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February 7, 2014
February 7, 2014

Russia: The long, dark shadow of Putin

Author: Àngel Ferrero Translator: Anna Papoutsi
Source: SinPermiso  Category: Protest
This article is also available in: eles
Russia: The long, dark shadow of Putin

The amnesty and the decree No 922 dislodged the media and the opposition

On the19th of December, the Duma approved a general amnesty for 12,000 prisoners after a proposal from the Russian President on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the 1st Constitution of the Russian Federation. Benefiting from the amnesty were both Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and María Aliójina, the two members of the punk band Pussy Riot who were still in prison, as well as 30 activists from the Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise, arrested in September when they attempted to occupy an oil platform in protest against future explorations in the region. The day after Vladimir Putin signed the decree No 922 that would free the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a measure announced the day before at a press conference. Khodorkovsky was immediately released after having served 10 years in different prisons,  and the same day he landed in Berlin, where he was received by the German former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hans-Dietrich Genscher. The trip was made possible thanks to Ulrich Bettermannthe owner of OBO Betterman, a company with profits of €500 million in 2013 – who made his private plane available to Khodorkovsky  (who said there is no more class solidarity). Khodorkovsky stayed at the luxurious Hotel Adlon, and on Sunday he gave a press conference at the Museum of the Berlin Wall, where he stated that he did not intend to claim the assets of the bankrupt Yukos or get involved in politics. Two days later, he announced his intention to go into exile in Switzerland. As reported by The Guardian, Angela Merkel was personally involved for years in the efforts to liberate Khodorkovsky.  After former Minister of Foreign Affairs Guido Westerwelle’s support for the pro-European protesters in Kiev, and German President Joachim Gauck’s announcement that he would not be attending the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Germany seems to be set to become one of the main centres of anti-Russian politics in the European Union.

Khodorkovsky: A “a baron-robber à la russe

Although public support for the release of Khodorkovsky had increased in recent years due to his long stay in prison, many Russians do not forget that he has been one of the oligarchs who looted the country in the 90s and, therefore, his case has not caused waves of sympathy. Khodorkovsky‘s biography has been relegated these last days to the background, if not disappeared. As a young man, Khodorkovsky was an ambitious apparatchik of the Komsomol who used the perestroika to start his business career. He put together his primary capital by buyingcomputers in order to resell them to Russia, and used it to establish the Menatep Bank, which in 1995 acquired the petroliera Yukos for $300 million, a price below its real value, something that some authors attribute to an obscure deal with the then president, Boris Yeltsin. His activities, according to the Foreign Affairs magazine, was not devoid of the financial dealings of post-Soviet Russia: from dubious fiscal practices Yukos bought oil for its own subsidiary companies at prices far below the market price ($ 1.70 when their real value was $15)– to facilities liquidation and money transferring to current accounts abroad, probably controlled by front men while he was in prison. Khodorkovsky was arrested in October 2003 on charges of tax fraud and tax evasion. Apparently, he also refused to accept the so called verticalpower that characterises the Russian government since the arrival of Putin, forcing oligarchs to subordinate to it, if they want to maintain their share of power, or  alternatively go into exile in London. That is why the Russian authorities have shown great zeal to impose an exemplary punishment to Khodorkovsky,which also served to inform the public that the excesses of the 90s had been left behind and the country had entered a new economic era.

Pussy Riot: a cause swallowed by stardom

The Pussy Riot affair is a good example of how dissidence is handled from abroad.  An editorial in the journal Cho Delat, in August 2012, entitled “Support Pussy Riot, but  also support the Kazakhs workers!“, contrasted the media coverage of Pussy  Riot  with the news coverage of the crackdown against a group of miners on strike in Zhanaozen, western Kazakhstan, which ended up in at least 14 dead. “Pussy Riot are cool and photogenic which is not the case for the Kazakhstan miners. The Pussy Riot trial was attended by Western journalists based in Moscow, some of whom may feel condescending because, in the last 40 years or so, the allegedly blasphemous artists are not pursued in such a crude manner in Western Europe. Not only liberal newspapers (The Guardian, The Independent, etc.), but even the right-wing ones such as The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail sympathized”. Along the same line, Kevin Rothrock recalled, in Global Voices, that when Tolokonnikova  declared a hunger strike, so did a group of mothers of children with disabilities in Volgograd to protest against cuts in social benefits. Their spokeswοman, Yelena Grebeniuk, tried to call the media and social networks attention without success. Why have so few people paid attention to protesting mothers of Volgograd? Rothrockreplies: Tolokonnikova always appears challenging and radiant in court, and “even those criticising her cannot but mention her sexuality, while the video with Yelena Grebeniuk on YouTube, which did not reach the 250 visits, shows a middle-aged woman sitting under a portrait of Lenin. Surrounded by cola bottles and wearing a tracksuit, Grebeniuk is far from being a rock star”.

The opposition, out of action

The amnesty and release of Khodorkovsky have been presented as a government move to reduce international pressure during the Olympic Games next February. But this is not the only reason. According to the editor, Boris Kagarlitsky, both  the Western press and the liberal Russian media,focused in recent years, on the cases of Khodorkovsky, PussyRiot and the Greenpeace activists. Thus, the Kremlin adopted, as Kagarlitsky writes, “a simple and reasonable solution to set them all free. Checkmate: not only the 3 campaigns wearing down the government’s image are in this way neutralised, but the media lost their best records. It’s very unlikely to see the Western and the liberal Russian media turn their attention in the next few months to the reform of the Sciences Academy –to which is opposed the Communist Party (which has considerable support among  academics)– or to the campaigns for the release of the anti-fascist Alexei  Gaskarov or the coordinator of the Left Front, Sergei Udaltsov, being under house arrest, to name but two of the accused for the Bolotnaya case (who participated on May 6th 2012 in an anti-government demonstration which ended up in riots and clashes with the police). Aliójina‘s own statements after being released from prison –“I am outraged because the political prisoners sentenced on the Bolotnaya case have not all been freed as wellpassed largely unnoticed and, even ignoring the political bias of the media, these three cases have been the proverbial trees impeding the view to the forest, which is none other than the Russian judicial and penal system, that, despite itsobvious deficiencies, has not been analysed or reviewed.

All that remains to the western media and the Russian liberal opposition, given their natural aversion for social issues, is to denounce homophobia. The conservative ideological shift of the Russian government tries to galvanise its electoral base in anticipation of the arrival of the economic crisis to the country. Choosing homosexuals and not an ethnic or religious group as a scapegoat is no accident: in a traditionally patriarchal country, where there is huge ethno-religiousdiversity, where the Orthodox Church has regained its influence since the collapse of the USSR and the consequent ideological disillusionment, they constitute astigmatised minority which few Russians are willing to support publicly. However, any campaign supporting LGBT groups in Russia leaves the Western states that set them in motion in an admittedly awkward position, revealing their moral hypocrisy. How can the United States report a law against the nontraditional sexual relationships propaganda –certainly turned against homosexuals– in Russia and at the same time allow the execution of homosexuals in Saudi Arabia? If homophobia is the problem for the German president or the British prime minister in relation to the Olympic Games in Sochi, why none of them has spoken about the criminalisation of homosexuality in Qatar, which will host the 2022 World Cup? The Cold War ax is not as buried as it looked.

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