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Report from Moscow: Antiwar Protests Grow as Thousands Flee Russia to Avoid Being Drafted into Army

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Antiwar protests are flaring up in Russia after President Vladimir Putin announced what he called a partial military mobilization to add 300,000 troops into its armed forces. Over 1,300 protesters have been arrested at antiwar demonstrations, with one prominent rights group saying some protesters are being forced to enlist or face heavy jail time. We go to Moscow for an update with Anna Dobrovolskaya, the former executive director of the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, which was shut down by the government last year. She says some people who are drafted without any military experience are publishing their stories, and thousands more have fled Russia to avoid being forced to enlist. “People will be trying to save their lives with any tools they can,” says Dobrovolskaya.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A prominent human rights group says some antiwar protesters arrested this week are being ordered to enlist in the Russian military. More than 1,300 people were arrested taking part in protests after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization to draft 300,000 new troops to fight in Ukraine. According to the group OVD-Info, authorities threatened one protester with 10 years in jail if he refused to enlist. Meanwhile, thousands of Russian men are attempting to flee the country in order to avoid being drafted. Many fear Russia will conduct a full mobilization, drafting men who have no ties to the military.

We go now to Moscow, where we’re joined by Anna Dobrovolskaya. She worked as the executive director of the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, which was shut down by the Russian government. She’s now a freelance NGO consultant, is in the process of establishing her own human rights organization.

Anna, welcome back to Democracy Now! under these very difficult circumstances. Can you start off by responding to these reports that after, what, something like 1,300 people have been arrested in these antiwar protests, that a number are being forced to enlist or face long prison sentences? Is that your understanding?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: Hello, Amy, and thank you for having me back.

Yes, that is my understanding and understanding of everyone in Russia. Those detentions happened over one day, basically, when the mobilization was announced. And the majority of people, as usually, were detained in Moscow and Saint Petersburg as the biggest cities.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about this level of protest? We haven’t seen anything like it in Russia since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: A lot of people are actually being not very happy about the level of protest. A lot of people are being disappointed, saying that people are not protesting against the special military operation in Ukraine itself, but they are protesting against partial mobilization, and saying that Russians are too afraid to go in the streets, which is partially true. But we have to also remember that a lot of people are being pushed out from the country. A lot of oppositional leaders are either being imprisoned or, again, forced to leave Russia. And right now all those protests happening, they are very grassroots, very disorganized. They are immobilized, meaning that people are just going in the streets when they feel the urge and feel the need.

So, yeah, a lot of people are just saying that it’s not enough and are calling to more groups going in the streets and saying no to war and no to mobilization. But the fact is that we have what we have. And actually, people are voting with them leaving the country, which to my mind is a good solution. We see that nobody is actually going to — willing to enlist in the army, and everyone prefer to leave, even those people who supported what was going on.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, one Russian man said he was called up to enlist despite having no military experience. This is what he said.

VIKTOR BUGREYEV: [translated] Hello. My name is Viktor Bugreyev. I am a candidate of economic sciences. I work as an IT specialist in Sberbank. Yesterday I got this notice, according to which today I need to present myself a revision of my military registration. Today, on September 22nd, 2022, when I came, I was given the notice, according to which today at 15:00 I need to depart for the army. Here you are. I have never served in the army, was never a conscript, have no military professions, was never a reservist officer training. My health changed the worse after I got my military registration document. But I was told here that my health is subject for call-up in a period of war.

AMY GOODMAN: Anna Dobrovolskaya, how dangerous is it for this man, Viktor, to fully identify himself, show this conscript call-up, this piece of paper, and talk about his own situation?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: You know, it’s actually a very interesting story, because after he — personally, he made his story public, his summons was declined, so he is no longer supposed to go to the army right now, because his story was so vocal and he spoke about it so openly. So he will be kept without military service for a while.

But I’m afraid this is not the option for many people, because right now we see the reports on like already dozens of hundreds of people deceiving summons and being drafted to the army. Of course, even if all of them will start publishing their stories, it’s rather impossible that military authorities will step back and just keep everyone in their positions and in their homes.

So, yeah, a lot of people are trying to protest. There is an information that some guy jumped out of the window from the military office when he was already there, and tried to flee the city he was. So, yeah, people will be trying to save their lives with any tools they can.

AMY GOODMAN: Are women drafted?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: There is already information about some women being called, mostly nurses, medical doctors, or some women who were already previously in the army, because of their military background. But it’s not common, mobilization for women, yet, hopefully.

AMY GOODMAN: The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov yesterday at the United Nations stormed out of the U.N. Security Council meeting after accusing the U.S. and its NATO allies of becoming direct parties to the conflict in Ukraine. This is what he said.

SERGEY LAVROV: [translated] We have no confidence in the work of this body. For the past eight months we were waiting for steps to be taken against impunity in Ukraine, and we don’t expect anything more from this institution or a whole range of other international institutions. Everything I’ve said today simply confirms that the decision to conduct the special military operation was inevitable. We have said this more than once. We’ve provided a huge number of facts which show how Ukraine prepared to play the role of anti-Russia as a staging ground to create threats against Russia’s security. And I can assure you that we will never accept this. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who then stormed out of the U.N. Security Council meeting?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: It’s very difficult to respond anything. But it is really a pity that U.N., that Council of Europe, that OEC are losing their power and their influence all over the world, and they simply have — looks like they simply have no tools to deal with conflicts like this one, like what is happening right now. And unfortunately, the consequences will be horrible.

AMY GOODMAN: Anna, I realize it’s difficult for you to talk, as you speak to us from Moscow. I wanted to ask what happened to Memorial, to your human rights center in Moscow.

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: Yeah, Memorial was shut down by Russian government for multiple violation of the foreign agents law. It was the law which was introduced back in 2012, and it basically limited the ability of nongovernmental organizations to speak out publicly against human rights violations while they were receiving some foreign donations. Because it was the case for many human rights NGOs, a lot of them have been shut down or decided to close themselves. So, Memorial was — both Memorial organizations were working for quite a long time, but in November last year, it was already clear that the decision will be not in our favor, and the legal entity in Russia, finally, was closed, unfortunately. But the organization will continue to work, probably not in Russia, probably somewhere else. I’m just no longer with the team.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you stay in Moscow? And do you feel personally threatened?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: I don’t feel personally threatened yet. I had some security incidents which were, to my mind, not so scary. I realize that leaving somewhere means that — well, if I go, for example, to Georgia or Armenia, I will be one more Russian person there. And all those countries are welcoming so many Ukrainian refugees, so I think it’s way more important for them to welcome Ukrainians first and only them. If they have some spots left, give them to Russians and to other political refugees. So, right now when it’s not that horrible for me yet, and if I can be still helpful to some people here, including Ukrainian refugees in Russia, my decision is to stay here for as long as I can.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you going out in the streets?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: No, I’m not going out in the streets. It was my principal decision dated quite some years ago that — well, because I was responsible for the NGO at the moment, I couldn’t go in the streets, because if I were detained, the consequences for me and for the whole organization and for the team would be not very bright. Right now I think I’m, again, more helpful if I stayed home and continue my job, rather than if I will be detained, because then, immediately, my risks will grow, because I’m just not just some person being detained. I’m assuming if I go on the streets and get arrested, then I will be harassed even further, even more than I already am.

AMY GOODMAN: Anna, earlier this month, the European Union, in retaliation against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ended privileged access for Russian citizens by increasing visa fees and making the application process more difficult. Does this worry you as Russian men and women try to flee the mobilization?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: Yes, it is very worrisome. And vice versa, I’m hoping that the United States will do the opposite and will be giving more visas to Russian citizens, because, clearly — well, we understand all the security concerns of European Union, but it’s really a mistake to get Russian civil society even more isolated than it already is. It is crucial for all of us to be able to travel, to meet our colleagues, to meet independent journalists and be able to speak openly. Of course, a lot of people have left already and will be leaving because they are afraid or because they don’t want to go into army. And having a visa in their pocket is something really to be assured that nothing bad will happen to them and they will not end up in Russian prison or in the battlefield, which is much, much worse. So, I really hope that this decision with visas can be changed to better sometimes.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, what do you make of these votes on the referendums that are taking place?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: I’m afraid that this is already a made decision. We all saw what was happening in 2014 with Crimea. It was quite predictable. And this is quite predictable, as well. And unfortunately for men in those territories, this partial mobilization will be even more dangerous, because they are Ukrainians, and they consider Ukraine as their allies, and now they will be obliged to go to Russian army and to fight with the Ukrainian soldiers, basically, which is a huge tragedy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Anna, we want you to stay safe. Anna Dobrovolskaya has served as executive of director of Memorial, the human rights center in Moscow, before it was shut down by the Russian government, currently a freelance NGO consultant, in the process of establishing her own human rights group, speaking to us from Moscow, from Russia.

Coming up, it’s climate strike, climate activists holding a global climate strike today. We’ll speak with Mikaela Loach. She was one of three claimants who took the U.K. to court for giving taxpayers’ money to oil and gas companies. Stay with us.

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