Rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina can't work with incoming president Putin
A new generation of Russian netizens will be able to initiate legislation through a new Web portal, President-elect Vladimir Putin said today. But a crackdown on dissident voices, the ominous rise of nationalist far-right groups and today’s detention of up to 20 rights activists defending freedom of expression casts doubt on the credibility of any such cyber-based empowerment.
Russia’s government needs to exploit the most modern technologies, including crowdsourcing, Putin told a conference addressing the themes of his pre-election article “Democracy and Quality of the State.” Citizens should be able to use a Web portal to submit bills for consideration by the Duma after collecting 100,000 signatures in support, he said, before establishing certain conditions.
“This place must not be politicized and must not be used as a promotion site for various political forces. It must be a purely professional place,” he stressed.
Putin’s legitimacy this week took a blow from a Council of Europe report confirming that last month’s presidential election lacked transparency, and was marred by the partisan abuse of administrative resources and pronounced media bias.
“Many interlocutors suspected substantial manipulation of votes, but that would be hard to prove due to the lack of a truly impartial referee in the electoral process,” said the head of the delegation, citing domestic observers, such as the “Golos” election monitoring group, which reported widespread fraud, including multiple ballots cast by voters bussed to various polling stations.
Up to 20 activists were detained today after protesting against the prosecution of members of the Pussy Riot punk music band for an unsanctioned performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The three women members of the band face up to seven years in prison if convicted of violating public order. Human rights groups, including Memorial, have condemned the prosecution, but expressed reservations about the political value of the group’s action.
Memorial “does not condone conducting political protests or artistic self-expression on church space, all the more so if this is conducted in ways which are alien to religious practices,” the group said. “However, condemnation of the actions by the members of Pussy Riot from a moral, or indeed expedient, standpoint cannot form a basis for their criminal prosecution.
Veteran dissident Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said the prosecution and possible sentence are excessive.
“What they did does not deserve such a long period of imprisonment,” she said.
Alexeyeva is one of several democracy and rights activists considering the value of serving on the 38-member presidential human rights council after Putin assumes the presidency next month.
Rights campaigner Svetlana Gannushkina (above)* has declared that she will discontinue her role on the council under Putin:
“I’m no Bandar-log,” she said.
Gannushkina, who has repeatedly been suggested for the Nobel Peace Prize because of her work with Chechen refugees, used an expression for “monkey” from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” Putin famously used that word in December when he ridiculed opposition protesters as monkeys.
On the other hand, Alexeyeva said that she was willing to remain but doubted that Putin would allow her to do so.
“I think he will hardly invite someone to work in a presidential council who regards him as not legitimate,” she said.
The anti-Putin opposition has rallied behind protests against electoral fraud in the provincial city of Astrakhan, but the campaign on behalf of the hunger-striking Oleg Shein is highlighting both the diversity and potential divisions within Putin’s critics.
“[O]pposition figures who get into power may not always be what pro-democracy supporters in the West, or even in Moscow, have in mind,” The Economist notes:
Mr Shein was a member of the far-left Communist faction that opposed Boris Yeltsin in 1993, and later served as a deputy for the nationalist Rodina party, led by Dmitry Rogozin, a bombastic, anti-Western politician who is now a deputy prime minister in Mr Putin’s government.
Looming reforms will complicate things for Russia’s protest movement. A new law liberalising the rules for registering new parties may mean that the political field will be flooded with dozens of them, confusing voters and fracturing the opposition
The high-profile presence of ultra-nationalists and other illiberal groups, including the National Bolshevik Party, within opposition ranks has disturbed many liberal democrats. But the Moscow-based Sova is one of a number of human rights groups campaigning against the prosecution of several activists from the NBP and the Other Russia
“We consider neither the ban on the NBP legitimate, nor the fact that the people who act on behalf of the Other Russia movement, which has not been banned, are persecuted,” Sova said in a statement last week.
But some observers fear that liberal democratic groups may be inadvertently entering a Faustian pact with far-right ultra-nationalists who will ultimately undermine or subvert prospects for democratization.
“The currently liberalizing tendencies are in danger of being reversed by anti-democratic forces,” according to analyst Andreas Umland:
The most worrying anti-liberal force today is the growing post-Soviet ultra-nationalist movement with deep links into both Moscow’s governmental institutions and Russian civil society. The various radical nationalist groupings and circles have so far been fractured and often more engaged in quarrels among themselves than in challenging their (also fractured) anti-nationalist opponents within and outside the regime. Yet, the currently evolving democratic movement could provide an incentive for the various Russian extremely right-wing forces to consolidate. Should this happen, Russia could again become a major matter of concern for international security.
The xenophobic and conspiratorial tone of Putin’s presidential election campaign has boosted the legitimacy and public profile of ultra-nationalist groups, including the Anti-Orange Committee:
It is led by the prolific political publicist and flamboyant TV host Sergey Kurginyan who has brought together, in the Committee, a “Who’s Who” of Russian anti-Westernism. The Anti-Orange Committee includes, among others, two of Russia’s most well-known and ardently anti-American TV journalists, Mikhail Leont’ev and Maksim Shevchenko, the notorious apologist of fascism and Moscow State University Professor Aleksandr Dugin, as well as the founding father of the post-Soviet Russian extreme right and editor of the most important ultra-nationalist weekly newspaper Zavtra (Tomorrow) Aleksandr Prokhanov. The self-assigned task of the Committee is to promote an ideological innovation of Putin’s regime in ultra-nationalist terms, and its reconstitution as a Eurasian empire.
“While the recent upsurge of democratic sentiments in Russia gives reasons for hope, it may also intensify the already apparent rapprochement between Russia’s systemic and anti-systemic radical nationalist forces,” Umland suggests, even if “[u]ltimately, a Russian re-democratization would cause a marginalization rather than escalation of anti-Western sentiments in the post-Soviet world.”
Golos, Sova, Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
*Svetlana Gannushkina is head of Civic Assistance. The NED supports the group’s work providing legal assistance to refugees threatened with illegal deportation or extradition to Central Asia’s authoritarian regimes.