As I write these lines today, on 6 June 2013, a disgraceful trial begins in Moscow. The so-called Bolotnaya case is all about twelve Russian citizens accused of attacking the police at the Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. On 6 May 2012, 70 000 protesters were authorized to have a rally against election fraud in Russia’s presidential elections. What happened next was that the police started provoking people, beating them up, and then arresting those who resisted the violence against peaceful civilians.
No matter what they will say in the Kremlin, the undeniable fact is that Russia has political prisoners — something that would have been incomprehensible under Boris Yeltsin, even if he failed to live up to high hopes for a liberal-democratic Russia that people had after the collapse of the USSR. His failure to tackle endemic corruption and injustice in Russia is well known, yet it does not absolve his successor Vladimir Putin from what he did crashing democracy and dissent in Russia.
In the beginning, it appeared as a travesty of democracy. With sound reason, Putin was described by Western journalists and diplomats alike as a half-democrat or pseudo-democrat. The political commentator and essayist Andrei Piontkovsky, justly renowned for his sharp, caustic, and ironic remarks as well as for his deep insights into current Russian politics, went so far as to put it black on white that Putin is a pure thief, instead of a sinister ideologue or a global power maniac.
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True, we know that Karl Marx had good reason to assert that history repeats itself twice, first as a tragedy and then as a farce. Yet it is small consolation for all courageous and dignified citizens of Russia who today risk paying the high price for their legitimate and constitutional right to disagree with authorities, to have a dissenting opinion, to express it freely and peacefully in a rally allowed by law. It is they and their fate that will tell us shortly whether history repeats itself in present Russia as a tragedy or as a farce.
I would argue that it does repeat itself both as a tragedy and as a farce. It is a farce, since the posthumous trial of Sergei Magnitski was nothing short of Nikolai Gogol’s grotesque scenes with a stroke of genius straight out from his novels and plays. And instead of the Shakespearean tragedy of the former Soviet Union with its seductive and demon-like ability to dupe the West and especially the incurably naïve (or cynical and walking in the guise of saintly naïveté) writers like H. G. Wells or Lion Feuchtwanger, Putin is a farcical if not unintentionally comical figure with his Agent 007- or Rambo-like images which are exceedingly and embarrassingly tasteless.
Yet it appears a tragedy for those who had gone with the wind of the endless transformation of Russian politics. The fearless human rights defenders and journalists Ana Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova, and Yuri Shchekochikhin, the courageous politician Galina Starovoitova – they all fell victim to a soulless and faceless machine which knows their enemies’ names and which does not leave the object of their hatred and retaliation unattended and forgotten.
It is a tragedy, as a democratic Russia is being killed along with a weakening hope to have Mikhail Khodorkovsky released from jail, and also with the sense of hopelessness watching the morally miserable and deeply inhumane responses from Russian authorities to US congressional and Irish parliamentary deliberations or decisions to adopt the Magnitski Law (the Sergei Magnitski Rule of Law Accountability Act in the USA signed by President Obama). This includes the responses that played with American and European sensitivities, first and foremost a humane and caring attitude to disabled children of Russia who became hostages to the cruel and senseless reactions from the Kremlin to the spread of the “virus” of universal respect for human rights – namely, the Magnitski Law, and that showed nothing but the abyss between Russian and EU political morals.
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The EU can be split on this, as geopolitics and the realpolitik of major EU members, especially Germany, still interfere with the foundations of the EU – fundamental rights and civil liberties that do not allow any state to regard a citizen as its property, and human rights violations as its internal affair. However, this split among EU countries and politicians will foster a heated debate on the future of the EU in terms of its consolidated and unified human rights policy. Do we downgrade human rights and dignity immediately when we switch to an oil, gas and nuclear world? And do we think that the successful exercise of economic power and rich investments absolves the EU's “strategic partners” of shocking and increasingly deteriorating human rights record?
Do we hear the voices of such legendary Russian dissidents and human rights defenders as the founding mother of the Helsinki Group in Moscow, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who spelled it all for us in the European Parliament forum on political prisoners in Russia that present Putin’s crackdown on the opposition and human rights as no better than oppressive Soviet policies under Brezhnev? Do we realize that Russia is sliding back into Soviet legislation with its overt hostility to NGOs that are regarded and legally qualified as “foreign agents,” whose derogatory connotation as “foreign spies” can be difficult to grasp only for those who don’t have even a minimal command of the Russian language? Can’t we see that the existence of the Memorial, a world famous NGO and a Sakharov Prize Winner in the European Parliament, is endangered and put into question?
This is the last wake-up call for us in the EU.