By Carroll Colley
The story grabbing most of the headlines in Russia the last two weeks has a racy hook, but it's not the story the international community should be watching. Sure, the criminal trial against feminist/garage band Pussy Riot has its share of political intrigue. But that trial is more about church-state relations than the political repression of the women involved. Criminal charges against opposition leader and blogger extraordinaire Alexey Navalny, however, are far more serious, and they provide a window into the Kremlin's current strategy of zero tolerance for political opponents. If Navalny is convicted and jailed, the opposition would be weakened, but it could well provoke even larger protests and greater political uncertainty.
First, the more colorful case. The state is prosecuting Pussy Riot for the band's performance of a musical rant against President Vladimir Putin in Moscow's largest cathedral, and the case exposes the dark underbelly of the Russian judicial system: incompetent prosecutors, questionable witnesses, and a highly politicized judge. Instead of pursuing administrative charges -- which many Russians favor -- the government is throwing down the gauntlet by pursuing a criminal case, though some legal scholars claim that the charges themselves are outside the scope of Russian law.
While a corrupt judicial system creates problems of its own, allegations of incompetence and corruption in Russia's court system are nothing new, and the state's position in this case is more a product of the Putin regime's wish to reward the Orthodox Church's political loyalty than to punish a little-known feminist punk band. Putin, the first Russian ruler since the era of the tsars to be a practicing Orthodox, wants to support one of the political system's most stalwart supporters which called on its members to vote for him in the March presidential election.
The three women face up to seven years in prison for "hooliganism" for performing an "anti-Putin hymn" ("Holy Mother, Drive Putin Out"). After meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron last week in London, Putin said the women have already been punished enough -- they have been held in pre-detention for five months -- and should not be judged too harshly. The use of the legal system to prosecute Pussy Riot may be clumsy-and it has backfired by turning the band into an international cause celebre -- but in the end, it's little more than a colorful footnote to a worrisome trend.
On the other hand, the renewed criminal charges of embezzlement against Navalny (he was previously investigated on similar charges but cleared) should be recognized for what they are -- increased pressure against out-of-system opposition leaders that will grow under a third Putin presidential term.
Navalny has used his blog to wage a successful anti-corruption campaign against the government for several years, making him a major irritant for the ruling elite. He is the face of the opposition movement and has demonstrated that he can send a crowd of protestors into Moscow's streets. Most recently, he exposed that the head of Russia's Investigative Committee -- the Russian equivalent of the FBI -- violated Russian law by owning property in the Czech Republic and holding a Czech residence permit. The Investigative Committee responded quickly with these most recent charges.
Interestingly, Navalny remains free, which suggests that the Kremlin is making him an offer: Stop the anti-government shenanigans or risk 10 years in prison. If his past actions are a good indicator, Navalny won't take this deal; he has been playing this cat-and-mouse game with authorities for some time and has yet to blink. Among the opposition, Navalny appears to be the most charismatic and ambitious figure, one who could possibly rally Russia's disparate opposition movement and mount a credible political career. A potential show trial -- if the standard set with Pussy Riot is to be followed -- and subsequent prison sentence would create yet another political martyr and drastically underscore the authoritarianism of Russia's political dynamic.
If Navalny's case goes to court, he can't expect the leniency that Pussy Riot may ultimately receive. He'll probably get prison time, a verdict that would enrage the opposition (the upper-middle classes in Moscow and a handful of other major cities) and probably provoke greater unrest. But the outcome would be largely supported as a sign of strength by Russia's majority, the working middle and lower classes that support the current system. It will also send yet another signal that the Kremlin's patience with the democratic opposition has reached its limit.
Carroll Colley is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Eurasia practice.
Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images
The launch of The End of the Free Market has given me a new understanding of Twitter, as book-related tweets come over the transom. A few that caught my eye, with some perhaps less than twitterish (tweetful?) commentary:
It's odd to me that one of the most immediate responses to "The End of the Free Market" is, "See, Obama's a socialist." Um, no.
Private sector remains key economic actor? Check.
32,000 private sector jobs created in April? Check.
Geithner and Summers, not socialists, on the team? Double check.
charleswtapp From Ian Bremmer's latest: "Kenneth Minogue once defined capitalism as 'what people do when you leave them alone.'" Well said.
I always liked that quote. Of course, when you're leaving your teenage kids alone, probably a good idea to let them know you're going to be checking in on them occasionally. I suspect Greenspan missed that part.
mushkush Saw this guy, Ian Bremmer, on the Daily Show last night. Confused me by saying regulation = free market, unregulated != free market.
Unregulated = really badly run free market. There's a profound difference between regulation and a state-run/controlled economy (see: "Obama isn't a closet pinko.") When the United States starts moving toward paying attention to what the banks are actually doing, yes, we're still a free market. Just (hopefully!) a more effectively run one.
And the virtue of resisting the urge to argue for authoritarian governments. It's like the dark side of the force. After all, how many tanks does the Pope have? (Wait, the Vatican is authoritarian too.)
TheMiniDocs I really appreciate when Jon Stewart interviews people like Ian Bremmer, as opposed to that horrible Sex in the City 2 guy.
I didn't realize i was up against a Sex in the City guy. Clearly, you have to prefer the wonky fellow.
cjmadigan i love it when jon stewart gets to really show his smarts, like right now talking with ian bremmer!
I would like this even more, but the italics makes it implausible. Suspect cj is actually my little brother in pseudonym.
If dizzle isn't a fellow political scientist, I'll eat several pages of my book.
Geosphotos Ian Bremmer on Daily Show. Is he really Mr. Smithers?
Oy oy oy.
To experience the visual spectacle that is Avatar, Chinese audiences have flocked to theaters, with some reportedly paying up to $100 for a ticket. Yet, despite its spectacular success in China, the film has run into some trouble. Authorities have decided to pull the 2-D version of the movie from theaters to make way for a Chinese-made film on the life of Confucius. Why?
Part of the move is undoubtedly aimed at promoting homegrown cultural products at the expense of a formidable foreign competitor. But that can't be the only issue, especially since many Chinese have roundly extolled the film's creative revolution. Take a closer look, and you'll find that it's a quieter, subtler revolution that is unsettling the Chinese government. In Avatar, many Americans see a film about exploitation, militarism, and environmental sustainability. Many Chinese, however, see a cautionary tale about a form of social and economic injustice all too common across their country. To many Chinese bloggers, Avatar is a fable about unscrupulous Chinese officials forcefully evicting residents in the name of local development.
"Land development with an iron fist" has become a volatile issue for Beijing. Driven by rapid urbanization and the absence of property rights, city residents are often uprooted from their homes with little or no compensation to clear the ground for construction of luxurious new high-rises. City enforcement officials, known as "chengguan," are often in cahoots with local developers, granting permits in exchange for kickbacks. Flanked by public security officers, they demand that residents vacate or face removal by force. At times, the ham-fisted moves lead to tragic outcomes, as when a woman in Chengdu set herself on fire rather than be evicted. In another incident, when an elderly man threatened to jump off the roof if he was forcibly removed, a chengguan quipped, "Go straight to the top floor. Don't choose the first or second."
Public outrage at this behavior has run rampant, fueled by the stubbornness of petty officials with unchecked power. In recent years, individuals managed to attract national attention to the issue via iconic and viral images of the "nail house" (usually a single dilapidated shack standing amid razed ground, sticking out like a nail). The photo above tells the story.
These houses remain intact because the owners refuse to budge and chose to fight against developers. On Chinese blogs, commentators immediately recognized the Pandoran aliens Na'vis' tree home as a nail house, and the army that descended upon it as chengguan. Dripping with sarcasm, bloggers' reaction to Avatar as a metaphor for average Chinese woes is unmistakable: "The humans actually failed to successfully evict and demolish [the aliens]? Truly embarrassing. Why didn't they send China's chengguan there sooner?" And "China's demolition crews must go sue old [James] Cameron, sue him for piracy/copyright infringement!"
With enormous numbers of comments like these moving across the web at lightning speed, Beijing, ever more preoccupied with public opinion on the Internet, grew nervous. Corruption is surely involved in many of the development deals, and it doesn't take much of a leap for the public to shift blame to the central government's inability to weed out corruption as promised. Though most of the ire is usually trained on local officials, the party leadership isn't going to take unnecessary risks. Few things arouse more fear in official circles than the loss of message control-and Avatar is just so popular. They decided they would need a wizened local sage to provide a little ancient wisdom.
Damien Ma is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Asia Practice.
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.