The Enemies of Russia’s Freedom

Whenever the Kremlin announces priorities things usually go sour. Dmitry Medvedev has declared corruption an “enemy of our freedom,” and Vladimir Putin reaffirmed it was the country’s “top priority.” What ensued was a major witch hunt of anticorruption activists, new restrictions on internet and media freedom, and re-criminalization of libel. Alexei Navalny is facing embezzlement charges; Sergei Magnitsky is prosecuted posthumously; Alexei Kozlov and Ilya Farber were sentenced, in separate cases, to 5 and 8 years in highly controversial and resonant trials. While these “enemies” are mercilessly weeded out, Russia’s real corrupt remain untouched and are estimated to cost the country up to $400 billion or 3 percent of GDP annually. Extremism is another “priority.” Vladimir Putin had urged the government to clamp down on all forms of extremism after the December 2010 race riots in Moscow. A year later, Mr. Putin again warned against extremism following peaceful opposition rallies protesting election fraud. Lumping together these two events—a violent outburst by skinheads and soccer fans, and a peaceful demonstration of civic dissent—lies at the heart of Russia’s misguided approach to confronting “extremist activity.” The government ignored problem of violent, racially-motivated attacks for many years. Only recently have authorities stopped calling skinheads “hooligans,” and gone after the neo-Nazi gangs that were responsible for hate crimes. Having arrested and prosecuted the bulk of violent racists, the government turned up the heat on others whom it could potentially view as intolerant, but wound up targeting those with differences of opinion.  As a result we ended up with a mountain of cases in which journalists, religious believers, and artists face persecution in Russia. Though racially motivated attacks continue to occur—an African man and a policeman who came to his rescue were just severely beaten in Moscow three days ago—the police and courts nowadays have much more time on their hands to pursue other extremist enemies of Russia. One of them is, of course, Pussy Riot. The global campaign in support of Pussy Riot is unprecedented for a Russian cause célèbre. The disproportionately ruthless reaction of Putin’s regime has motivated governments and private citizens to speak out on their behalf in public demonstrations, press conferences, and online.  The verdict in their case will likely be out on Friday. And yet what is happening in court is far from extraordinary. From investigation to prosecution, we’ve seen all of it before. In fact, Pussy Riot’s state prosecutor Alexander Nikiforov is best known from the trial of art curators Yury Samodurov and Andrey Erofeev, whom Nikiforov successfully convicted of inciting religious hatred. In Pussy Riot’s trial, we see the same tactics and similar witness testimonies—Prosecutor Nikiforov stays true to his model. But this case is more resonant, and while it was possible to let Samodurov and Erofeev avoid jail time and “escape” with a fine despite the guilty verdict, the Pussy Riot girls have already spent five months in jail and will likely see that sentence extended. Predictions are futile, but we know that politically motivated trials don’t end well for participants. This one won’t be an exception. Pussy Riot will not be released in court on Friday because that would be a sign of defeat for the Kremlin, which rarely caves to international pressure. If the verdict is less than six months, it means all that international outrage helped in preventing a much longer sentence usually given to “enemies of Russia.” Whatever the verdict, this case will be remembered for the miscarriage of justice and the misuses of extremism statutes that allowed it to occur. The U.S. government’s reaction should be simple: if the Kremlin aspires to be a trustworthy partner, it must stand with those fighting intolerance, not those perpetrating it.


Published on August 16, 2012


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