Pavel Stroilov, writing on the Spectator blog:
“Russian democracy has been buried under the ruins of New York’s twin towers”, famous KGB rebel Alexander Litvinenko wrote in 2002. The West, he warned, was making a grave mistake of going along with Putin’s dictatorship in exchange for his cooperation in the global war on terror. He would never be an honest partner, and would try to make the Western leaders complicit in his own crimes – from political assassinations to the genocide of Chechens. As a KGB officer, Putin would see every friendly summit-meeting as a potential opportunity to recruit another agent of influence.
David Cameron, whose summit-meeting with Putin coincided with the sombre jubilee of 9/11, would be well-advised to remember these warnings. The previous generation of Western leaders – from Bush to Blair to Schroeder to Berlusconi – has discredited itself by their ‘friendship’ with Putin, and got nothing in return. As The Spectator revealed this summer, there are serious questions to be asked about Russian secret service’s alleged links to Al-Qa’eda. Hopefully, the Prime Minister may have even asked those questions in Moscow.
Indeed, Litvinenko’s ghost haunted this summit-meeting in several ways. Poisoned by radioactive polonium slipped into his tea, in 2006 dying Litvinenko pointed his finger at Putin as his murderer. The then Labour government ignored that accusation and only requested an extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, the man suspected of actually administering the poison. Putin angrily refused, and then made Lugovoi a national hero. In contrast to the government of the day, however, the Tories in opposition bravely accused Russia of a state-sponsored murder on British soil. Five years on, with the conflict in no way resolved, did the Prime Minister dare repeat this to Putin’s face?
Putin, meanwhile, urgently needs to recruit a new influential Western ‘friend’. Next year, he will probably start his third presidential term – but hardly anybody believes in fairness of Russian elections anymore. So he seriously fears a Ukrainian-style ‘Orange Revolution’, or some other Arab-style ‘Russian spring’, in 2012; and he is preparing to counter this largely imaginary threat with a very real, very brutal response. Russian police have just been given discretionary powers to use water cannons, tear gas, electric shockers and truncheons to disperse peaceful demonstrations. The likely next step will be a nationwide campaign of persecution against opposition activists, ‘cleansing the political field’, as the Russian newspeak calls it. The intimidating term ‘cleansing’ (‘zachistka’) alludes to the infamous ‘cleansing operations’ against Chechen villages.
In a sense, the political zachistka of Russia is already underway. Traditionally, the KGB would begin any massive operation from trying it out in a smaller training ground. In the past couple of months, a ruthless purge has been carried out against the leading opposition figures in Yekaterinburg: Russia’s fourth largest city and a traditional pro-democracy stronghold. Russian opposition groups are mainly regional, and the opposition community in Yekaterinburg had been one of the strongest. By now, however, its leading figures have been driven into exile, imprisoned, or are facing criminal charges.
Having received threats to his life, journalist and human rights campaigner Sergei Kuznetsov has fled to Israel and asked for political asylum there. He has also applied for asylum in the UK through the British embassy in Tel Aviv, but was detained by the Israelis after trying to board a plane to London without a visa. Speaking from an Israeli prison, he says he still does not feel safe: “I have heard from several sources the Israelis have been under pressure from Moscow to stop me getting to London, to put me in prison, perhaps even to send me back in violation of the Refugee Convention”.
Kuznetsov is a veteran dissident and former Soviet political prisoner, who has won a landmark free speech case against Russia in European Court of Human Rights. He is obviously not someone who can be easily frightened, so his fears deserve to be taken seriously.
The next two victims were police whistleblower Igor Konygin, and Evgeny Legedin, the local coordinator of ‘Strategy 31’ — the national campaign of street protests on the 31st day of each month which has it, in defence of Article 31 of Russian Constitution which guarantees the freedom of street protest. A criminal libel case has been started against them for accusing the regional prosecutor of covering-up corruption in the police. Legedin has fled to Britain and asked for political asylum. Konygin, staying in Yekaterinburg, faces up to three years in prison.
The latest victim is Maksim Petlin, a local parliamentarian and Yekaterinburg leader of the democratic ‘Yabloko’ party, arrested two weeks ago for his campaign against a controversial construction project. Typically for Putin’s Russia, the authorities accuse him of extorting money from the company under the pretext of environmental concerns. Petlin’s friends say the real reason is his leading role in ‘Strategy 31’ and other street protests.
On the bright side, however, both Kuznetsov and Legedin can give the West very detailed, up-to-date, first-hand information about the situation in Russia — including every link in the chain of command of Putin’s repressive machine. Both told me that the man in charge of ‘cleansing’ Yekaterinburg was Nikolai Vinnichenko, the official Representative of President of Russia in the Urals. Having accomplished his mission, Vinnichenko has been promoted to the position of President’s Representative in the North West. According to Legedin and Kuznetsov, this means St. Petersburg’s opposition groups are next in line for persecution.
Besides, dozens of political prisoners from earlier purges are still in the Putlag, Russian troops are still in Georgian territories, and Putin’s bailiffs have just raided BP’s Moscow offices, certainly in a deliberate attempt to humiliate a British company ahead of Cameron’s visit.
In this situation, it was very important for Putin to get — and for Cameron to avoid — sentimental photographs in the style of Blair hugging Gaddafi, or statements about discovering Putin’s soul in his eyes. In event, they only got as far as jokes that “David would have made a very good KGB agent”, his own “we are stronger together” line, and no public scandal over Litvinenko’s murder or political prisoners. Even that, however, will be seen in the Kremlin as a considerable success and a sign of Cameron’s weakness. To assert his independence, he will need to take a tough line on Russian human rights abuses in the future. Perhaps, offering sanctuary to Putin’s critics like Kuznetsov and Legedin would send the right kind of signal to the Kremlin.
In their comments, today’s Russian dissidents echo Litvinenko’s decade-old warning. “The Russian regime today is pretty much like Nazy Germany in 1936 or 1937,” Legedin says. “Merely by coming to shake hands with the dictator at such a moment, you inevitably risk accusations of appeasement. The only sensible way to deal with these gangsters is a complete boycott.”