World fame has come to the Ukrainian organization Center for Civil Liberties (CCL) since it was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize in October along with the Russian NGO Memorial and imprisoned Belarusian activist Alés Bialiatski. Its executive director, Oleksandra Romantsova, has spoken with The vanguard during a forum on his country organized by the international platform CivilM+ this week in Berlin. The economist Romantsova (Mikolaiv, 1985) left her job in banking in 2014 to work full-time at the CCL, which documents Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
“For us it is an honor to be there together with the Russian Memorial and the Belarusian Bialiatski”
What did you feel when you were told on October 7 that the CCL had won the Nobel Peace Prize?
It was funny, because I was very tired, we were in Warsaw for a seminar and in a couple of hours I had to take the train back to Kyiv. Then the phone rang and a man’s voice, in perfect English but with a Scandinavian accent, said that he was calling from the Norwegian Nobel Committee and that the CCL, together with another organization and an individual, had won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. He said no. he couldn’t tell anyone until the official announcement was made in a while. Suddenly all my English disappeared, I could only speak in fits and starts, I almost cried with joy. I asked him if I could at least tell our president, Oleksandra Matviychuk, and he said yes, of course. When I called her, she said, “Oh, isn’t that a joke?” I assured him no, that the conversation had been official. This Nobel Prize wanted to be for three organizations, but since the Lukashenko regime in Belarus banned Viasna, the center founded by Alés Bialiatski, and destroyed all its records and archives, the prize is awarded to him as a person.
In Ukraine there have been protests over the awarding of this Nobel also to a Russian NGO and a Belarusian activist.
There are complaints saying that the Nobel has put in the same basket the aggressor countries, Russia and partly also Belarus, and the country victim of the aggression, Ukraine. But those who complain don’t really know the situation. This is not about countries; It’s from human rights organizations. Memorial has been fighting for freedom from Russian civil society for more than 30 years; they began by documenting the crimes of Stalinism, then the crimes in the first and second wars in Chechnya. It is a model to follow, and so is Viasna, founded in 1996, demanding democratic elections and revealing that there is torture in Belarusian prisons. So it’s an honor for us as the Center for Civil Liberties to be in the same basket with these kinds of people. A lot of Ukrainians don’t even know who they are; they just googled their names and saw that they are Russians and Belarusians, and then that’s already wrong for them.
Is the current war the only source of that perception?
In Ukraine there is an allergy to an approach from the Soviet era, when the idea was inculcated that there were no nations, that Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians were historically the same people. And that is not true. Yes, we are neighbors; we understood each other quite well; in periods of history we were together under different combinations… Sometimes we are still told: “But you speak almost the same language”. Well no; It’s like pretending that Spanish and Portuguese are the same language, or that all Latin American countries are the same. The question is what type of society each country has chosen to be and how it sees its future.
Ukraine set out on the path of Europe and that is what Russian President Vladimir Putin could not tolerate.
This Nobel Peace Prize refers to the joint struggle for freedom, something that Putin fears. Both Memorial and Viasna are human rights NGOs; we support each other. Solidarity is important. And we cooperate because this is a problem for the entire region and a great risk for the world in general, because if Putin wins as an autocrat, if he can show that being an autocrat is a good strategy for success, his strategy will be more popular. Lukashenko is following his lead.
The CCL was born in 2007 to monitor the Ukrainian authorities and demand full democracy in the country, but with the Russian aggression the task of documenting war crimes has been added. How do they do both?
We were born as a post-Soviet human rights movement. We monitored violations inside Ukraine, such as aggressive police action at peaceful Euromaidan demonstrations. But in 2014, with the illegal annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Donbass, we realized that we also had to document war crimes and political persecution. We were going to the occupied territories in the east, until Russia put us on a list that prevented us from entering. Since we were already collaborating with Memorial, they entered through the other side with their Russian passport and collected the information. We were able to use this ruse until 2016, when the occupying authorities realized that not all Russians were supportive of the situation and they too were banned from entering.
How is the documentary search now in the middle of the war?
Now we are more prepared. On February 24, the first day of the invasion, we launched initiatives, and in a coalition of three organizations we are collecting evidence against Putin on war crimes. So we can be in all regions of Ukraine; It’s more dangerous, but we go places. So we are compiling a database. The criteria for giving a case as verified is that it be corroborated by three independent sources. We have registered 25,000 episodes without counting Kherson, released a few days ago, and the Attorney General’s office has more than 45,000. By the way, on a recent trip to Moldova to collect information, the same thing happened with the missile that fell in Poland.
So, the Polish case was not the first. What exactly happened in Moldova?
It was on the night of October 30-31. I had crossed the Moldavian border, just on the other side of the Dniester River, to collect a testimony in a small town called Naslavcea; I left and after 40 minutes missile debris fell. There were no injuries and the damage was not very serious, but it is the first time that a Russian missile has hit outside of Ukrainian soil. Shot down by Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense. There has been a lot of international outrage over the missile and the two dead in Poland, but Moldova, a small country not in the EU or NATO, gets little attention. And Russia always says that this or that was not their goal. But their missiles are attacks on civilians, they are war crimes.
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Oleksandra Romantsova: “If Putin wins as an autocrat, his strategy will be more popular”