an opposition rally in central Moscow November 24, 2007.
Listening to Lev
In a January 2001 lecture at Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, the Russian political activist Lev Ponomarev, head of the For Human Rights movement and member of the executive committee of the Other Russia opposition movement, said:
We believe that what happens in Chechnya, and what is happening is Chechnya is very alarming. We discussed the term "genocide" during our congress. It is a legal term, and we were very concerned about not abusing this term. But we used different formulations, for example, the "first signs of genocide," or the "beginning of genocide," or the "symptoms of genocide." But in the face of hundreds of thousands of people being killed, people dying in Chechnya, we believe that the West needs to apply more pressure on Russia. By being complacent, by playing along with Putin, the West betrays Russia's true interests. Our position is such that we are not against using force in Chechnya. Moreover, having troops there is a very good way to begin negotiations— from a position of power. We do believe that it is necessary to fight against the bandits. We believe that right now is the best time to start negotiating with Chechen leaders, while the troops are in Chechnya.The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe had taken the dramatic action of suspending Russia's voting rights in the summer of 2000 as Vladimir Putin's bloodletting in Chechnya rose to truly barbaric levels, but just a few months later it backed down. Ponomarev decried this craven weakness as a "betrayal" of the Russian human rights movement, which was risking all to take a stand against the Kremlin's conduct only to have the rug pulled out from under them by Europe. He called on the West to renew its commitment to human rights in Russia.
The West didn't listen to Ponomarev in January 2001, nor did the Kremlin. Instead, six months later U.S. president George Bush met with Putin at a castle in Slovenia and declared afterwards: "I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy." Unfortunately, neither President Bush nor any other prominent Western leader spent much time looking Mr. Ponomarev in the eye. Putin then radically escalated the mayhem in Chechnya, adopting a scorched-earth policy that rejected any notion of human rights in the region.
The result? Ponomarev told the Jamestown Foundation last week: "If human rights activists were earlier calling for fair trials and independent courts, today we are saying, just like in the Soviet period, 'Free the political prisoners!' If there were dozens of political prisoners during the Soviet period and there were none during the Gorbachev/Yeltsin period, at least the earlier part, then now there exists entire categories, no longer just separate individuals." So over the course of Putin's two terms as "president" we went from massive human rights atrocities in Chechnya to the resurrection of the Gulag Archipelago in Russia proper while the West stood idly by and did nothing, just as it did when Stalin committed his escalating series of atrocities. Ponomarev now says that "Russia may be able to rebuild and acquire some real political clout in 10 or 15 years." He says that a window of opportunity remains open, though, because of the extremely "brazen" nature of the Kremlin's power grab and its desire to maintain a democratic facade for Western consumption. This means activists like him have a slender lever they can use to pressure the regime if they receive sufficient support for their efforts.
In a translation on Robert Amsterdam's blog, Ponomarev describes the horror of the Russian prison, where an asthmatic arrested for theft and awaiting trial receives capital punishment by being denied his inhaler and another man, also awaiting trial and convicted of nothing, receives emergency surgery for a perforated duodenal ulcer only because of a massive uprising by his cellmates. He points out that while the European Court for Human Rights has been repeatedly willing to issue judgments against Russia for violation of international norms, it has imposed only paltry monetary compensation figures even in the event of fatalities (a mere 20,000 euros in one instance, hardly likely to fill the Kremlin with dread). He states morosely: "It remains simpler for medical personnel from the FSIN to certify the death of a person than to treat him. Judges appear to consider themselves (ah, but how sincerely?) not to be accessories to these sufferings and deaths. Their motto is "you shouldn’t have committed the crime, then you wouldn’t have ended up in the jail' seems to confirm that the principle of presumption of innocence has nothing whatsoever to do with our judiciary system."
The St. Petersburg Times reported last week that when three Other Russia opposition activists were arrested at a protest rally against the closing of a market last weekend, they were thrown into a truck with another man, Dmitry Smekalov, who had already been brutally beaten by the arresting officers. The SPT states:
His face was so heavily beaten; he was bleeding, he had a swollen nose and lips and I didn’t recognize him, even though I’d seen him several times before. And then, when we were inside, they continued to beat him for another ten minutes. “I thought that they were either high or drunk, because it was totally unmotivated cruelty toward an absolutely defenseless man who didn’t offer any resistance. He only asked, ‘Why are you beating me?’ “[They replied,] ‘We ain’t beating you - we haven’t started yet.’ It was like a pack of dogs attacking an unfamiliar, ailing dog. They were beating him, six of them, for 10 minutes in the presence of a deputy of the Legislative Assembly. With fists, feet, truncheons, whatever.”Yet, when the group was transported to the police station, the beaten man wasn't processed "since he was not among the rally’s organizers and had just happened to be walking near the location." When the police discovered their mistake, rather than apologizing they called in OMON stormtroopers to intimidate the victim:
"In the evening I learnt that [the OMON police] were on their way to their base when they stopped by the Neva and, as [Smekalov] told me, dragged him by his arms and legs, swung him and threw him over the parapet into the Neva. He told me, ‘I was flying and thinking, “I hope there will be no water down there because I’ll in such a condition that I’m not able to swim.”’ But it turned out there was ice."The activists themselves were also beaten after being taken into custody.
It's rather ironic that the politician we in America most often hear talking about standing up to Russia is Republican John McCain. The right is hardly the party associated most closely in the public mind with the protection of civil rights and liberties, and yet we hear a deafening silence from the likes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Do these so-called "Democrats" really believe in the creed they purport to espouse, or are they only blowing smoke to collect the support of those voters who do?
Confronting Russia ought to be something, as it was during the first cold war, that Republicans and Democrats can agree on. They ought to be fighting over which one has the more effective battle plan, but instead the Democrats are sticking their heads in the sand, betraying their ideals, and behaving just like their despised nemesis George Bush did when Putin first came to power. It's an irony of almost unbelievable proportions, and ought to make any American voter think twice about giving either Clinton or Obama their support.
It's very clear who Russian human rights activists would choose. But will we listen to Lev this time? We report below that the Kremlin, having apparently not faced sufficient resistance the first time it tried the move, has now illegally inducted a second youth opposition leader into the armed forces. If it is not stopped, there will be a third, and soon every single youth activist will have been victimized.
Then the Kremlin will turn its gaze to us.
It's already focusing its evil eye upon Lev himself. Robert Amsterdam reported over the weekend that the Kremlin has launched a criminal investigation against the activist which may be related to Ponomarev's providing data and video about prison mistreatment which was picked up and reported by the Wall Street Journal.
The pattern than began with Galina Starovoitova has now led to Ponomarev's doorstep. Soon, if concerted action isn't taken by the West, there will be nobody left in Russia to speak for civilization.
We report below that Ponomarev's video material exposing the outrages of the Russian penal system and published by Robert Amsterdam is now back online after being cited by the Wall Street Journal and then, apparently, victimized by some sort of Kremlin brigadniki action to censor it. Required viewing. Truly, one video is worth a hundred thousand screams.