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Friday, 24 August 2012

Russia: at a turning point?

The three members of Pussy Riot arrested for briefly singing a protest song against Putin in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour have been sentenced to two years' imprisonment.  This and, rather more so, their trial is pretty shocking, but let's pause briefly before we get on our high horses, shall we?  Do we imagine that a punk outfit that jumped over the rails in Saint Paul's and sang a protest song against Cameron and The Cuts would automatically just be allowed to get on with it?  It doesn't take very much imagination to see them being charged with 'public order offences'.  Maybe no custodial sentence would ensue, it's true, but before we link the undoubtedly unjust sentence with Putin's regime specifically, let's stop and remember that last year two British lads were sent down for four years for writing 'let's start a riot, LOL' (or something very like that) on Facebook.  Any finger-pointing at Putin from the UK about making the punishment fit the crime needs a little bit of relativising and self-awareness first.  (See also here for Germany and here for France, in case you think this is purely British hypocrisy...)

Be that as it may, the whole process has been pretty ludicrous, thuggish and unjust; let me be clear that that's my opinion of it.  But it's also been pretty inept.  Someone close to one of the women on trial (perhaps the husband of one) said that this was 'worse than Stalin's show trials'; at least they had respect for procedure, he said.  Ahem.  In a Stalinist show trial, close associates of the accused would not have been allowed to communicate regularly with the wider world, sharing reports and opinions of what the trial was about, and its breaches of procedure.  In a Stalinist trial cack-handed, blatant refusals to allow even-handed legal treatment would not have been televised.  It is difficult to imagine the judge at any Stalinist trial behaving like the judge presiding over the Pussy Riot trial, not because they were fairer but because the whole thing would have been much more efficiently stage-managed.  The girls would have been brought in, confessed to commiting crimes against the proletariat, sentenced, taken to some dingy basement or courtyard in the Lubyanka and shot in the back of the head.  Call that showing greater respect for procedure if you will.  No.  The real point about the Pussy Riot trial is that, in Russia, they don't do show trials like they used to. (By contrast, look at the one-day murder trial that took place in China during the same period.)

But that could all change.  As I see it, Russians stand at a cross-roads.  They can accept the verdict and Putin's crack-downs and open the way back to 'proper' show trials like in the good old days; or they can make a stand and maintain the progress made since the 80s that has so obviously left people, that has so obviously left the whole system, so thoroughly unable to conduct a proper show trial to make an example of dissidents.  For myself, I think that the women will spend a few weeks in jail and then Putin will pardon them, thus getting the best of all worlds - showing just how he can (if he wants) clamp down on minor protests against him, while at the same time demonstrating his clemency.  The Orthodox Church has already asked for such a pardon.  I hope I'm right.  In this regard, maybe the worst thing the West can do is to protest too much against Pussy Riot's sentencing.  The one thing that will harden Putin's resolve is looking like he is giving in to western pressure.

That issue is where Russia needs to make a decision.  Putin is popular because he is strong.  Not just because he hunts bears (raarrr) but because he doesn't do what anyone wants (cp. Syria).  This spreads further into Russian political life.  Gay Pride marches have been banned in Moscow for 100 years.  After Yeltsin (a drunken disgrace), this looks good to Russians, and I guess in some ways that's understandable.  What it seems to me that the Russian people have to ask themselves is whether any action, regardless of its morality, or its consequences, is good if it makes Mother Russia look as though she's not doing what her old enemies want her to, or whether they can see that maturity as a nation, and a place at the table of leading nations, does not require unbending confrontation.  There is another way than a political equivalent of the old football chant of 'Everyone hates us and we don't care'.  Russia has a long tradition of 'strong' domestic autocracy, for sure, but it has rarely led to a great deal of respect or power abroad (cp. the Russo-Turkish War; the Russo-Japanese War; WWI; etc.).  Wilful orneriness is not the only path to being taken seriously.  Other forms of leadership are available, at home and abroad.  Compassion doesn't equal weakness.  An example can be shown to the West in quite different, more ethical ways (see above on the weak grounds for British finger-pointing).  Maybe this is (as ever) all pie in the sky stuff, but ultimately that's for the people of Russia to decide.  I hope they do the right thing; do what is (in reality) the strong thing, and turn their back on Putin's autocracy.  That is the way to being respected.