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Kremlin Quashes Last Pockets of Media Freedom

Since the Kremlin shut down Russia’s last nationwide independent television channel in 2003, news coverage for the vast majority of Russian citizens has been replaced with pro-regime propaganda. No alternative viewpoints are presented; no opposition leaders are allowed on the air; no serious instances of abuse of power or government corruption are reported.

Two notable exceptions have been the cable TV channel Dozhd (Rain) and the radio station Ekho Moskvy, which maintained critical news reporting and gave airtime to the opposition. With a monthly reach of, respectively, 11 million and 4 million people—in a country of 140 million—these two media outlets could not possibly challenge the monopoly of the state propaganda machine, but they nevertheless provided important space for debate and gave at least a part of Russian society a chance to receive objective information.

Putin’s Olympic Calamity

Days before the official opening of the XXII Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, what was supposed to be a moment of personal triumph for Vladimir Putin is fast turning into a major embarrassment. Not only have most of the leaders of Western democracies—including the leaders of Britain, Germany, the US, and France—declined to attend the ceremonies, but the Olympics themselves are being increasingly associated not with “prestige,” but with corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement.

Lebedev Freed, Forty Political Prisoners Remain

At 10 p.m. Moscow time on Friday, two passenger cars left the IK-16 prison colony near Velsk, in Russia’s northern Arkhangelsk Region, and headed for Moscow. One of them carried Platon Lebedev, the former business partner of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and—like Khodorkovsky himself—a political prisoner for more than a decade. Lebedev was arrested by the Russian authorities in July 2003 as the Kremlin-instigated Yukos case was gaining steam and as a warning to Khodorkovsky—a prominent critic of the Putin regime and major sponsor of opposition parties—not to return to Russia. The CEO of Yukos at the time, Khodorkovsky did return, unwilling to leave his colleague as a hostage, and was himself arrested in October 2003. Amnesty International recognized both Khodorkovsky and Lebedev as prisoners of conscience.

US Congress Seeks to Globalize Magnitsky Act

This week, a bipartisan group of US senators introduced a new bill, S.1933 (the Global Human Rights Accountability Act), that would extend across the world the targeted visa and financial sanctions on human rights abusers established by the Magnitsky Act. That law, passed in 2012, bans Russian officials who engage in gross human rights violations from traveling to and keeping assets in the United States. The new bill would extend these sanctions beyond Russia to human rights abusers in every country.

Kremlin Changes Election Rules (Again)

The Kremlin has no qualms about contradicting itself and making public U-turns when this suits its interests. In 2004, Vladimir Putin abolished individual single-member districts in parliamentary elections in order to purge the Duma of the few remaining opposition-minded legislators—only to bring the old system back when the situation changed. With public support for the ruling United Russia party falling, the regime now pins its hopes for keeping its parliamentary majority on “independent” pro-Kremlin deputies.

New Year, New Political Prisoners in Russia

“You should not see me as a symbol that there are no political prisoners left in Russia,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for more than a decade Russia’s best-known political prisoner, said at his Berlin press conference in December after his surprise pardon. “I am a symbol that the efforts of civil society may lead to the release of people whose release was not expected by anyone.” He vowed to make the freedom for Russia’s remaining political prisoners a priority in his own public activities.

Russia’s Most Famous Political Prisoner—Now a Free Man

On December 20, 2013, a small private plane owned by OBO Bettermann, a German company, landed at Berlin Schönefeld Airport. Its sole passenger was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of Yukos oil company and the Open Russia Foundation—and, until this week, modern Russia’s most famous political prisoner.

“I would like to thank everyone who has been following the Yukos case all these years for the support you provided to me, my family, and all those who were unjustly convicted and continue to be persecuted,” Khodorkovsky said in his first statement as a free man. “I am very much looking forward to the minute when I will be able to hug my close ones and personally shake hands with all my friends and associates. I am constantly thinking of those who continue to remain imprisoned … I will welcome the opportunity to celebrate this upcoming holiday season with my family. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

Putin's Party Tricks and Puppet Democrats

Former mid-ranking United Russia party official Andrei Bogdanov does not hold any government posts or have a particularly high media visibility, but, over the past decade, his services have proved indispensable to the Kremlin in its campaign to keep the Russian opposition from the ballot box. Where official and (pseudo) legal tools were not available or sufficient, Bogdanov delivered. He is not shy about being the Kremlin’s errand boy—indeed, he is almost proud of it.

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.

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