Will Obama Ignore Human Rights in Talk with Putin?

On Monday, US President Barack Obama will meet with Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland. According to the White House, their bilateral agenda will include Afghanistan, Syria, missile defense, counterterrorism, and economic cooperation. No mention, at least so far, has been made of anything relating to democracy and human rights—despite Putin’s unprecedented crackdown, which now includes not only fraudulent elections and media censorship, but also political show trials and state-driven paranoia about “foreign agents,” as the Kremlin is labeling independent NGOs. Several participants of a May 2012 anti-Putin rally in Moscow are in jail for “inciting riots”; Alexei Navalny, a prominent anticorruption campaigner and opposition candidate for Moscow mayor, is on trial; and a third criminal case is reportedly being prepared against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s best-known political prisoner, who has already spent nearly a decade behind bars.

EU Panders to Putin, Shelves Human Rights

On Monday and Tuesday, Yekaterinburg, Europe’s easternmost city, hosts the bilateral EU-Russia summit attended by the respective leaders—EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to Van Rompuy, “there remains a lot of untapped potential to deepen our strategic partnership in all areas,” and the summit will focus in particular on “modernization, visas and mobility, and trade” as well as “measures to stimulate economic growth and jobs.” One of the main issues at the summit will be the negotiation of a new bilateral agreement between the EU and Russia.

The Kremlin shares Brussels’ optimism regarding the summit: Vladimir Chizhov, Moscow’s EU representative, has spoken of “a unique historical chance for our cooperation to move to a new level,” stressing his expectation that human rights will not come up for discussion to avoid “making the atmosphere toxic.”

A Glimpse of Truth in the Kremlin's Democracy Charade

Most of the time, the Kremlin is trying to preserve a smokescreen of “legality” around its actions—and the Russian regime’s Western apologists are happy to follow suit. In their pretend world (the true worth of which is well known to them), Vladimir Putin and the current State Duma have been “elected by voters”; the government “does not interfere” with the courts or the media; and jailed opponents of the regime are not political prisoners, but “criminals.”

A Rare Case of Justice in Russia

Good news from Russia, politically speaking, is a scarce commodity—especially if it involves opponents of Vladimir Putin. On Thursday, a Moscow City Court judge overturned the extension of pretrial detention for Vladimir Akimenkov, one of 17 people who are currently being held behind bars in the so-called “Bolotnaya case.” According to the government’s version, the mass protests against Putin’s inauguration on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, turned into “riots.” An independent expert commission established by human rights groups has concluded that the violence was deliberately provoked by the authorities to create a pretext for the subsequent crackdown.

Russia’s Protests Resume Amid Heightening Repression

On Monday, some 30,000 people gathered on Bolotnaya Square—the site of the unprecedented anti-Putin protests in 2011 and 2012—in a rally that was marked, in the words of media commentators, by “hope without illusion” and “solidarity without euphoria.” This protest was not, as a year ago, directed against a fraudulent “election” that returned Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin. This time, Muscovites came out to protest the looming transformation of an authoritarian regime into a full-fledged police state.

As Putin Avoids Navalny, the Reformer's Popularity Rises

Vladimir Putin rarely passes an opportunity to denounce his opponents, without much concern for reality. He has suggested that Mikhail Khodorkovsky was guilty of “murders” (despite the fact even the official Kremlin-inspired indictment against Russia’s most prominent political prisoner carries no such charges); accused Boris Nemtsov of stealing “billions … together with [Boris] Berezovsky” (although it was Putin, not Nemtsov, who was associated with Berezovsky in the 1990s), and criticized Garry Kasparov for giving an interview in English (even though the interview was for Western journalists).

Commission: Kremlin Pre-Planned Moscow ‘Riots’

On May 6, 2012, some 60,000 people marched through downtown Moscow to Bolotnaya Square to protest the inauguration of Vladimir Putin, “elected” to a de facto fourth term in office in a vote that international monitors assessed as not fair. The march had been officially sanctioned by City Hall, and nobody expected anything other than a peaceful rally—just like the ones in December 2011 and February 2012.

But as the protesters approached Bolotnaya, they were met by thousands of armed riot police who had blocked parts of the square, hindering access and creating an artificial stampede. According to the Kremlin’s version, what happened next were “mass riots” by demonstrators who attacked and assaulted police officers. Sixteen people are currently behind bars on this charge; 11 more have been indicted.

Russian Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny on Trial

Judge Sergei Blinov, until recently little known outside his town of Kumyony, may well go down in history. At the very least, the laurels of Viktor Danilkin—the Moscow judge who issued the absurd, politically motivated prison sentence for Mikhail Khodorkovsky—could rightly be his. In the past 18 months, Judge Blinov issued 130 rulings; every single one was a “guilty” verdict. Last December, he was transferred from Kumyony to Kirov, a city of 500,000 people some 550 miles east of Moscow—it was here, at the Leninsky District Court, that, on Wednesday morning, Judge Blinov gaveled into session the trial of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent anticorruption campaigner and opposition activist and, as of this month, a declared presidential candidate.

Margaret Thatcher Understood Russia

It has often been said that Margaret Thatcher was more popular in Russia than she was in her own country. This was especially true in the late 1980s, when she, together with Ronald Reagan, played an instrumental role in the weakening of Soviet Communism, helping Russians liberate themselves from totalitarian rule. Having forced the Kremlin into an “arms race” it could not win, Thatcher and Reagan accelerated the demise of the Soviet system, making its political and economic bankruptcy evident to the entire world, including, not least, to the Russian people.

Putin’s Best Hope: A Fragmented Opposition

With public support for Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party falling by the month (according to the latest Levada Center polls, only 32 percent of Russians would vote for Putin in a presidential election, while 40 percent agree with the opposition slogan that United Russia is a “party of crooks and thieves”), the best hope for the Kremlin and its regional protégés to hang on to power is a fragmented opposition.

Boris Berezovsky, the Man Who Made—and Tried to Unmake—Putin

In the spring of 2000, after his favored candidate, Vladimir Putin, officially won the Russian presidency (having been acting in this capacity since December 1999), Boris Berezovsky came to the office of then-leader of the liberal opposition in the State Duma, Boris Nemtsov, to complain of boredom. There was nothing else to do, Berezovsky lamented—the presidency was in his pocket; everything was under control. “You won’t be bored,” Nemtsov retorted, “[Putin] will never forgive you for your support.”

Duma Leaders Accuse Kremlin Critic of Treason

In the decorative rubber stamp that is today’s Russian State Duma, Dmitri Gudkov is a rare voice of opposition. Last June, he and a handful of colleagues organized Russia’s first-ever parliamentary filibuster, forcing the chamber to consider some 400 amendments (many of them purposefully absurd) in an effort to delay the adoption of a law raising fines for “violations” during street rallies. In December, he was one of just eight members of the Duma who voted against “Herod’s Law,” which banned adoptions of Russian orphans by US citizens. He has publicly supported the Magnitsky Act, which provides for targeted US visa and financial sanctions against Russian officials implicated in corruption and gross violations of human rights.

Kremlin Propaganda at Its ‘Best’

Even seasoned Western Kremlin-watchers sometimes have trouble realizing the full magnitude of manipulation and misinformation that Russia’s state-run television—still the main source of news for tens of millions of voters—feeds the country’s citizens on a daily basis. The lies become especially malicious when it comes to the Russian pro-democracy opposition, which is usually presented to viewers as a “fifth column” of the West working to undermine Russia’s national interests.

The Real Russia

Western policymakers often say “Russia” when they really mean the Kremlin. This is often a convenient substitution—it is certainly more pleasant-sounding and politically appealing when the White House speaks of a “reset with Russia” rather than a “reset with the Putin regime” (which it, in fact, was). “There is a Russia of the Kremlin … and there is a Russia of civil society,” eminent political analyst Lilia Shevtsova reminded earlier this week at a Capitol Hill conference cosponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia, Freedom House, and the Foreign Policy Initiative. “And the West has to formulate finally a dual-track policy towards the Kremlin Russia and towards our Russia.”

Out of Arguments, Pro-Kremlin Voices Smear Opposition

Claims that the Russian pro-democracy opposition is working for the West to undermine Russia’s national interests—and is therefore nothing but a bunch of traitors—are a favorite tune of Kremlin supporters. The absence of any facts to substantiate such claims has never stopped them. In October 2011, the news website Infox.ru published a story with a truly sensational headline: “Kasparov Urges War Against Russia.” Those who read it learned that one of the leaders of Russia’s opposition, while speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, urged the West to “act against Russia … from the position of strength” and “reminded [the audience] of the ‘successful’ experience of democracy-building by military intervention in countries of the Middle East and Africa.” “Judging by this experience,” the story continued, “the most effective way to install democratic procedures is by ‘humanitarian’ bombing.”


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