Attorney and blogger Robert Amsterdam, writing in the Washington Post:
The administrations of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Vladimir Putin in Russia are enjoying a robust, burgeoning friendship. Though they are separated by 6,000 miles, the two leaders’ bond is sealed not only by their similar tastes for repressive authoritarianism, oil expropriations and large arms deals but also by parallel trends of increasing violence and murder on the streets of their cities.
The most high-profile political slaying since the 2006 slaying of Anna Politkovskaya took place in Russia on Monday, when 34-year-old human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov was shot, point-blank, in the head. The student journalist accompanying him was also killed. Three days earlier, radio journalist Orel Zambrano was assassinated in Venezuela, the second journalist killed there in as many weeks. Human rights groups have denounced the killings, but few seem to see that the conditions leading to violent crime in Russia and Venezuela are no accident.
Putin and Chavez preside over a pervasive sense of violence and insecurity in their capitals, which has resulted in parallel, politically motivated attacks against the opposition. In Russia, this trend has been illustrated by the shooting of Politkovskaya and, more recently, the near-fatal beating of journalist Mikhail Beketov, among many others. Last month alone in Venezuela, there were 510 violent deaths, leading Foreign Policy magazine to deem Caracas the “murder capital of the world.”
In Putin’s Russia, attacks by self-described nationalists against foreigners have gained international media attention — helped in part by a video of a gruesome beheading that has been spread on the Internet. In Venezuela, three leaders of opposition student unions have been killed in street attacks, including University of Zulia organizer Julio Soto, who was shot 20 times in Maracaibo in October. Both countries have experienced rising public demonstrations of discontent during the economic crisis, and the rallies have been met with heavy-handed repression by police.
Since Putin and Chavez are said to rule with “iron fists,” a menacing question arises: Why have they been unable to stem the tide of crime in their streets? Is it a reflection of incompetence, or is there some tacit benefit to keeping a society imprisoned under a cloak of severe insecurity and moral panic?
Some answers became clear to me during a recent visit before a congress of student leaders in Caracas. These impressive young men and women, who cooperate across the political spectrum, take on enormous risks in assuming political consciousness. In Bolivarian Venezuela, political discrimination has been institutionalized by the pervasive use of blacklists, and those who oppose Chavismo accept a future of divisiveness and lost opportunities.
This political landscape is eerily similar to what has happened in Russia under Putin; the citizenry experiences the same helplessness and fear in the face of a leviathan cloaked in the misappropriated vocabulary of democracy.
The similarities are striking: Whether its banner is “21st Century Socialism” or “Sovereign Democracy,” neither administration is comfortable discussing the considerable fortunes that have been amassed by government officials or the impunity of the corrupt. Both in Putin’s Russia and in Chavez’s Venezuela, the state has become the principal instrument used by predatory business groups, which employ the authority of the courts, regulatory agencies and police to seize assets, influence deals and enrich themselves at the people’s expense. This relationship is particularly noxious because it is grounded in the insecurity of the populace.
In my discussions with the Venezuelan student leaders, I was struck by deep parallels with the conditions faced by Russian civil society leaders, such as Oleg Kozlovsky, whose courage has never faltered in the face of attacks, arrests, threats and harassment from official and unofficial sources. It occurred to me that the monstrous violence on the streets of Caracas and Moscow is perhaps useful to both regimes — and that in their incompetence at delivering public security, they have found a convenience that contributes to their grip on power.