Saturday,24 March, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)
Saturday,24 March, 2018
Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Putin cannot be stopped

Show trials of dissidents apparently have no negative impact on Putin, with the West largely muted in response, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

The West knows all too well that the “Russian Bear” has not lost its claws. Nor has the Russian Federation suddenly become a fully-fledged democracy. Russia is still a nation in transition to Western-style multi-party democracy. Incidents such as the guilty verdict on 18 July of Russian anti-corruption activist and blogger Alexei Navalny and his subsequent release on bail only serve as a reminder that the West has no economic, military or political clout to influence events in Russia. Moreover, it makes nonsense of Western policy on Moscow. The Russian Bear is a ferocious beast.

Against that background, a more redoubtable Russian President Vladimir Putin becomes simultaneously a trap as well as an opportunity. He has an iron grip on his great country. Navalny’s conviction was inevitable and predictable. He was heading for the prestigious position of Mayor of Moscow, and Putin did not approve.

The Navalny incident was reminiscent of the arrest a decade ago of the Russian billionaire dissident oil-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “You cannot swim against the inexorable flow of history. The era of unbelief and indifference is ending. Everyone who refuses to slander for the sake of his own wellbeing, who is not afraid to stand as a one-man picket line, and who does not let us forget about the 12 chance kids sitting in a cage, is doing something to make our country a better place. There is a name for that — it’s called patriotism,” wrote an incensed Khodorkovsky on his website.

There is an air of déja vu in Moscow. After the Yukos Oil Company was bankrupted, Khodorkovsky was convicted of fraud and sent to prison. He, too, like Navalny, had political ambitions and Putin viewed him as a political threat.

The balance of power between Russia and the West has been shifting in Moscow’s favour. And a majority of Russians credit Putin for the strategic feat. They are not particularly enamoured with the prospect of becoming a replica of the West. Navalny and Khodorkovsky are seen as aping Western politicians and subscribing to Western political values. Yukos was one of the biggest and most successful Russian companies in 2000-03. Khodorkovsky was not loyal to Putin. He had to be politically sidelined. In 2003, following a tax reassessment, the Russian government presented Yukos with a series of tax claims that amounted to $27 billion. As Yukos’s assets were frozen by the Russian government, Yukos was unable to pay.

The Bolotnaya Square affair is another case in point. Again it was proof that Putin had no intention of permitting politically ambitious Russians to throw their weight around. The Bolotnaya Square case was deemed a criminal case by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation on counts of alleged mass riot — Article 212 of the Russian Criminal Code — and alleged violence against police — Article 318 of the Russian Criminal Code — during the “March of Millions” of 6 May 2012. Putin’s bellicose posturing, and the subservience of Russia’s ruling clique, does nothing to diminish the Russian president’s standing on the international stage.

The West must stomach Putin’s audacity and it will continue dithering in response to Putin’s impunity. Protesters marched down Moscow’s Yakimanka Street to Bolotnaya Square, the destination point of the 2012 demonstration. That is when the Russian authorities clamped down hard. Some 27 people were arrested and accused, four of them women. One of the accused subsequently committed suicide; two were convicted, 18 are kept under arrest, six are awaiting trial in Russia, and one escaped abroad.

The Russian state is as powerful as the now defunct Soviet state, even though it pays lip service to democracy, whatever that means in the Russian context. More than 1,300 people have been questioned as witnesses in the Bolotnaya Square case, the overwhelming majority of them being law enforcement agents. The Yukos affair, the Bolotnaya Square case, and now the Navalny trial heralds an even less pragmatic and more pugnacious Putin position. 

The Navalny case confirms that not much has changed since the days of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. The difference, the defining characteristic of the Putin period, is that more Russians are wealthier than ever before. The question of social justice, an equitable distribution of income, has been relegated to a fanciful myth of the Soviet past. Russia is unabashedly capitalist today, except that its capitalism is guaranteed by a one-man political show.

“Until we realise that the trials of Navalny, Bolotnaya and hundreds of thousands of other guiltlessly convicted people are our trials, they are just going to keep on locking us up, one at a time. Or in groups, if they whip up a charge of mass disturbance or a criminal conspiracy scheme to sell all the oil, timber or mail,” Khodorkovsky concluded.

This analysis of contemporary Russia may be too gloomy. And the West cannot afford to judge Russia too harshly. If it must, it must do so warily, for Russia is still a world power and its sovereignty is sacred to its citizens and many of them see in the powerful Putin a guarantor of their international prestige and domestic political stability.

In short, the trials of Navalny, Khodorkovsky, Bolotnaya and many thousands of other convicted political activists, pose no embarrassment to Putin.

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