Photo courtesy of Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Although the ongoing explosion of the Middle East is the primary foreign news topic these days, things are still going on in the rest of the world. One of those things is the continuing obstruction by the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, of any sort of democracy-building in Russia. Wednesday morning, the Russian foreign ministry ordered the United States to cease all financial aid to pro-democracy groups. Public health organizations and other civil society groups were included in the ban on receiving US aid. The Kremlin has given USAID until October 1 to stop all operations in Russia.
Putin has been clamping down on non-governmental organizations for a while now, arguing that they provide an opening for the United States to meddle in Russia’s internal affairs. This is an old argument that the leaders of the former Soviet Union made regarding broadcasts from radio stations such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts. The point of those broadcasts was to give Soviet citizens an alternate source of information for both the world outside the USSR as well as the actions of their own government. With today’s information technology, blocking the flow of information is next to impossible. Putin is going a different route and increasing pressure on opposition groups, while ostensibly allowing them to exist.
One of the groups directly affected by the cutoff of aid will be Golos, an independent election monitoring group. It will take them a year or more to make up the loss of funding from USAID. And that is Putin’s goal. If he can silence groups such as Golos, he has more leeway in rigging elections while maintaining a façade of “free and fair.” Election monitoring in transitioning democracies is essential for cementing the so-called “rules of the game” when it comes to democracy. I am not trying to say that all elections in established democracies are untainted, but when fraud is discovered, it is prosecuted; in Putin’s Russia, the government is perpetrating the fraud, thus destroying hopes for true democracy.
The expulsion of USAID from Russia follows close on the heels of what was essentially a blasphemy trial of three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot. The band has made a name for themselves performing “flash concerts” at what are supposed to be secure sites around Moscow. The performance that resulted in the “hooliganism” charge was a 40 second “prayer of deliverance” from Putin performed in the cathedral in Moscow. As expected, the three women were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” The convergence of state and church in the trial and conviction of three members of Pussy Riot reveals a close working relationship between the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox church and the Russian state. Most revealing was the statement by Putin, after international outcry, that the three women should not be too harshly punished; the level of control over the judicial branch by the executive branch is, shall we say, less than conducive to a democratic transition. This should give pause to democracy advocates for several reasons. First, developed democracies, even those with “official” state supported religions (e.g. the UK), have moved well beyond any state sanctions for religious infractions; in the U.S. we have a constitutionally mandated separation of state and church. Secondly, even if one buys into the “religious hatred” argument, how is a song directed against a political leader religious hatred even if performed in a cathedral? Finally, I think that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the Pussy Riot members on trial, said it best: “If this political system throws itself against three girls … it shows this political system is afraid of truth.” The truth is that Putin is afraid of the truth, but then, what former spymaster isn’t?
While the rest of the world is focused on the horrific events in the Middle East, Putin and his government are quietly removing all but the most superficial symbols of democracy, along with hope for a functioning democracy, from Russian political life.