By Pavel Felgenhauer
April 11, 2013
Since last March, Russian and international human rights organizations–including such prominent ones as Memorial, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International and others–have been harassed by Russian law enforcement and tax authorities, had their premises searched all over Russia, and had documents and computer disks taken. In all, some 225 human rights organizations have been searched (Interfax, April 10). Before a visit to Germany and the Netherlands this week, President Vladimir Putin, in an interview with the state-financed ARD newscaster, took up this matter head on, declaring that human rights organizations are not harassed, but “must follow the law” and “register as foreign agents.” Putin announced that a massive “network” of 654 “foreign-funded noncommercial organizations” is actively “involved in political activities in Russia, and in the last four months they received some $1 billion from abroad.” Putin accused the media, including ARD, of spreading lies and asserted that the Russian public must know about the magnitude of the problem. Putin insisted that the Russian law treating human rights organizations as “foreign agents” is similar to United States legislation enacted in 1938 and actively enforced today (www.kremlin.ru, April 5).
During press conferences abroad, Putin repeated the assertion about the “$1 billion in four months” of foreign money to support the political opposition and reiterated that “the Russian public must know the truth.” In the Netherlands, Putin was greeted by gay activists protesting the harassment of homosexuals in Russia; and, in Germany, half naked activists of the Ukrainian feminist protest group Femen declared Putin a “dictator” and were apprehended by security in close reach of him and Chancellor Angela Merkel. During a press conference in Amsterdam, Putin reacted to the protests with degrading anti-gay and anti-feminist jokes, announcing he did not like the sight of half-naked Femen activists and “would prefer to see a piece of sausage or salted pig fat.” Putin added, “Thank God the homosexuals did not undress,” and “I cannot imagine legalizing gay marriage” (Kommersant, April 9).
Despite Putin’s assertions to the contrary, human rights organizations, political opponents and sexual minorities are being oppressed in Russia. The leader of the pro-democracy protests and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny will stand trial on April 17 on trumped up corruption charges. In interviews with Novaya Gazeta and radio Ekho Moskvi (April 8), Navalny explained, “There are more state investigators working on me than on multi-billion[-ruble] corruption cases connected to the former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.” Navalny is sure the judge in his case will find him guilty and says he is ready to be arrested any moment.
The Russian justice ministry has, this week, opened a court case to fine and close down the human rights group “Golos” (Vote), which specializes in monitoring electoral fraud in Russia. During the Duma elections in December 2011 and Putin’s presidential reelection in March 2012, Golos and other nongovernmental monitoring groups have assessed that the ruling United Russia (UR) party and Putin received tens of millions of fraudulent votes. At least a third of the UR deputies that form an absolute majority in the Duma won their seats through vote rigging. The law about “foreign agents” was specifically tailored against Golos, which the ruling kleptocracy sees as a serious potential threat. Golos has announced it does not, at present, receive any foreign funds, is not involved in “political activities” and will not volunteer to register as a “foreign agent” (Kommersant, April 9).
The office of the Prosecutor General has announced that “no one may challenge” Putin’s sum of “$1 billion” received by “foreign agents” from abroad–this “huge sum has been fully documented” (Intarfax, April 10). Human rights activists say the sum of their alleged financing is incredible–10 to 20 times exaggerated, at least–and “Putin must have been misled” (Moscovsky Komsomolets, April 8).
If the level of the alleged Western financing of the alleged “foreign agents” continues at the level Putin has announced, it may eventually total $3 billion per year–equal to the US aid to Israel and far exceeding the campaign funds both Republicans and Democrats jointly spent during the last US presidential campaign in 2012. Speaking in Germany, Putin announced, the West would better spend its billions on bailing Cyprus out of its financial meltdown than sending them to Russia (www.kremlin.ru, April 8). Putin seems to believe the West is squandering billions of dollars to overthrow his regime. This is only one example of the paranoia growing in Moscow that involves internal and external enemies plotting revolutions and invasions to destroy the ruling kleptocracy.
Corrupt authoritarian rulers and their supporters and subordinates often believe in conspiracies; while multi-billion secret funds are often the key for them to secure and keep power. But what can the West do with an increasingly paranoid and repressive nuclear power that it declared after the end of the Cold War and Communist rule in 1991 to be a partner nation transitioning into a market economy and democracy?
At present, the Barack Obama administration in Washington, along with European capitals, seem to continue to follow the policy of appeasement, believing that being nice to Putin at all cost and seeking out any possible areas of cooperation will somehow make him a true friend and reliable partner. This week, in an interview with Russian-language RTVi channel, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted, “The name of Navalny has never been mentioned in my dealings with foreign colleagues or during Putin’s summits with heads of state at which I was present.” Lavrov asserted that the US Magnitsky Act, which was adopted last December and bars entry to the US for Russians accused of involvement in the death in custody of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and other human rights abuses, “was pushed through Congress by corrupt Russophobes” (Interfax, April 11).
Also in the last few days (April 10), it became known that the Finnish police had secretly blacklisted Putin, barring him from entering the country for his association with an allegedly criminal Russian biker club, the Night Wolves. Putin has indeed publicly befriended and promoted the Night Wolves; yet, Finnish authorities declared the blacklisting a terrible and regrettable mistake. Putin’s press service told journalists: “Putin took the story in good humor, the Finns have apologized, so no further action is needed” (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2167581). Excessive appeasement of paranoid Russian rulers seems to be a long-time Western tradition.