Russia’s Bad Start to 2011

In Russia, New Year’s Eve is usually a joyful family occasion. Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov spent it in a police detention cell — a five-by-ten feet concrete cubicle with no windows, no ventilation, no plank bed, not even a mattress. The Moscow Public Supervisory Commission, a prisons watchdog group, reported that conditions of his detention violated the most basic rules. On January 2, the former deputy prime minister of Russia was driven from his cell to Tverskoy Magistrate Court and sentenced to 15 days in prison for “disobeying police.” Judge Olga Borovkova, who forced Mr. Nemtsov to stand for the duration of the trial (more than four hours), disregarded statements from 13 witnesses as well as the video of his arrest. The conviction was based on the words of two police officers who asserted that Mr. Nemtsov was “cursing” and “attempting to block Tverskaya Street” (Moscow’s main avenue). He is currently being held in a detention center on Simferopolsky Boulevard.

The End for ‘Medvedev’s Thaw’

For nearly three years, Dmitri Medvedev has diligently performed his role of “good cop,” charming Russian and Western wishful-thinkers with eloquent words about “freedom that is better than non-freedom,” laments about “legal nihilism,” and a generally civilized and soft-mannered appearance — the opposite of his mentor, Vladimir Putin. Just last week, the president treated television audiences to yet another show, this time with pointedly respectful references to Russia’s opposition leaders, including Boris Nemtsov, whom Mr. Putin days earlier accused of scheming to “sell off Russia.” But this time the “good cop” show fell flat. On December 27, Presiding Judge Viktor Danilkin of Moscow’s Khamovnichesky District Court began reading the verdict in the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, Russia’s most prominent political prisoners, spelling an end to any remaining illusions about a “Medvedev thaw.”

Moscow's December Freeze

On December 15, hundreds of people who gathered at Moscow’s Khamovnichesky Court to hear the verdict in the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev were told that it was being postponed until December 27. Optimists took the delay as a sign of an internal Kremlin struggle over the fate of Russia’s most famous political prisoners, under arrest since 2003 and now facing the possibility of extended prison sentences to 2017. Realists countered that a lenient verdict would hardly have been slated for the period between Western Christmas and New Year’s Day, when most of the world takes a holiday from politics. Like their Soviet predecessors, today’s authorities in Moscow like to bury bad news. “They are trying to minimize [public opinion] costs,” remarked writer and legendary Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, one of the many public figures who came to hear the verdict in the Kremlin’s show trial.

Moscow: Under New Management

Moscow’s new chief, Sergei Sobyanin, has recently marked his first month in office. It is hard to call him “mayor” without using quotation marks, for the very idea of Europe’s largest city having a mayor imposed by federal appointment seems ludicrous in the 21st century. In a mock online mayoral election organized by the newspaper Kommersant and the website Gazeta.ru, Mr. Sobyanin placed seventh (with 2.8 percent), behind, among others, prominent lawyer Alexei Navalny, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and the “against all” option. The result is hardly surprising: Mr. Sobyanin, a former governor of the Tyumen region of Siberia, only became a resident of the capital in 2005 — as Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff at the Kremlin.

Mr. Medvedev's Message

The format of a head of state’s annual address to legislators is a good indicator of a country’s political mentality. The US president makes the journey to Capitol Hill to read his State of the Union address in the “people’s chamber” — the House of Representatives; the Queen of England rides from Buckingham Palace to Westminster for her speech at the opening of Parliament. In Russia, it is legislators who are summoned to the Kremlin — the presidential residence — to hear from the nation’s leader. This was the case even in the 1990s, when the president and Parliament were elected by voters (and mattered). It remains true today, when both are a decorative stage set for Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian government.

Anti-Kremlin Sanctions: The First Results

If anyone needed proof that personal travel bans are the most effective way for the West to put pressure on authoritarian Kremlin officials, it is now before us. Just days after Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, meeting legislators in Washington, suggested imposing US visa sanctions against senior figures implicated in corruption, electoral fraud, media censorship, and other violations of Russia’s OSCE commitments, two leading blacklist candidates abruptly changed their public tone. No legislation has yet been introduced or even drafted, no lists with specific names published. But the very suggestion appeared to have seriously racked some nerves in Moscow’s highest offices.

Getting Tough with the Kremlin

Western “realists” who want to hear nothing about democracy or human rights when it comes to relations with Moscow often argue that any pressure on the Kremlin would be futile and counterproductive. Even those who accept that Western democracies have not only moral but legal obligation (OSCE statutes specifically designate human rights issues as “matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States”) to protest against violations, worry that public criticism may be used by Kremlin propaganda to portray the West as “anti-Russian” and to paint Russia’s political opposition as a “fifth column.”

In Russia, the Passing of an Era

In Vladimir Putin’s mythology, the 1990s were a dark and shameful period, a time when Russia was on its knees before Western governments and greedy oligarchs. The official propaganda tone was set by Mr. Putin’s infamous 2007 speech at Luzhniki in which he demonized former Russian leaders for “acting against the state” and accused the pro-democracy opposition of “groveling at foreign embassies.” This line (which ignores the fact that, under Mr. Putin, the levels of corruption and lawlessness have far exceeded anything seen in the 1990s) is obligingly parroted by state-run television.

Russia’s Day of Memory

Few countries have memorial days that were initiated in jail. On October 30, 1974, Soviet political prisoners in Mordva and Perm camps and Vladimir prison held simultaneous hunger strikes to commemorate the victims of communist repressions in what became the first Political Prisoners’ Day. The idea, proposed by dissident Kronid Lubarsky, took hold: this day has been observed, in one way or another, every year. The largest number of political prisoners — more than 300 — participated in a hunger strike on October 30, 1981.

Europe: Russia’s Last Chance

For all the Kremlin’s efforts to remove checks on its power — from shutting down independent TV to turning parliament and courts into rubber stamps — there remains a factor it has been unable to deal with. Russia’s cautious integration into European political and judicial structures in the 1990s may be the one legacy of the Yeltsin years that has proved long-lasting. This week former Russian prime minister turned Kremlin critic Mikhail Kasyanov was in Washington to discuss the US-Russia “reset” and the opposition’s prospects for the 2011–12 elections. On the way here Mr. Kasyanov had a stop in Helsinki where he represented Russia at the 31st annual congress of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform party (ELDR).

No News from Russia’s Elections

It is not at all important who and how will vote… It is extremely crucial who and how will count the votes.
— Joseph Stalin

Elections in Russia have long ceased to interest even the seasoned talking heads. The last competitive national vote was held in December 1999; since then a succession of legislative and political changes rendered voting practically meaningless. The electoral process is still diligently organized: thousands of polling places opened across the country; millions of ballots printed; no budget resources spared to ensure smooth procedures. Yet with most opposition organizations removed from the party register (and thus barred from elections), with direct parliamentary district elections and gubernatorial elections abolished, and with political censorship operating in major media outlets, “multiparty” elections in Vladimir Putin’s Russia are no better than farcical “votes” held in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany.

Russia’s Newest Democrat

Meet the latest addition to Russia’s growing chorus of Kremlin critics: Yuri M. Luzhkov, 74, until last week the powerful mayor of Moscow, co-chairman of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, and loyal supporter of the regime. After his dismissal by President Medvedev on September 28, Mr. Luzhkov underwent an astonishing transformation. He resigned from United Russia, calling it a “servant party”; accused the Kremlin of censoring the media, suppressing democracy, and subjugating the judiciary; demanded the return of direct gubernatorial elections abolished by Mr. Putin; and vowed to fight for a “democratic society” in Russia as the new leader of the Movement for Democratic Reforms, a defunct political organization inactive since 1993, but still officially on the federal register.

Russia’s Path to NATO

Last week, US ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder made headlines by merely stating the obvious: that Russia, as a European state, has the right to join the alliance in accordance with Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty. This is not the first time a senior US official spoke on this subject: earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she “can imagine” Russia as a future NATO member. Western European statesmen such as former German defense minister Volker Rühe have openly advocated Russian accession. Predictably, officials in Moscow are dismissing these offers: the chief of the general staff, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, declared that Russia and NATO have “differing goals,” while the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Gen.

Russia’s ‘Backward’ People

After eleven years in power, Russia’s regime has finally found the culprit for the country’s problems: its people. Speaking at a news conference titled “What hampers the modernization of Russia,” presidential adviser Igor Yurgens—hailed by the Kremlin’s Western apologists as the leading “liberal” in the Russian government—declared that the main obstacle to President Dmitri Medvedev’s “modernization” plans are the “archaic” Russian people characterized by “degradation, lumpenization, and even debilization.” Russians are “not citizens, but some kind of a tribe,” the presidential adviser asserted.

Russia’s Regime Turns on Itself

It has long been observed by biologists that intraspecific competition is among the most intense. This rule also applies to politics, as has once again been proven by the Kremlin. In the last few days millions of Russians, who after the silencing of the country’s last independent TV channel in 2003 have gotten used to docile reporting and constant eulogies to their leaders, were treated to a barrage of negative information about Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov — a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and co-chairman of the ruling United Russia party.


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