Interview with Lyudmyla Kozlovska: her story, her struggles, and her achievements

An icon in the field of civil defense: Lyudmyla Kozlovska is a woman who does not know what it means to give up. Currently the president of the Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF), her career has been marked from the very beginning by a constant commitment to the fight for freedom: from activism in Ukraine to the defense of human rights on an international level. Difficult moments, ongoing challenges, and significant 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 between 2005 and 2006. Since 2009, Kozlovska has organized election observation missions in Georgia, Moldova, Russia, and Kazakhstan, led protests for the release of political prisoners in the latter country, and, since 2013, worked on the reform of INTERPOL and other transnational legal assistance frameworks.


A relentless whirlwind of personal challenges, culminating in her expulsion from Poland in 2018, following a negative assessment by the country’s Internal Security Agency (ABW), which considered her a threat without concrete evidence to support it. Despite this genuine ordeal, Kozlovska continued to work tirelessly for human rights, even using Bitcoin as a tool to combat financial exclusion and support activists in situations of political oppression. Not surprisingly, she was one of the key figures at the 2023 edition of the Lugano’s Plan ₿ Forum. So, for the usual column aimed at introducing the personalities who have made an impact on the event organized on the shores of Lake Ceresio, we chose to interview her.


Lyudmyla, why did you choose to become a human rights defender, and how did you take on the role of president of the Open Dialogue Foundation?


“Well, it was a conscious decision to fight for human rights after learning about my grandmother’s persecution during her detention in a concentration camp under the Soviet regime. The persecution of my brother and father under the regimes of Kuchma and Yanukovych, as well as all those associated with the pro-Ukrainian development of Crimea at the time, had a huge impact on my future. The idea of the Open Dialogue Foundation was born after my involvement in organizing international missions of EU parliamentarians in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution in 2004 and coordinating national student action in Ukraine to expel the Russian Black Sea Fleet from Crimea in 2006.”


At the Plan ₿ Forum, you spoke about the role of Bitcoin in supporting human rights. How do you see digital currencies transforming the landscape of humanitarian aid?


“For example, we have been organizing emergency aid for Ukraine from the early days of the Russian invasion. For us, it was essential to go to Lugano during events like the Forum to meet developers and share our use cases with them, how Bitcoin and the Tether stablecoin have become key tools for many private volunteers who were denied the ability to raise funds through traditional crowdfunding providers. Platforms like Gofundme, Patreon, and traditional banking suppliers simply denied us the right to help our loved ones due to the association with the so-called ‘risk zone.’ This is an example of the unintended consequences of implementing the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) laws. This is one of the reasons why we started inviting parliamentarians, with whom we have worked to defend human rights for the past 13 years, to events like the Plan ₿ Forum. In essence, we believe that educating both politicians and regulators about the social benefits of cryptographic assets, meeting developers and bitcoiners in person, will help them avoid overregulation.”
Your expulsion from Poland in 2018 was certainly a significant event. How did it influence your perspective on 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 baselessly labeled as a threat to national security and accused of money laundering and espionage by multiple countries simultaneously. The disinformation campaign against us reached an unimaginable scale, translated into 27 languages, and appeared on various fake and government-controlled portals that were set up to attack us. All of this led to us losing access to financial services in Belgium, where I have been living since 2018, after my expulsion was deemed politically motivated. Despite winning dozens of defamation lawsuits by my relatives, my organization, and myself, the resulting judgments did not allow us to restore our right to own a bank account. We found ourselves completely paralyzed in the heart of Europe due to the abuse of AML/CFT laws by what I consider to be dictatorships. It was an extremely painful lesson on how regimes can use your banking data against you, your donors, volunteers, and even accountants and lawyers who worked with you. It was a dramatic example of financial exclusion, even while under political protection. Only thanks to the existence of Bitcoin were we able to not only survive the endless attacks by the machinery of non-democratic governments but also help hundreds of families of political prisoners in authoritarian countries, provide humanitarian aid in equipment and medical support to Ukraine worth over 8 million euros.”


How has the Open Dialogue Foundation used Bitcoin and other digital currencies in its missions?


“In our work supporting and defending those who are politically repressed, we exclusively use Bitcoin, both for fundraising campaigns through the Btcpay Server and to support the families of political prisoners and pay their lawyers through non-custodial Bitcoin wallets. We cannot use custodial exchanges because governments could trace all transaction data, as is the case with traditional banks due to AML/CFT laws. In the event of abuse of these laws, financial institutions become a weapon for regimes. In authoritarian countries, almost any form of dissent is persecuted under the pretext of countering threats to national security, extremism, terrorism, fighting money laundering, and pedophilia. But in reality, these charges have become a convenient excuse to abuse FATF compliance requirements for financial institutions. Consequently, politically repressed people are financially isolated.”


Throughout your journey as an activist, you have clearly faced various challenges. What keeps you motivated and focused in your fight?


“I vividly remember the sense of despair I felt as a teenager due to the political persecution of my family. I remember what it meant to me to receive the help and solidarity of perfect strangers to defend our rights. Over the course of the 14 years of the Open Dialogue Foundation’s work, I see myself in the eyes of the families of politically repressed individuals who are fighting for their loved ones, and I see their joy after the release of political prisoners. I deeply believe that supporting and defending people who peacefully oppose authoritarian regimes can help keep our fragile world a safe and comfortable place to live in. Entire generations have given their lives to the cause of human rights so that we can live today in safety, prosperity, comfort, and with a sense of rights and freedoms as stable as those in the United States or the European Union. But as soon as we forget the price and the need to protect our rights, regimes immediately take advantage of the situation. The ease with which your European bank account can become a weapon to attack, kidnap, and persecute all your loved ones is just one example.”


What feelings or impressions did your experience at the Plan ₿ Forum in Lugano leave you with?


“As poetic as it may sound, every time this event gives us hope of obtaining more tools to defend human rights. During the Plan ₿ Forum in Lugano, we meet bitcoiners who understand and share our struggles. They not only examine our experiences to improve their technology but also introduce us to their colleagues and teams and offer solutions on how to combat financial exclusion. A prime example is Obi Nwosu’s Fedi app, which we are looking forward to and are ready to test on every occasion. Furthermore, the Forum is a platform where we have been able to invite parliamentarians who have worked with us for a decade to defend human rights, such as Italian Senator Mauro Del Barba, to discuss how to avoid overregulation of crypto assets, including bitcoin mining. This senator was the first to bring with us the discussion on the use of bitcoin for human rights and humanitarian aid, both at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA) and the Italian Parliament. This approach will allow us to advocate more effectively for reflection in the regulation of 57 countries in the OSCE region, including North America, Europe, and Asia, based on our experience as human rights defenders in the use of bitcoin for humanitarian purposes and as a tool to resist transnational repression.
We ask bitcoiners to join our efforts and help us develop recommendations for the 57 member states in the OSCE region, following the Vancouver Declaration, which ‘calls on OSCE participating States to ensure that Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) mechanisms are not used as tools to stifle dissent or target human rights defenders, anti-corruption activists, exiled dissidents, and diaspora communities, taking into account the potential unintended consequences of AML/CFT regulations geared towards prevention and their side effects, including potential increased financial exclusion and further misuse of related stringent provisions, and urges them to reflect this in their relevant regulations on the use of digital currencies such as bitcoin and stablecoins, for the defense of human rights and the provision of 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 tool for human rights. On the other hand, we are working on protecting our ability to use Bitcoin and non-custodial wallets from overregulation. As the president and founder of the Open Dialogue Foundation, I am happy to collaborate with developers of such technologies, as well as privacy tools and crowdfunding, so they can test the effectiveness of their products on sophisticated users like us. Their success corresponds to 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 coalition Building True Change (BTC Coalition), a global network of human rights defenders, political activists, Bitcoin enthusiasts, and crypto service providers. The BTC Coalition promotes what has already been mentioned and promotes financial inclusion and information on the role of Bitcoin mining in the spread of renewable energy. Given the ongoing closed-door work in the EU on cryptocurrency legislation and regulation, bitcoin mining operations, non-custodial wallets, peer-to-peer transactions, and crowdfunding processes, we have made it a priority of our campaign to include as many bitcoiners as possible in a constructive educational dialogue with the institutions involved in the discussion. We consider key to our success advocating for greater transparency in this process (especially in the drafting of laws/recommendations for policymakers), as well as in ongoing work within FATF and OECD organizations.”

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