns that hadn’t received the EU money.


Earlier this month, the Polsat television station reported that some towns that applied to be part of the twinning program and were rejected did not sign anti-LGBTQ declarations. Ziobro on Tuesday said that Dalli might have “punished some of the towns in advance.”


The Commission did not disclose the names of the six towns that didn’t receive the money. It did say that some of the rejected applications came from towns elsewhere in Europe that had partnerships with Polish regions that had signed anti-LGBTQ declarations.


The row over LGBTQ rights is another chapter of Warsaw’s fight with Brussels. Discussions on the EU’s long-term budget and coronavirus recovery fund contained a proposal to link funding to the rule of law, which proved one of the most contentious in the negotiations as Hungary and Poland opposed a strong link. The final agreement watered down earlier language on the topic.


On Monday, a group of famous names — including film director Pedro Almodóvar, writer Margaret Atwood and philosopher Slavoj Žižek — sent a letter to the European Commission, calling on Brussels “to take immediate steps to defend core European values — equality, non-discrimination, respect for minorities — which are being blatantly violated in Poland.”

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