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Monday, February 04, 2008

EDITORIAL: The Beetroot Republic


The Beetroot Republic

"Without exaggeration, Russia is a country of legal nihilism.
No European country can boast of such disregard for law."

Perhaps you are asking yourselves what sort of malignant russophobe might have made the above comment. Surely, perhaps you are saying, it's a person whose views on Russia can't be credited or trusted, so blind are they with irrational hatred of the Russian population.

Perhaps it is so. But if it is, then you must direct your cards and letters of protest to the Kremlin, attention of the heir apparent to the Russian throne, Dmitri Medvedev. For he was the speaker, as reported by the Moscow Times, talking to a group of NGO leaders at a conference known as "Civic Forum."

It may help your burning blood to be told, however, that Medvedev apparently believes that upon entering the Kremlin's walls all its occupants are rendered magically immune from this Russian infection. Thus, the rampant illegality which goes on outside is merely an obvious justification to vest those inside with ever greater levels of power and discretion, the better to make all Russia's evil-doers understand the error of their ways. Isn't that convenient?

The man is pond scum. Actually, perhaps we should retract that. It's clearly an unnecessary personal insult.

To pond scum.

Faithful readers of this blog may remember our re-edited presentation last September of an article from Novaya Gazeta, one of the last bastion's of freedom left in Russia, regarding Manana Aslamazyan (pictured), director of the Educated Media Fund NGO, an organization which sought to train Russian journalists in the basic elements of their craft -- things they can't learn, you see, in universities run by the Kremlin from teachers educated under Brezhnev. As NG wrote, describing a meeting between Vladimir Putin and a group of Russian journalists:
It will be remembered that a criminal case was started against Ms. Aslamazyan at the beginning of this year on the allegation of smuggling. Investigators say that when returning to Russia from Paris Ms. Aslamazyan didn’t declare in the technically correct manner the sum of 9,550 euros and 5,000 roubles. A criminal case was started and all of the Fund’s documentation was arrested after which the Fund declared a temporary suspension of its activity. Ms. Aslamazyan is abroad at the moment.

The head of Glasnost Protection Fund and also the acting chair of Educated Media Fund Alexei Simonov believes that the President hadn’t expected to have that conversation. But being reminded of the gist of the matter, Putin said "she may come back to Russia. Of course, no one can release her from administrative responsibility for this mistake. But mistake and crime shouldn’t be confused."

Having learnt in more details about the Fund’s work, Putin expressed his view that the Fund, being sponsored with foreign money, cannot teach our journalists anything good. Nevertheless, presidential press secretary Alexei Gromov confirmed the guarantees made by Putin, asking to give advance notice about the date of arrival of the head of Educated Media Fund to Russia so that she wouldn’t be detained at the border. Later the President returned to this topic about Ms. Aslamazyan when talking privately to Nikolai Svanidze. It sounded like a joke, but it sounded like “let her come back while I’m still President” Svanidze said.

And yet, last week NG reported that Tverskoi District Court in Moscow had confirmed the ability of Putin's prosecutors press forward with criminal charges, after the Kremlin closed down her office and forced her to flee the country. The criminal case, in other words, continues apace. Aslamazyan had accidentally miscalculated the exchange rate between euros and dollars and thought she had an amount that was not subject to declaration. The Kremlin would have us believe that this incident just "happened" to occur at the exact moment when it raided her NGO and shut it down (Putin himself confirming that he did not want Russians being taught journalism by foreigners).

NG says that Aslamazyan's attorney is unable to determine what sort of charges have been preferred against his client, and a letter of protest against her mistreatment has been signed by 2,500 Russian journalists only to be totally ignored by the Kremlin. That's to say nothing of the word of the nation's president. Aslamazyan tells NG: "I just cannot return and frankly speaking I am afraid of doing it, as the whole matter is being prolonged for some reason. The situation has reached an impasse."

Is it possible that Vladimir Putin, the president of a G-8 country, lied to the press when he told them Aslamazyan could return to Russia without fear of persecution other than an administrative fine over the currency issue? Was he saying that simply to lure her back, allowing his goons to pounce upon her when she arrived?

Such a thing would be unheard of in modern world history. It would indicate that Russia is governed by a clan of baboons, who are willing to utterly disregard even the pretense of legality, in the manner of the mafia, whenever it suits their fancy. Not even the leaders of the USSR engaged in such brazen activity -- they probably knew the story of the boy who cried "wolf!" and realized that they could not hope to to conduct international affairs if their word had been pulverized as to all credibility.

Last week, a Swiss court ruled that Russia is officially a banana republic -- or perhaps that is an insult to banana republics, and we should coin a new term for what Russia is, perhaps "beetroot republic" would do. After all, a banana is a colorful, tropical, happy-tasting fruit, while a beetroot is a dirty, scraggly, somber, dour looking vegetable nobody likes. The Swiss court determined, as reported in the Moscow Times, that "a former executive at a state-owned company can not be handed over for trial in Russia without a guarantee that conditions for his detention will meet standards set by the European Convention on Human Rights. The defendant, who was not named in the ruling after requesting anonymity, has called the fraud charges filed in the Russian courts politically motivated." In other words, Russia is simply too uncivilized, Switzerland would feel too guilty about sending a person into its judicial sausage grinder, and it won't dirty its hands that way. Remember, this is Switzerland, the most famous neutral country in the world.

Things are so far gone in Russia now that it's impossible to tell whether a given act taken by the Kremlin's forces is motivated by evil geopolitics or simply corruption gone amok. As Michael Weiss writes in the Weekly Standard of the British Council attack:
One theory popular among Putin's domestic enemies is that the FSB is quite happy to level charges of espionage and "provocation" at so harmless an outfit as the British Council because its own agents desire to live in England. (Lavrov's daughter studied there, as have the children of so many other Kremlin officials.) After all, the greater the supposed threat posed by Her Majesty's Secret Service, the more spies from the other sides are required for surveillance and counterintelligence. Many a grizzled KGB agent has reminisced about his cushy Andropov-era posting near the Thames, and it should come as no surprise that, in a country ruled by ex-KGB agents, there is still the willingness to manipulate national security to obtain la dolce vita. Bottomless accusations against the British Council therefore play into a much larger scheme of what might be called siloviki self-gratification. And that's enough to make even a dispassionate observer sick without polonium."
So Medvedev couldn't have been more right. Without exaggeration, Russia is a country of legal nihilism. No European country can boast of such disregard for law. He just forgot to add that, with still less exaggeration, one can say that those in Russia with the least respect of all for the province of the law are the malignant little trolls, and most of all their Troll King, who dwell within the Kremlin's walls and strut upon its parapets, as naked as the Emperor with his New Clothes, waiting gleefully for yet another Russian apocalypse.

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