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  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 433,491 346,520 310,000 16
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 2,610 2,140 1,750 97
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Update No: 385  (26/04/13)

Summary: The trial of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has been arrested on what have been described as trumped up charges, is a hotspot on the political agenda this month. President Putin has continued to offend the opposition, women and gay people. This month also saw the death of journalist Mikhail Beketov. A staunch defender of the Khimki forest, after an attack that left him paralysed five years ago.

The past month in Russia has been characterised by ongoing attacks on civil society and the political opposition. The trial against whistle- blower and opposition leader Alexei Navalny has, in terms of its pivotal nature, drawn some comparisons with the trial against Yukos founder Mikhail Khordokovsky, who has spent the past eight years in a Siberian jail after criticising the Putin regime. Meanwhile charities are feeling the wrath of the new NGO law which asserts that all organisations which receive foreign funding must register with the government as ‘foreign agents’.

To start with the trial of Alexei Navalny; this stalwart opposition leader founded the ‘rospilinfo’ whistleblowing website and coined the term the 'party of crooks and thieves’ to describe United Russia. Whilst for some time his activities continued with the criticism of the authorities, recently their stance has become more punitive. He has been was accused of embezzling $500,000 from a timber firm he was working for in 2009. His trial began on April 17. He and his supporters have argued that the case is quite simply one of political persecution. The investigative committee campaign against Navalny came as no surprise to Kremlin watchers, since he has been an indefatigable Kremlin critic and, to the minds of many, the most likely candidate as a credible opponent to Putin should the opposition gather together and field a candidate. On April 5, Navalny did in fact announce his desire to run for president. The 36-year old lawyer has in the past five years earned himself dozens of enemies from the denizens of United Russia by unveiling numerous examples of corruption. The most recent example would be that of Vladimir Pekhtin, the head of the ethics commission in the State Duma, who resigned after Navalny blogged about his luxury property holdings in Miami Beach. He has come to be the scourge of Russia’s political elite with his frequent exposes of graft.

His arrest came with little shock. “Why does Putin want to jail me? (I have no doubts that he personally has ordered my case),” Navalny asks in an article he penned in the Guardian. He answers: "It seems to me the logic is obvious: he and his circle must guard their power. And to stay in power they have no other mechanism than jailing people – which is what they are doing. I'm not the first and, unfortunately, will not be the last: we must be ready for the fact that they will jail many more people. They've stolen billions, they know people are outraged by this, that millions of people share my attitude towards them and they are protecting themselves."

Shockingly, his accusers have not hidden the fact that an embezzlement case of this scale would not be being dealt with in such a harsh manner were it not for the fact that he has criticized the government. The Investigative Committee's official spokesman Vladimir Markin told the press that Navalny's reputation as a troublemaker has certainly expedited the action against him. This avowal of legal nihilism prompted billionaire-turned-politician Mikhail Prokhorov to point out that "In any law-abiding state, this statement alone would be enough to dismiss the 'Navalny case' and open a case against General Markin himself." That the charges (described by Navalny as "blatantly fabricated”) were acknowledged to be a matter of political prejudice by the man investigating is fairly worrying. Putin himself has made no comments so far on the court proceedings, which were adjourned 40 minutes after it began. The trial has attracted international attention, though it is being held in Kirov, a town north east of Moscow, in order, many say, to draw Navalny away from the popular attention he enjoys in Moscow.

Another incident has been a sober reminder of the fate of some of Putin’s critics. The death in England of oligarch Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Kremlin critic who once controlled a vast financial empire, has raised discussions about the perils of contesting the regime. The last time a prominent Russian national was killed on British soil was when ex-KBG agent Alexander Litvinenko was killed by polonium poisoning in a London restaurant in 2006, in a shocking case that saw relations between Britain and Russia chill considerably. Whilst the official verdict ruled suicide, which some view as credible given that he had recently lost a major court battle against fellow oligarch and one time protégé Roman Abramovich, his daughter suggested it was unlikely that this was the case. Berezovsky's unrelenting criticisms of the Putin regime (though he was once close to the current President) have aroused suspicions that foul play might have been involved. The widow of Alexander Litvinenko, Marina, has expressed her doubts as to the official verdict on the events. Given the murkiness that overshadows a considerable amount of business dealings among the oligarchs, it is uncertain whether a concrete conclusion can be drawn.

Berezovsky and Navalny are two of the numerous Kremlin critics who have proved irksome to the regime. In order to prevent mass disturbances, the proper functioning of civil society and the political opposition is inhibited in every way in Putin’s Russia. The ongoing quashing of NGOs has drawn increasing castigation from the international community. Back in July 2012, the Kremlin introduced a law that would require NGOs to register as foreign agents (in other words ‘spies’) if they receive any funding from abroad, which the majority of them do. The following months have seen a number of raids on NGO headquarters, where staff have been demanded to provide details of their financial records. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been among those targeted. Election watchdog Golos is now facing fines of up to $16,000 with a possible personal fine of $10,000 for its chief, though the organization claims that they never received any grants.

Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s human rights envoy, has said that the new law impelling NGOs to register as foreign agents is having ‘a chilling effect.‘ The U.S. described the latest wave of pressure on NGOs as a ‘witch hunt’. When Vladimir Putin visited Germany for talks with Angela Merkel on April 8, he was greeted with several hundred protestors rallying against the law. Merkel herself chimed in, calling on Putin to allow Russia to have an ‘active civil society’ and to give NGOs ‘a good chance’. In terms of other international critics, Mark Knopfler of the group ‘Dire Straits’ cancelled his two Moscow concerts in protest against it. Putin has recently announced that he will channel the equivalent of $75 million this year towards socially oriented, Russia-based NGOs but many fear that these funds will simply be directed towards organisations which toe, if not simply reinforce, the Kremlin line.

Civil society was also recently rocked by the news of the death of former journalist Mikhail Beketov, who was beaten up viciously in 2008, for reporting on the imminent destruction of the Khimki forest. The forest was subject of a tussle between local residents and the authorities who wished to build the Moscow-St Petersburg motorway through the area, which is considered of special natural interest. Beketov was the editor of Khimkinskaya Pravda, in which he often exposed the corruptions of the local administration. In 2008, after a series of death threats, he was beaten into a coma and was left permanently brain damaged. On April 8 of this year he died after choking on a piece of food. Journalists who gathered to mourn his passing at Moscow’s House of Journalists said that he was "irreplaceable”. Many noted grimly that attacks upon and the murder of journalists is an unavoidable reality of operating in Russia. In another reminder of this fact, on April 18, investigators issued a statement saying that their work in gathering evidence against the five suspects in the 2006(!) assassination of Anna Politkovskaya has been completed and the case would be brought to court. The fat that no one has as of yet been brought to justice for her murder remains an indictment of Russia’s failure to protect members of the press.

The Khimki forest cause has been taken up by other brave activists, among them Yevgenia Chirikova who spoke at Beketov’s funeral. She has won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her unrelenting activism. She too has had her share of problems since plunging into Khimki preservation, including threats that her children would be taken into care. Those who denounce the de-regulation and impunity with which businesses and the authorities use Russian soil are frequent victims of attacks. Citizens who have complained about pollution at Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest and oldest lake, that is host to a pollution-spewing paper mill owned by Oleg Deripaska, have seen their concerns dismissed. The Sochi Olympics, which has been in the headlines recently due to delays, mismanagement, accusations of using poorly paid migrant labourers, had also generated numerous concerns about the disrespect done towards the area's natural beauty (an asset, ironically enough which has been used to attract people to the games which will held next year.) Greenpeace has consistently noted that the authorities have provoked serious ecological damage to sites of exceptional natural importance. The Grushevy mountain ridge, for example, would have been subject to major construction work unless pressure from UNESCO saw the Krenlin back down.

Another worrying tendency that has reared its head in the past month is that of the increasing interweaving of church and state. The intervention of the Orthodox Church and its leader Patriarch Kirill in public and political life has seen traditional values reinforced to a worrying degree. The Pussy Riot case perhaps best typifies this trend. Three members of the radical feminist anti-Putin band were arrested for hooliganism after performing a ‘punk prayer’ in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral in February 20123, but have vowed to continue with their political activism. The incident has seen the Orthodox Church erupt with a barrage of comments that would prove unpalatable for all those who believe in equal rights for women, a key aspect of free and functioning democracy. The Patriarch's most recent tirade was against feminism in general.
In speech made on April 9, he called feminism a “very dangerous” phenomenon. He added that women should be "always directed to the inside, towards her children and her home," and claimed that, “the majority of feminist leaders are unmarried women who have no understanding of the importance of family life."

These criticisms have not stymied the activities of committed feminist activists. Vladimir Putin was recently accosted by a bare-breasted activist from the group Femen, upon his visit to Hanover to meet Angela Merkel. His response was both patronizing and odious. “I liked it,” he said, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. “Thank the Ukrainian girls for helping promote the fair... I didn’t really hear what they were yelling because the security guards were so tough. Those big guys manhandling the girls. I think this is wrong, they could have been more gentle.” Gay rights are even worse observed in Putin's Russia. The gay propaganda ban, which would criminalize all manifestations of homosexuality, has raised international outcry. Upon his recent trip to Amsterdam he was greeted by more than 1000 gay rights activists who picketed the building where he and Prime Minister Mark Rutte held talks.

In terms of international relations, suspicion of the West remains a lodestar of Putin’s regime. Relations with the US continue to prove problematic over the Magnitsky sanctions, which Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has described as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘a blow to bilateral relations’. Following Washington’s publication of the blacklist of Russian officials who are banned from the United States because of their alleged involvement in the death in custody of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, Moscow retaliated with its own list. Eighteen Americans have been banned from entering Russia among them employees of the Bush administration and two former commanders of Guantanamo Bay. Some observers suggested however that the choice of person could have been much more serious, on both sides. It has been noted that the judge who sentenced Russian national Viktor Bout to 25 years in prison for arms trafficking, Shira Scheindlin, was not included on Washington’s list. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama have now agreed to meet two times in upcoming months in order to assure that tensions do not entirely cloud bilateral relations. The Kremlin did acknowledge that the US has sent a ‘positive signal’, in the form of a delegation to Moscow in early April, bringing with them a ‘constructive’ letter from Barack Obama.

Whilst Vladimir Putin may be keen to present a powerful, monolith state to the world, there are indications that beneath the facade there may be cracks. According to a new Levada Center poll, 55% of Russians said they would like to see Putin make an exit in 2018. In addition to this economic woes are lingering on the horizon. Industrial output has shrunk, and a significant slowdown of the economy has been witnessed. Analysts indicate that this trend will continue.
 


 

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