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Friday, July 11, 2008

EDITORIAL: Tales of the Iron Curtain, Descending


Tales of the Iron Curtain, Descending

A few months ago Russian opposition leader Oleg Kozlovsky was drafted into the Russian Army. Then, a short time later, he was un-drafted.

It's no flight of fancy to say that this blog (a term that certainly includes you, the reader) had a something to do with his release. Because of our leadership in covering the story, it made it into both the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, and from there into a number of other forums and the attention of significant world leaders. What was obviously a plan to crush Kozlovsky with dedovshchina torture fizzled like a cheap firecracker and went up in smoke.

It would be a mistake to think, though, that the malignant forces of evil in the Kremlin saw that as much of a setback. The real point of moving against Kozlovsky, after all, was to intimidate, threaten and silence others, not just him. And the Kremlin's action hasn't even been declared illegal in a lawsuit, nor have damages been paid to Kozlovsky. Until that happens, the Kremlin will conclude it accomplished the lion's share of its objectives.

But the lion's share isn't total victory. Kozlovsky lived to tell the tale and he did tell it -- on the storied pages of the Washington Post in his own editorial, while he was sitting in jail on yet more trumped-up charges. He hasn't been silenced or intimidated; in fact, the Kremlin's action has given him new credibility and may ultimately blow up in its face, just like British action against Gandhi and Southern action against Martin Luther King did.

And now, there's more bittersweet news along these same lines to report.

Back in August, we were the first in the English-speaking world to tell the full story of blogger Savva Terentyev, who had been arrested and faced two years in prison for a comment he wrote on another blogger's post. Just imagine what his fate would have been for an actual post on his own blog!

Now the Moscow Times reports that Terentyev has been tried and convicted for the act of writing a comment on a blog post. His only consolation is that he received not actual jail time but a 1.5-year suspended sentence -- meaning that for the next year and a half the Kremlin can chuck him into prison any time it wants if he's not a really, really good boy. As Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA centre in Moscow, a non-governmental group that monitors extremism, told Reuters: "This was an absolutely unjustified verdict. Savva for sure wrote a rude comment, but this verdict means it will be impossible to make rude comments about anybody." The Kremlin's chilling message has been sent out loud and clear, far and wide: "If we'll do this to a mere commenter, just imagine what we'll do with the actual bloggers themselves."

But still, a suspended sentence isn't nothing. Just like with Kozlovsky, it shows the Kremlin knows its own weakness, that it can't risk doing what it wants and has to move in careful, baby steps down the road to dictatorship. We played our part in bringing sufficient pressure to bear on the Kremlin that Savva is still at liberty to blog again, if he's got the guts. It will be a drawn-out process to liquidate the last vestiges of civil society in Russia, and that means its defenders have a chance.

But not much of one, unless of course the forces of good in the West, led perhaps by John McCain and others who clearly see our peril, use these victories as a springboard towards a confrontation that will ultimately force back the tide of repression now sweeping over neo-Soviet Russia.

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