Staunton, December 23 – One can only be pleased for those who have been released from unjustified captivity in the Russian Federation such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but one should only be disturbed by what such periodic mass amnesties on public holidays and state anniversaries in Russia say about the nature of that country’s political system.
In contrast to the situation in most other countries, amnesties in Russia are not an admission of judicial error but rather an arbitrary act by the state to protect or enhance its issues. They are handed out as a demonstration that the state rather than the constitution or law decides who is punished and who is not.
Indeed, they reflect, albeit in a softer form, what Madame de Stael once observed about Russia as a whole. That country was, she said “an autocracy limited by the occasional assassination” rather than one where judges and political leaders played the role they typically do elsewhere.
But Russian amnesties have two other consequences both of which are unfortunate. On the one hand, they serve to convince many inside Russia that they are the only game in town and thus lead them to cooperate with rather than actively oppose the people in power. And on the other, the West invariably greets them as “acts of mercy,” when they are in fact anything but.
These are just some of the bitter reflections prompted by one of the most thoughtful articles written in Moscow on the occasion of the pardons Vladimir Putin extended last week. In it, Valeriya Novodvorskaya focuses on aspects of the situation that most in their happiness for those released have preferred to forget (grani.ru/opinion/novodvorskaya/m.222629.html).
As she points out, Russian-style amnesties reflect the fact that “the powers that be cannot admit their mistakes” and have to have a device which in their view allows them to “save face.” But they can achieve that only if everyone goes along with their vision. That is not the case, Novodvorskaya says, because the powers long ago lost face as well as a sense of shame or honor.
Amnesties in Russia thus are not about mercy or justice; they are a matter of a crude political trade in which the authorities give up prisoners in order to win support or deflect attention. But that reality means that those incarcerated are “political prisoners” and “the personal hostages” of Vladimir Putin to be used as he sees fit.
No one who is concerned about rights and laws should cooperate in this charade, Novodvorskaya says, although she notes that many human rights activists in Russia and many in the West do.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev says that Russia “has not political prisoners,” the human rights advocate says. “Well, that means that we are again in the USSR. There were no political prisoners in the USSR either. There were ‘state criminals’” who had “’attacked our system and our historical choice.’”
Updated for today, this means that Russia “has no political prisoners but there are people who demand that the Constitution be observed and are struggling or the rights and freedoms inscribed in it. It is they who are in prison.” Perhaps the West will “open its sleepy eyes” and see this reality.
Russian human rights activists can accelerate this process by not cooperating with the regime as it requests. They should not be taking part in government-organized activities designed to “create a positive image of the country.” Instead, they should be showing “the naked truth about a naked power” and not help it cover this up with any kind of “fig leaf.”
Those who are concerned about human rights should stop appealing to the Russian powers that be: “they are enemies.” And they will not respond except when it is in their interest or when they are forced to. Asking them to help is like “complaining to the Gestapo about human rights violations.”
Instead and as in Soviet times, the task of those in Russia who are concerned about human rights is to “present lists to Western presidents and prime ministers, to congresses and parliaments,” something that can always be done because they or their representatives are always visiting Russia.
Human rights activists are not employees of the state; they are its accusers, Novodvorskaya says. And Russian human rights activists need to remember that “Russia is not Ukraine,” that there isn’t a Maidan because a Maidanis possible only “when there is no enemy in the rear” as there very much is in Russia.
In Russia, unlike in Ukraine, massive crowds won’t come out when activists are arrested. And the only time Moscow will release its hostages is when “the hungry Russian-Soviet power” is forced to do so in order to get aid from the West. That’s why Gorbachev released hostages and why Putin is releasing his.
The time has come to step up the pressure on Putin, Novodvorskaya continues, and argues that the Sochi Olympics could be the occasion for that. Just imagine what would happen, she says, if all Russian athletes refused to compete and instead called for what Russia needs most: “’Freedom for political prisoners!’”