As the Russian punk-rock band members “Pussy Riot” appeal their two-year sentence for a political protest in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, a pale of repression is settling over their country. This crackdown is wrapped in legislative garb, but the iron grip of authoritarianism is unmistakable.
The United States must specifically recognize that its “reset” policy of “see no evil, hear no evil,” has contributed to the trampling of human rights in Russia. Putin’s tightening of the screws is a part of a broader pattern, which includes a return to a confrontation with the United States and NATO.
Moscow is cozying up to China, supporting the Assad regime in Syria, and ignoring the Iranian nuclear race. The Kremlin is hard at work to create a sphere of influence along its periphery and a “pole” in the perceived multi-polar world, which would stand up to Washington.
Recent developments have an unmistakably Soviet flavor from the 1920s and 1930s, when people were sent to the GULAG for who they were, not for what they did. For example, the Cheka -- the grandfather of the FSB -- preventively arrested those of noble descent or with relatives abroad.
Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, and a lawyer by training, wrote: “The courts should not do away with terror -- to promise otherwise would be to deceive ourselves and others -- but should give it foundation and legality, clearly, honestly, and without embellishments.” In the past, Putin called Joseph Stalin “an effective manager.” One wonders if the sorcerer has become a role model for the apprentice.
In this spirit, three weeks ago, the Duma unanimously passed new amendments proposed by the FSB that will expand the definition of "high treason." The newly created crime can be applied to almost any Russian citizen who works with foreign organizations or has ever had contact with a foreigner.
The "treason" no longer refers only to a concrete crime, such as knowingly passing state secrets to a foreign power. It could apply to any behavior that the state secret services, prosecutors and judges deem undermining "constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial and state integrity" in the eyes of the authorities.
Moreover, the courts, which will sit in judgment on treason cases, are not truly independent. The Kremlin expanded “telephone justice,” a Soviet practice, by which judges receive verbal instructions from the top on how to decide cases. Prominent opponents, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of the YUKOS oil company, are sentenced to lengthy prison terms, which many Russian and foreign experts view as politically motivated.
These changes are an addition to a package of draconian laws and practices that curtain the citizens’ rights and that were introduced this year, with nary a protest from the Obama administration:
• In June 2012, the Duma passed a law that criminalized unauthorized protests, giving the government the ability to fine organizers exorbitant sums.
• In July 2012, the Duma approved a bill that allows the government to block websites it deems harmful to the public.
• The law on NGO registration now requires that every "politically active" non-governmental organization, which receives funding from abroad, must register as a "foreign agent."
• The Duma is considering a bill "On the protection of religious feelings of the citizens of Russia," which criminalizes blasphemy, including the possibility of a prison term. The courts would use the “experts” who are close to the Orthodox Church, to decide what is blasphemous. The regime would then decide which offensive materials to censor, just as authorities in Rostov recently banned the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
The blasphemy law is a sop to the Patriarch Kirill, who is expanding the Church’s function as an ideological crutch for the state. The law is an important step to distance Russia from European, Western values, which the liberal intelligentsia desperately tried to inculcate for the last quarter of a century. They seem to be losing out – Slavophiles and “Eurasianists” are on the ascendancy.
Since Putin’s return to the Kremlin, a crackdown is on its way in Russia, conveniently ignored by the Obama administration. Free from concern about a serious U.S. response, corruption and abuse of power in Russia continue to rise as well.
The recent legislative developments have severe geopolitical implications. There are clear signs of an authoritarian reversal: Putin is implementing a "Fortress Russia" policy, which is based on repression at home and confrontation abroad. It is used to justify an already-decided-upon $700 billion, massive military buildup.
The “reset” needs a serious reassessment, and so does the overall relationship with Russia. The U.S. should pursue its national interests in relations with Moscow, instead of chasing a feel-good mirage.
Specifically, the administration should work to advance individual rights, dignity, democracy and free media through public diplomacy and pinpointed support of worthy causes. Washington should cooperate with those along Russian periphery and in Europe, who are concerned about the growth of Russia’s sphere of influence.
Finally, the U.S. and its allies should engage international organizations; expert communities; mass media and social media to draw attention to and counter the ongoing crackdown in Russia.
It is preferable to engage now, before the specter of an anti-status quo Russia once again haunts Europe – and the world.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org)
First appeared in The International Herald Tribune.