Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Moscow Protests amid Russian Political Brain Drain

Between 6,000 and 10,000 Russians demonstrated in Moscow on June 12 to mark Russia Day.  They denounced Russian dictator Putin's rule and demanded the release of political prisoners.  The Putin regime responded to the May 6, 2012 protests against him during his inauguration for his third term as president with a systematic crackdown on his opponents.  27 people face charges for their participation and/or leadership of said protests.  

The protest slogan was "a march for our and your freedom."  The slogan reflects an understanding that as long as some Russians are imprisoned for their political beliefs, no Russians are genuinely free.  The protest leaders included anti-corruption blogger and Russian nationalist Alexei Navalny, who is being persecuted with false embezzlement charges that are likely to lead to his long-term captivity.

My personal hope is that protests and demonstrations against Putin spark a peaceful national movement against him which can remove his regime.  I also hope that Russian democrats begin to more actively address the ongoing genocide in Chechnya and the horrendous human rights abuses against Russian soldiers.  These vital issues are not receiving the attention they deserve.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry met with Russian opposition activists including legendary human rights activist Lyudmila Alexesevya, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group.  But opposition activist Lev Ponomarov suggested that the Kerry failed to give Russian democrats the unconditional support they received in Soviet times.  The Obama Administration has chosen a policy of defacto alliance with the Putin regime which leads them to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses inside Russia and to Russian support for the Assad regime's horrific attempted genocide against the Sunni majority in Syria.  Ponomarov said that the U.S. diplomats used smooth language that reflected a lack of real moral and practical commitment such as "We are sympathizing with you.  We are not going to abandon you.'"  

Thus Kerry's message was that the Obama Administration does not really care about the fate of Russian democratic dissidents.  Egyptian, Iranian, and Syrian dissidents have similarly been abandoned by the Obama Administration, which has stood with dictators and against freedom throughout the Middle East.  Obama's policy in Russia reflects a global tendency to side with authoritarian regimes and against the forces of democracy and freedom.

Meanwhile, Russian chess champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov announced that he will not return to Russia for the foreseeable future.  Kasparov feels that remaining in Russia will inevitably subject him to prosecution and long-term imprisonment without allowing him to effectively challenge the Putin regime.  Instead, he intends to focus on encouraging European countries to adopt sanctions against senior Russian officials who are responsible for human rights abuses.  He wants to pass laws similar to the Magnitsky list, named for the whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who died in custody in 2009.

Kasparov says the Putin regime is trying to stop passage of such laws because they fear the effectiveness of such policies.  I hope that more European countries take a stand against Putin by passing such laws but fear that the Europeans are unlikely to challenge him because of their financial dependence upon Ukrainian gas and their general tendency to shirk confrontation with Putin.

On April 30, Russian economist Sergei Guriyev joined his wife and children in exile in Paris. The story only broke 6 weeks later, perhaps reflecting concerns about Guriyev's safety.  Guriyev was questioned for writing a report in 2011 that was commissioned by Medvedev and which challenged the imprisonment of business tycoon and opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky and called for his conviction to be overturned.

Naturally challenging the captivity of Khodorkovsky, who has become Russia's leading dissident despite his past as a post-Communist oligarch, is extremely dangerous in today's Russia.  And also another reason for the persecution of Guriyev has been his donation of 10,000 rubles ($315 USD) to Navalny.  Guriyev said," I don't agree with many of Navalny's political views.  But I consider him an honest and brave person."  Putin invited Guriyev to return on June 4, but thankfully Guriyev is not falling into this trap because he knows the reality that he would not be safe in Russia today.

The recent departures of Kasparov and Guriyev symbolize a longer-term political brain drain from Russia.  Putin has systematically assassinated his leading political opponents, beginning with my beloved teacher Galina Starovoitova in 1993 and continuing with Nikolai Girenko in 2003, Anna Politkovskaya and Alexandr Litvinenko in 2006, and Stanislav Markelov in 2009, among others.  

In such a climate, Russian dissidents naturally fear for their lives.  And thus the recent decisions of Guriyev and Kasparov to go into exile reflect not only fear for their own safety but also a long-term pessimism about Russia's political future.  Putin has created a climate of fear in which Russian democratic dissidents cannot freely operate, knowing they are subject to not only arbitrary imprisonment and torture but also murder.  

I recently noted a similar phenomenon among Egyptian dissidents, who are also fleeing for their lives amid the  political repression that has followed the collapse of the Mubarak regime in 2011.  The parallels between the oppressive political situations in Egypt and Russia are real and sad and are connected also with the similiarities between the abusive conditions facing Russian and Egyptian male conscripts in their respective armed forces.   


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