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Both Ukraine and Russia Belong in Europe

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to cancel the signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union—undoubtedly taken under pressure from the Kremlin—is yet another reminder of the post-imperial complexes of Vladimir Putin, who once infamously described the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” Examples of these complexes are abundant, from the Kremlin’s previous spats with Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova to its continuing hostility toward the Baltic states.

Yet the shorthand references to Kiev acting “under pressure from Russia” and “choosing Russia over Europe,” used by many analysts and journalists in the past few days, are an all-too-familiar oversimplification. While Putin’s authoritarian and increasingly unpopular regime has indeed opposed Ukraine’s quest for European integration, Russia’s civil society and democratic opposition have backed it—a fact all but ignored by the international media.

A Guide to Russia’s Opposition

The Russian opposition has long been divided into those who genuinely oppose Vladimir Putin’s corrupt and authoritarian regime, and those who imitate political pluralism while never crossing the Kremlin’s path where it really matters. The worldwide campaign to adopt the Magnitsky sanctions—the ban on Russian officials implicated in corruption and human rights abuses from traveling to, and keeping assets in, the West—has become a litmus test for those who call themselves Kremlin opponents. These individual sanctions strike at the very heart of the Putin system, ending the impunity for those who violate the rights and plunder the resources of the Russian people. This idea is supported by 44 percent of Russian citizens and by most of the country’s leading opposition figures.

EU Lawmakers Expand Effort to Sanction Russian Rights Abusers

As the US administration readies its first annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Magnitsky Act, the law imposing visa and financial sanctions on Russian human rights abusers, European legislators are preparing a strategy to move forward with their own sanctions package. Last week, the European Parliament hosted the first meeting of the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Inter-Parliamentary Group, which brings together lawmakers from 13 countries (11 of them from the European Union) and an advisory board that includes representatives from Russia (among them, the author of this blog). The aim of the new coalition is to coordinate between the national parliaments and the European Parliament on the best way to move forward with barring Russian officials implicated in corruption and human rights violations from visiting and stowing their assets in EU member states and Canada.

Kasparov’s Latvian Gambit

This week, Garry Kasparov, legendary Russian chess grandmaster and one of the leaders of the country’s pro-democracy opposition, has officially requested Latvian citizenship. In his letter to the Saeima (Parliament), which can grant citizenship to foreigners based on “special merit” (and which has made 174 such decisions since 2000), Kasparov explained that a Latvian passport would give him the security to work “in Russia and in other countries across the world where civil rights are denied and democratic norms are trampled on.”

Putin's Political Prisoners

On October 30th, Russia marked the annual Political Prisoners’ Day, a tradition that goes back to 1974, when hunger strike protests were held by Soviet political prisoners in the Mordovia and Perm labor camps and in Vladimir prison. In 1991, after the last political prisoners were released, the Russian authorities gave this day official status and named it Memorial Day for the Victims of Political Repression. Throughout the 1990s—the only time in modern Russian history when the country had no political prisoners—October 30th served as a day of remembrance, mostly for the millions of victims of Stalin’s purges. It still does—on Wednesday, memorial ceremonies for those who perished in the Soviet Gulag were held in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Penza, Tyumen, Izhevsk, Kazan, and other cities across Russia—but this day is also increasingly referred to by its old Soviet-era name. Under Vladimir Putin, political prisoners have once again become a part of Russia’s everyday reality.

As Opposition Grows, Kremlin Resorts to Gerrymander

In the face of growing public discontent and a clear upward trend for the opposition—Alexei Navalny’s 27 percent of the vote in last month’s Moscow mayoral election was a wake-up call—the Russian authorities are considering their strategy for keeping the political system under control. The election for the Moscow City Duma, scheduled for September 2014, will be a particularly important test. In the current legislature of Russia’s capital city, “elected” in a sham 2009 vote, 91 percent of seats are occupied by Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, with the rest taken by the docile Communists. Given the levels of protest sentiments, the next Moscow Duma could look very different and become an important and high-profile political platform for Kremlin opponents.

The Ominous Return of Putin's Media Enforcer

The recent return of Vladimir Putin’s longtime éminence grise, Vladislav Surkov, to the Kremlin was widely discussed in the media. Much less noticed was the appointment of Mikhail Lesin, Putin’s former information minister, as the new head of Gazprom-Media, Russia’s largest—and de facto state-run—media group, which incorporates several broadcast, print, and online outlets. Lesin’s return to a senior position is no less symbolic than that of Surkov—and says a lot about the Kremlin’s plans for Russia’s few remaining uncensored media.

Soviets' 'Abhorrent' Practice of Punitive Psychiatry Returns

Attributes of the Soviet system have been returning to Russia gradually, one by one, since Vladimir Putin assumed power in late 1999—from symbolic (such as the memorial plaque to Yuri Andropov and the Stalinist national anthem) to very tangible ones, including media censorship and political prisoners. This week, the Russian authorities have returned to one of the most horrid and frightful practices of the Soviet era: punitive psychiatry.

Is Europe with Russia or with Putin?

The task of restoring democracy and safeguarding human rights in Russia is a task for Russian citizens and no one else. But it would help if our friends and neighbors in Europe stopped, in effect, supporting Vladimir Putin’s regime by lending it international credibility and allowing its crooked officials access to the European banking system. This was the essence of the arguments put forward by a delegation of Russian opposition members—including the author of this blog—invited to address a European Parliament hearing in Brussels earlier this week.

Saying ‘No’ to Putin in Sochi

In less than five months, Vladimir Putin will open the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Russia’s subtropical Black Sea resort of Sochi. For the Kremlin leader, the Sochi Games are not about sport—they are about political prestige and international legitimacy. No expense is spared for the president’s personal pet project. Putin’s Olympics have already cost more than all the Winter Games combined since their inception in 1924. Only the amount of money stolen during construction has been estimated at $30 billion. Olympic preparations were marred not only by corruption, but also by forced evictions of local residents, severe environmental damage, and mistreatment of construction workers, including torture.

Boris Nemtsov: Elected by Voters, Prosecuted by Kremlin

Vladimir Putin does not like Boris Nemtsov. He has made this abundantly clear throughout his presidency, including when he demanded that Nemtsov resign from Parliament for calling for peace talks in Chechnya, or when he bizarrely accused the opposition leader of “stealing billions” during a live television show. Not to mention such telling gestures from the Kremlin as Nemtsov’s New Year’s Eve arrest and imprisonment in 2010–11, or the decision in 2011 to deny registration to his party, barring it from the parliamentary election.

In Moscow, Official 'Win' Is a Big Loss for the Kremlin

Authoritarian regimes often hasten their end with their own arrogance and underestimation of opponents. Too often, they start believing their own propaganda. When, this past summer, the Russian authorities made the decision not to bar opposition leader Alexei Navalny from the Moscow mayoral election, the calculation was that he would receive a meager result, and the Kremlin would kill two birds with one stone—show that elections in Russia are “honest,” and that the opposition has “no support.” A July poll by the pro-Kremlin Public Opinion Foundation reported Navalny’s support in the Moscow election at 6 percent. Pro-Kremlin “analysts” confidently predicted that this figure was “the ceiling” for the opposition candidate.

Could Navalny Force a Political Crisis for Putin?

Moscow’s vote on September 8th will be much more than an election for mayor—although that in itself would be pretty important. For the first time in more than a decade, a political alternative is emerging in Russia—despite the media censorship, the administrative pressure, and the vastly superior resources of the ruling regime. Alexei Navalny’s insurgent campaign for Moscow mayor has already been described as Russia’s first modern (US-style) political campaign: he has met face-to-face with voters every day; raised funds through individual, often small, donations; drawn thousands of volunteers willing to contribute their time and effort; and inspired genuine public enthusiasm for a political cause not seen in Russia since at least the early 1990s.

That cause is not a particular program or even a particular candidate—it is change, after nearly 14 years of repressive and corrupt rule by Vladimir Putin and his associates from the former Soviet KGB and the Ozero dacha cooperative.

Honoring Yeltsin in Tallinn

Last week, a new monument was unveiled in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. The bas-relief mounted on Nunne Street, in Old Town, bears an inscription in three languages—Estonian, Russian, and English: “In memory of Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, to honor his role in the peaceful restoration of Estonia’s independence in 1990–1991.”

Created by Estonian sculptor Rene Reinumae, the bas-relief is based on the bust of Yeltsin by legendary Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny. The idea of erecting a monument to Russia’s first (and, so far, only) democratically elected leader in the Estonian capital was conceived and realized by a nonprofit group, Memory Initiative (Malestuse initsiatiiv), whose members include Heiki Ahonen, director of the Museum of the Occupations and a former political prisoner; Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Estonian Parliament’s foreign affairs committee; and Matti Pats, the grandson of Konstantin Pats, the first and last president of interwar independent Estonia. The funds for the bas-relief were raised from individual donations.

Remembering Seven Dissidents and Soviet Brutality

August 25, 1968, was one of the most important days in the history of the Soviet dissident movement. That Sunday, seven people came out into Moscow’s Red Square in an open demonstration of protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Soviet tanks had rolled into that country on August 21st in an effort to suppress the “Prague Spring”—a dangerous precedent of political liberalization in the Communist bloc. Soviet newspapers demonstrated “nationwide support” for the invasion, while “workers’ collectives” across the country passed on-cue resolutions in favor of Operation Danube.

At noon on August 25th, seven people—Larisa Bogoraz, Konstantin Babitsky, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremlyuga, Pavel Litvinov, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, and Viktor Fainberg—sat down by the Place of Skulls on Red Square, across from the Kremlin’s Spasskaya gate. The demonstration was silent; the protesters raised a small Czechoslovak flag and makeshift posters reading “Long live free and independent Czechoslovakia!,” “Down with the occupiers!,” and, perhaps most famously, “For your freedom and ours!”

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