Friday, April 25, 2014
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The Sultan of Sochi

NEW YORK – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pardon of the former owner of Yukos Oil Company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and his declaration of an amnesty that has freed Greenpeace activists and two members of the punk rock/protest group Pussy Riot are welcome gestures. But that is all they are: gestures.

Putin was most likely motivated, above all, by a desire to ensure the success of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. It is also likely that Putin sought to show the world a kinder, gentler face in an effort to consolidate victory in his tug of war with the European Union over Ukraine.

But, although freeing a few people who were unjustly imprisoned for long periods is significant, it should not obscure the Russian government’s ongoing major human-rights violations at home and abroad. And here, little seems likely to change. Khodorkovsky’s pardon does not look like the start of a Putin thaw.

For example, within the Russian Federation, a law that entered into force just over a year ago requires non-governmental organizations that engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents” if they receive any funding from abroad. The law defines political activities as actions intended to influence government policies; therefore, they include the work of all human-rights organizations operating in Russia. Because registering as foreign agents would be to identify themselves as the equivalent of spies, few organizations have done so.

Yet many NGOs in Russia can survive only with foreign support. Potential domestic donors fear that they could suffer the same fate as Khodorkovsky, who was the leading Russian supporter of human-rights groups until Putin imprisoned him for more than ten years. Indeed, some Russian human-rights organizations have been raided or shut down. The law gives Russian authorities discretion to close, whenever they choose, every significant organization promoting human rights.

Internationally, Russia is the mainstay of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s brutal regime. Russia’s diplomatic, financial, and military support has ensured that Assad remains in power, despite his government’s horrifying violence against Syria’s people. Western governments are understandably reluctant to provide lethal aid for Assad’s opponents, given the large number of jihadists among them, and because important elements of the opposition have themselves committed severe abuses. Russia has no such inhibitions.

The Assad regime’s indiscriminate attacks have forcibly displaced, injured, or killed millions of noncombatants. It is Russia’s role as a veto-wielding permanent member of the United Nations Security Council that has made it impossible to establish a tribunal to hold accountable those on all sides who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, or to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court. By providing steadfast support to the Assad regime and blocking measures that would bring war criminals to justice, Putin shares with Assad culpability for the largest-scale atrocities in the world today.

It may seem to some that a forceful leader like Putin and a powerful state like Russia are impervious to pressure to respect human and legal rights. More than any other political leader today, Putin seems to embody the characteristics of the “sultanist” leader described by the German social scientist Max Weber a century ago. To the sultanist, the state and its functions become “purely personal instruments of the master.” A figure like Khodorkovsky is imprisoned when Putin decides he should be imprisoned. And he is released when Putin decides he should be released.

Yet Putin’s recent actions make it clear that even a sultan must periodically make certain concessions. Of course, it will not be so easy to secure policy changes on matters that are more important to Putin than the freedom of a few people who have irritated him. But the task is not hopeless, as the run-up to the Olympics has shown. Even someone as sure of himself and his power as Putin becomes susceptible to the pressure of international public opinion as soon as he seeks its approval.

Read more from "Putin's Risky Games"

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  1. Commentednick shimmin

    This kind of nonsense is precisely the reason why NGOs such as Human Rights Watch have no credibility. Statements such as "The Assad regime’s indiscriminate attacks have forcibly displaced, injured, or killed millions of noncombatants", aside from being completely unverified, ignore what is now completely well known, that the "rebels" are largely responsible for a huge number of civilian casualties. And as for the West pointing the finger at Putin over obstructing the trials of war criminals etc, this has been a stock in trade of the US and other Western governments for many, many decades. When the West has its own house in order, then it is free to criticise. Until then, such statements are easily dismissed as sheer hypocrisy.

  2. CommentedEric Saunders

    The US was supporting the Syrian opposition with millions of dollars of aid for years before the recent violence. Our kleptocratic Gulf State proxies poured in thousands of armed, cannibalistic, knuckle-dragging jihadis to overthrow the Syrian government. In sum, there would be no widespread violence were it not for the West's imperialist attempts to overthrow the Syrian state as a way to weaken Iran and Hezbollah.

    Who is to say the Assad has used excessive violence in fighting this foreign sponsored insurrection? The US has racked up exponentially higher numbers of "collateral damage" in wars half way across the world in which America was not threatened in any way shape for form. Maybe Assad's government has a reasonable fear that if the state falls, they will end up like Ghaddafi: droned, buggered, and murdered on the side of the road by America's al Qaeda sock puppets.

    It is a symptom of Western imperialism that we all feel entitled to give a thumbs up or thumbs down re: the existence of every government in the periphery. It is pathetic to see the way that so called "human rights organizations" function as PR flacks for imperialism.

  3. CommentedPhilippe Abeille

    Do not bully us with human rights which are, in the west wording, the trojan horse of corporatism, plutocracy, multinationals and banksters. Putin knows that. Not you? Are you stupid or a lackey of NWO and the rothschild?

  4. CommentedDzhamil Faria

    All written about Putin is correct, but in my opinion there is one more reason to do such manipulation:
    He afraid that Ukrainian protests can start in Russia. Also wants to show he is going to be more open than discredited Ukrainian government and to tight Yankovich closer.