In 1975, Andrei Sakharov delivering his Nobel Peace Prize Address in Oslo mentioned 118 political prisoners in the authoritarian Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev. The number may have been diminished due to rather limited data that Sakharov had at hand, yet it reflected the character of the violent and reactionary state which was trying hard to pass for a rival civilization and a model of democracy in the Cold War era.
The bitter irony of history is that Russian dissidents and human rights defenders suggest that present Russia under Vladimir Putin, in terms of its human rights record and also the reemergence of political prisoners, is hardly any better than the former Soviet Union. No matter how nostalgic of the former Soviet Union Putin was immediately after his becoming president of Russia, he was described by the Western media as a half-democrat, or pseudo-democrat, rather than a dictator close to the club of Chavez, Gaddafi, or Lukashenko.
With sound reason, then, Guy Verhofstadt, president of ALDE - the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe - recently assessed the transformation of Vladimir Putin in his move from soft to hard authoritarianism. Russian dissenters make it clear that Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Pussy Riot singers are political prisoners, and that so was the late Sergei Magnitski.
On a personal note, I was truly shocked to see one of the Pussy Riot members released from jail, whose masked face I couldn’t see, and testify during hearings on political prisoners in Russia at the European Parliament. I was unable to see the face of this brave young woman who was unable to reveal her identity for safety and security reasons – and this is happening in 2013, whereas the country in question is a member of the Council of Europe. Who is going crazy here then – us or them?
Noteworthy is the remark of the legendary Russian dissident and human rights defender Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the real founding mother of the Helsinki Group in Moscow that initiated the movement of Russian human rights activists in the 1970s, that Putin’s regime has already closed ranks with the former Soviet Union. She spoke about it a couple of weeks ago during a seminar on political prisoners in Russia held in the European Parliament. It is a fait accompli – according to Alexeyeva, it is a long way to go from Vladimir Putin’s regime to the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. Things are as bad in Russia as they were in the late 1970s or in the early 1980s, under Brezhnev and Andropov.
What did Putin achieve from his rise to power in 1999 onward? Next to nothing, to say the truth. After Yeltsin’s years of confusion and chaos, Russia showed some signs of more consolidated power. Yet in terms of democracy and political pluralism, Russia began degenerating into a tyranny with no point of return. If Putin was sincerely hoping for more respect and recognition of Russia as a great power that deserves credit for contributing to the status quo of the system of international relations, instead of a second-rank state, he failed, as Russia stopped being regarded both as a rival of, or as a serious alternative to, NATO and the U.S.-EU axis in terms of global security.
Instead of becoming a promising democracy next to the EU with much credit and respect for its truly magnificent culture and vibrant intellectual life, Russia under Putin has become a ghost of Soviet cliches of propaganda trying to whitewash and restore Stalin’s good reputation, which was dead even under the Soviets. Instead of enjoying richly-deserved admiration of the world for its literature, humor, and creativity, Russia is confined to, and made hostage of, Putin’s mad ambitions to make it a police-state to prevent the new forms of rapprochement between Ukraine and the EU. The same applies to any other nation from the Eastern Partnership on, which Russia keeps an eye on trying to block any sort of new alliances and democratic clubs in the vicinity.
Vladimir Putin has never visited the Baltic States from 1999, which says something deeply disturbing about his attitude to the three neighboring EU countries. In addition to his own, and also his entourage’s, efforts to add insult to injury for what they perceive as high treason in the late 1980s (especially with regard to Lithuania, the first breakaway republic in the former USSR), it shows that they positively refuse to take the Baltic States as genuinely independent EU nations. The term “near abroad,” which they tried to apply to the lost parts of the USSR, seems to be kept as a dividing line between what the Kremlin takes as Proper Europe and its unpleasant aberrations, such as the Baltic States.
The point, however, is that Russia is swiftly changing. No matter what kind of lunatics and proxies the Kremlin and Gazprom can find among the most naive or cynical European journalists and politicians, the fact is that the Kremlin is trapped in its losing war it waged for public opinion across Europe. When the fearless Russian political commentator Andrei Piontkovsky called Putin a thief several years ago, we thought that he dealt a blow to the president that would go unnoticed by a wider readership due to the fact that he was in a splendid isolation at that time. Yet things must have changed dramatically over the past years, since the young journalists, such as Elena Servettaz, can easily repeat it now, calling her president a thief (see: http:www.interpretermag.com/an-open-letter-to-vladimir-putin/).
Putin’s failure is already a fact, rather than a prophecy.
Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.
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