Why Pussy Riot Is Not The Most Important Political Case In Russia

Democracy Science and Tech

 

In the space of a week, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina have arguably become the world's most famous political prisoners following their sentencing in a Moscow courtroom last Friday. The three women are better known as members of the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, who earned a two-year prison sentence for their February “punk prayer” performance in Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral where they implored the Virgin Mary to “drive Putin out!” Their arrest on charges of inciting religious hatred was widely seen as a politically-motivated prosecution directed from the highest levels of Russia's government, Vladimir Putin himself, out to make an example of the women for their public personal insult. The political overtones of their case have earned them the support of groups like Amnesty International and fellow musicians like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting, and Madonna.

 

But while the Pussy Riot trial has earned international attention as an attempt to stifle dissent in Russia, there is another political prosecution going on with even larger implications for free speech and expression in Russia: the criminal case currently underway against Alexei Navalny

 

Navalny quickly rose to fame within Russian cyberspace through his blog, which is dedicated to exposing corruption within the Russian government. During Russia's Winter of Protest that grew out of public anger over what have been widely regarded as rigged parliamentary elections in December 2011 and which continued through the presidential elections this past March, Navalny emerged as a de facto leader in the largely disorganized protest movement.

 

Somewhat ironically, Navalny is now facing his own charges of corruption from the Russian government, which could earn him 10 years in prison. The Russian government's case centers around time in 2009 that Navalny spent working as an adviser to a timber company in Russia's Kirov forest region; the government alleges that Navalny compelled another state-run timber company to sell lumber to the firm Navalny represented at a loss – in essence they are claiming that Navalny stole timber. Critics have said that the business dealings with lumber companies in the Kirov region are so murky it is unlikely that the actual accounting behind the deals will ever be unraveled and that corruption in Kirov is so widespread, it is impossible to do business there without paying bribes. An earlier corruption case was opened against Navalny in 2010, but was closed without charges being levied against him in April. The current charges stem from a second investigation launched in July.

 

Given the apparent nature of business in the Kirov region, the charges against Navalny begin to look as politically-motivated as those aimed at Pussy Riot. But the case against Navalny is arguably worse for the causes of political dissent and free speech in Russia for this reason: the Pussy Riot performance was deliberately provocative – in effect, they dared Putin's government to arrest them, and the government did. Navalny, on the other hand, has merely been exercising what are supposed to be rights guaranteed to him in the Russian constitution: to speak freely about the actions of his government and to peacefully assemble to demand redress of public wrongs (Article 31 of the Russian constitution). Yet now Navalny faces charges that could net him more time in prison than Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich, and Alyokhina will serve combined.

 

A common theme to the persecution of Pussy Riot and Alexei Navalny is the Internet. The Web's formative years in Russia came during the 1990s, before the Era of Putin, when Russia was trying to  create democratic institutions, so the country did not set up an Internet monitoring/filtering system a la the Chinese and their Great Firewall.  As a result, Russia's corner of cyberspace is still relatively free. Given the near-total control that the Kremlin exercises over Russia's television stations and major newspapers, Russians have flocked to the Internet as the last media space available for a free exchange of ideas. More than half of all Russians are regular Internet users, the country has more internet users than any other country in Europe.

 

As mentioned earlier, Navalny rose to fame though his anti-corruption blog on the largely Russian blogging platform LiveJournal; Pussy Riot became a national sensation though clips of their guerrilla performances that racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. The Kremlin has been unable to block access to dissident act like these (though opposition websites and LiveJournal blogs have been the target of mysterious DDOS – denial of service – hacking attacks). By so severely prosecuting Pussy Riot and Navalny though the Putin government is trying to send a clear message that dissent in cyberspace can have grave consequences in the real world.

 

Since Vladimir Putin decided to retake the Russian presidency, the government has gone after Russia's most-famous political dissidents with particular vigor. Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian version of Paris Hilton, had her own political conversion and ditched her party girl ways to take up the mantle as a political opponent to the administration. But her well-publicized public affairs show aimed at young Russians, Gosdep (a Russian abbreviation for “Department of State”), was pulled from Russia's MTV channel after just one episode. Sobchak's decision to feature Navalny (before his criminal charges) as one of her guests and the show's critical tone of the Putin/Dmitry Medvedev ruling tandem were widely regarded as factors in Gosdep's quick cancellation. Gary Kasparov, who has a near iconic status in chess-mad Russia, has been arrested numerous times for his participation in opposition rallies, including last Friday while protesting the Pussy Riot verdict. His latest arrest is far more serious though – Kasparov has been charged with assault for allegedly biting one of his arresting officers.

 

Cracking down on the most famous dissenters is another move by the regime meant to send a none-to-subtle message to rank-and-file protesters: if this is how we treat the famous and powerful, imagine what we'd do to you.

 

So while some op-ed writers in the West argue that the Pussy Riot sentence will energize Russia's political opposition, the reality of the situation probably isn't so clear cut. Vladimir Putin's popularity has been on a downward slide since he announced he'd once again become president, a slide that has increased as the Pussy Riot trial dragged on. But Putin is still seen as a strong leader by many Russians, who also view the Pussy Riot cathedral performance as an outrageous act deserving of some punishment (though most feel not two years in prison). The future for Russia's protest movement therefore remains uncertain. 

 

 

Follow Ed on Twitter @EdwardHancox

 

 

Corruption, Dissent, Free Speech, internet, Moscow, Russia, Vladimir Putin