On this page you will find statements and opinions by members of
Rights in Russia's Advisory Committee (International).
13 April 2014
By Robert van Voren
Since the crisis in Ukraine took the shape of a fundamental conflict between a growing part of the Ukrainian people and a government of “crooks and swindlers” that, as it later turned out, managed to rob the nation of an approximate 70 billion euro, Russian friends have asked me with increasing urgency for independent media sources to help them follow the events. Initially, when it was not yet clear in what way the standoff would end and the atmosphere at Maidan was still quite joyful, the requests were mainly the result of curiosity, rather than a urgent need to know what was actually happening on the ground. Russian media downplayed the size of the demonstrations, referring to “several thousand” of them, while in fact some 800,000 demonstrators filled Independence Square and all the surrounding streets and alleys. It resulted in jokes in the social media, e.g. a photo of the massive demonstrations with the text: “Special for Russian TV: we are not here.” [REad more
27 March 2014
By Jens Siegert
Source: Boell Foundation Russia Blog
The annexation of Crimea by Russia is a game changer. It is no longer a question of political trade, i.e. who gets more and who gets less. What is at stake is the future rules of the game, the size and appearance of the playing field and the starting positions of the players. It doesn’t really matter whether it was planned for a long time, whether Putin has just seized a “convenient opportunity”, or whether – after Yanukovych’s ouster – he was driven by weakness, indeed fear, that he might lose the entire game. What we’re seeing now is no more and no less than a revision of the explicit and implicit 1991 agreements concerning the way this world works (is supposed to work). In hindsight it all starts to fall into place. [Read more
Translated by Julia Sherwood
13 March 2014
By Jens Siegert
Western perceptions of how Russia and President Putin should be dealt with are slowly changing, albeit astonishingly slowly in view of the fact that the Crimea is likely to be annexed by Russia in the near future. I’m not talking about those who have always been quite sure either that the Russian President is a “flawless democrat” or that he is an eternal KGB agent and an escapee from the “evil empire”. Thinking in such simplistic terms means believing that Russia and its people are a hopeless case, incapable of democratic development and entirely beyond comprehension. I’m talking about those who have been struggling for years to understand Russian politics and to find some kind of rationality behind it, who make suggestions and experience disappointment and delight – in short, anyone who treats Russia as a country like any other, in spite of its possibly somewhat excessive size and its overly troubled past.
Comments which were reported as mere hearsay by the New York Times
, leaving us unsure as to whether they really were said by the person who is supposed to have said them or whether they were indeed said at all, serve as perhaps the clearest evidence of this shift in perception. Angela Merkel apparently said to Barack Obama, in a telephone call at the start of last week shortly after the Crimea was invaded, that she was not sure whether Putin was still “in touch with reality”, and that she thought he might be living “in another world”.
This was promptly interpreted by most people to mean that Merkel believes that Putin is no longer of sound mind. This is only one possible interpretation, however, which focuses on the words “reality” and “world”. If it were true, it would be quite simply impossible to understand what Putin thinks and does and why he thinks and does it. We would be dealing with a “crazed” person in the literal sense of the word, and that would be a very tricky situation.
There is another interpretation, however – one which focuses on the word “another” and tries to fathom this “other” world or reality. Initial attempts to do so have already featured in the public debate; a good example is Julia Ioffe, the clear-sighted Russia correspondent from The New Republic, who has put forward a very simple answer: Putin sent his troops into Ukraine simply because he could
She is presumably also referencing those who believe that Putin’s ruling elite (and indeed most Russians) are simply stuck in the 20th or even 19th century, the reasoning being that their conception of the geopolitical balance of power has not moved on in legal or moral terms from the time when it was still deemed possible to wage wars in Europe. There is a flip side to this approach; far from being berated for this (purported) backwardness (or retrogressiveness), Putin is admired for it (albeit sometimes only covertly), since he has allegedly recognised that the West (in particular Europe, of course, and especially Germany) has taken a wrong turning to cloud-cuckoo land with its reliance on the legalisation of international relations and its neglect of everything military (cue applause by every geopolitician from Putin to Kissinger).
All of this is true: Julia Ioffe’s comment, the retrogressiveness, the reminder that geography still plays an important role, albeit somewhat less so than previously in view of technical developments. However, even considered en masse these factors do not explain – or at least not to my satisfaction – why Putin has apparently decided on the risky step of annexing the Crimea (and not “only” splitting it from Ukraine and turning it into a protectorate along the lines of Abkhazia or South Ossetia), or in other words undermining the international security and stability which has existed since World War II and which relies on the inviolability of national borders.
Even if we assume that Putin is in fact living in another reality which he shares with most Russians, however, the thing about reality is that what appears real to one person may look like a figment of the imagination to someone else. Provided enough people believe these “figments of the imagination”, or in other words perceptions of the world which look astonishingly like delusions from an “enlightened” Western point of view, they become (often shockingly) real.
What is the nature of “Putin’s reality”? Like many other Russian rulers before him, Putin has succeeded once again in building an ideological bridge over the vast chasm of everyday life which separates the people and the state in Russia. The memes he has adduced in the process can be traced far back into Russian history. They include firstly the belief held by a large majority of the population, perhaps between two thirds and three quarters, that Russia is an armed superpower (these and other figures come from Boris Dubin
, a leading Russian sociologist). Arms are important, since the world is a dangerous place. On top of this comes an exaggerated conviction that almost everything which happens in the world has something to do with Russia and in case of doubt is probably deliberately targeted at Russia. The almost mythical idealisation of the heroic and noble army with honourable soldiers who appear to hail from pre-modern times also forms part of this belief in Russia as an armed superpower. The moral justification for this viewpoint is still rooted in the Red Army’s heroic struggle for freedom against the National Socialist aggressors, from which Russians draw two conclusions. The first is the country’s commitment to an “anti-fascist” mission, and the second is the certainty of not having been among those who fell prey to the inhuman fantasies of right-wing nationalist ideologies. The “fascists” are always the other people, in this case the Ukrainians.
The majority of people in Russia believe that the head of the state stands apart from society and above the law. He bears all the power (or rights) but no responsibilities. He need take no advice from anyone, and should or indeed must take his decisions alone. Their belief in the (superior) power of the state contrasts with their own woefulness (“nichtozhestvo” in Russian), which can only be saved from a mundane fate by the country’s greatness. This relieves them of the need to take any decisions (even moral decisions) themselves, since nothing depends on them in any case. This in turn also means that they bear no responsibility. Russians have in any case learned from experience that it is better not to try to resolve such glaring contradictions but to learn to live with them, not least because this is often the only way to survive; falling into line is just what you have to do.
These experiences, their external projection and the thundering roar of years of propaganda which depicts Russia as a fortress of the good and true surrounded by enemies in a wholly evil world, have allowed a situation to arise in which most people in Russia today believe more or less the exact opposite of what I think is real: I think that there was an uprising in Ukraine against a corrupt and incompetent government. In Russia, the prevailing opinion is that it was a “fascist” coup d’état puppeteered by the West. I do not believe that ethnic Russians in Ukraine need fear for their lives simply because of their ethnicity. The majority of Russians are convinced that they are in real danger. I believe that the events in Ukraine are primarily domestic wranglings, albeit with a number of external players, and that developments are being driven primarily in Ukraine and by Ukrainians. Many Russians deny this domestic context and blame “external forces”. I am quite sure that something resembling democracy exists. For the majority of people in Russia, democracy is merely a particularly cunning way to wield authority and a weapon used by the West to suppress foreign peoples, particularly the peoples of Russia. In short, I believe in self-determination by people and communities. In Russia many people can only conceive of this self-determination as an anarchic outburst.
This is the reality which Putin not only lives in, but which he has (helped to) create (or at least played a very active role in advancing to a dominant narrative). He probably believes in it himself, at least to some extent. If he wants to remain in power, what he is doing may well be the ethically and pragmatically correct choice in this reality. It is however a deeply cynical reality, not only in relation to domestic and foreign (power) politics, but also in terms of the opportunities for ethically and morally justified action (in politics, or in other words in the real world). Translated by Joanne Reynolds
3 March 2014
By Jens Siegert
Source: Heinrich Boell Foundation Russia BlogThis interview appeared in the Sunday edition of NZZ, but I believe that my answers are still relevant.
NZZ: Russia's parliament approved military deployment in Ukraine. Is there now a war?
Jens Siegert: The parliament authorised Putin to send soldiers into Ukraine. I would label that as a war.
NZZ: Is it not just a bluff?
JS: Russia's soldiers are already in the Crimea! The security forces who have occupied buildings there look like Russian soldiers and talk like Russian soldiers. And Russia has already admitted that they have sent soldiers to the Black Sea Fleet stationed in the Crimea.
NZZ: What does Putin want to achieve?
JS: I ask myself the same question. The bill that the Parliament passed named three groups of people, who the Russian army apparently wants to protect: Russian citizens, Russian military stationed in the Crimea and their so-called fellow countrymen. With this they mean the people in the Ukraine who think and feel Russian - of which there are many.
NZZ: What is the idea behind it?
JS: Putin wants to achieve two things - weaken Ukraine and pull the Crimea closer to Russia. Putin may even be convinced in his own logic that he can avoid an armed conflict, by creating a fait accompli before NATO or anyone else can intervene.
NZZ: Does Russia want to annex the Crimea?
JS: In the long term Putin, as with the majority of Russians by the way, sees the Crimea as clearly belonging to Russia. Whether this aim should and can now be attained is another question. I can imagine that the aim is firstly to separate the Crimea from Ukraine and then to wait and see what happens.
NZZ: What can the West do now?
JS: I do not think it makes sense to react with military and I doubt that the West is capable of it. But Putin needs to be shown that he has overstepped the line. They could do this by freezing accounts belonging to Putin and his helpers or denying visas. Interview by Matthias Knecht Translated by Chloe Cranston
2 March 2014
By Jens Siegert
Source: Boell Foundation Russia Blog
Even before the events in and around the Ukraine so dramatically escalated on Friday and Saturday, a Russian caricature was making its way around the internet. Behind a shop counter labelled “war shop” stands a shop assistant in uniform who says, “Small, victorious wars are sold out. We only have the big ones left in stock.” This is probably a relatively good description of the risk that Vladimir Putin has run by sending troops into the Ukrainian Crimea: although it is an act of warfare, he must avoid a war. [Read more
27 February 2014
By Jens Siegert
Source: Boell Foundation Russia Blog
Despite a veritable deluge of articles and analysis, the truth of the matter is that it is still much too early to make any kind of pronouncements on what the past week’s dramatic and tragic events in Ukraine will mean for Russia, Russian foreign policy, the relationship between Russia and the West and developments in Russia. I will therefore begin this post with two seemingly banal but no less “eternal” truths: 1. Ukraine does not equal Russia. 2. Russia does not equal Ukraine. Not for the first time, Putin has lost this round because he ignored the first of these truths. His opponents in Russia and politicians in the West would be well advised to heed the second. [Read more
17 February 2014
By Jens Siegert
Source: Russia Blog Heinrich Boell Foundation
I wrote in one of my blog posts last week that the Olympic Games in Sochi could still turn into a success story for Vladimir Putin, not least because low expectations have minimised the risk of disappointment. A survey carried out by the Levada Centre has provided ample evidence that this is particularly true in Russia itself, where people are entirely resigned to the fact that pilfering has gone on (among “the powers that be”), that the Games have been a shambles in many respects, and that no one ever takes any notice of the “ordinary people”. Under the motto of “plus ça change”, however, they are determined to appreciate what they do have, namely the sheer joy of the sporting events themselves, and perhaps even plenty of medals for Russia.
Even though political life in Russia continues alongside Sochi, or maybe I should say under the Sochi radar, much of it has been swallowed up in the gargantuan Sochi media circus. The following is just a brief overview of what has happened in the days since the Olympics started and yet has either not been reported in the international press or has been buried in the back pages and only glossed over:
The trial of Roman Khabarov, a former policeman, began last week in Voronezh, a town with 900,000 inhabitants almost half way between Moscow and Sochi. In 2011 Khabarov publicly criticised the state of the Russian police force in an article entitled "The militia has degenerated before my eyes"
. Shortly afterwards he was dismissed, and his (now) former bosses threatened that he would regret writing the article. Khabarov has been accused of “forming a criminal association” and been remanded in a pre-trial detention centre. He is facing up to 10 years’ imprisonment in a prison camp.
Last Friday the district court of Krasnodar – the capital of the region which also covers Sochi – upheld a first-instance ruling against Yevgeny Vitishko. Vitishko, an environmental activist and member of the Ecological Watch of the North Caucasus, has been sentenced to three years in a prison camp because he and a colleague allegedly painted slogans on an illegal fence in a nature conservation area. The fence surrounds a huge area of land and a small palace thought to belong to the governor of Krasnodar Region. Vitishko had successfully brought an appeal against the judgment at first instance before the Supreme Court, which ruled that the fence was illegal.
Vitishko is currently serving a 14-day “administrative arrest” because he allegedly swore at a bus stop (even that is now forbidden in Russia). There is now a serious risk that he may be transported straight to the camp from his place of temporary detention, even though he will of course appeal against the ruling. His colleagues from the Ecological Watch of the North Caucasus have reported that he embarked on a hunger strike today.
This second Olympic week will also see things getting serious in the “Bolotnaya trial” concerning alleged acts of violence against police officers during a mass demonstration against Putin on the day before his inauguration (6 May 2012). A total of 29 people have been or are being investigated. Two of the demonstrators (Konstantin Lebedev and Maxim Lusyanin) were given prison sentences back in 2012 and 2013. Another demonstrator (Mikhail Kosenko) was declared of unsound mind by a court and has been committed to a closed psychiatric institution. Some of the defendants were released under the amnesty announced in late 2013, including three today (17 February). Judgments will be handed down for eight further defendants this Friday (21 February). The likelihood is that guilty verdicts lie in store for them too.
Presumably this is what they call “Olympic peace”.
P.S.: The chances of a victory by the Russian ice hockey team in Sochi – the sine qua non of the entire Games in the opinion of many Russian fans – aren’t looking too rosy. The Russian team won its opening match against the underdogs from Slovenia, but the prestige match against the USA (“prestige” if only because both teams have made it into the final round) ended in a 3:2 defeat after extra time and a penalty shoot-out. A Russian goal was allowed and then disallowed shortly before the final whistle after the referee watched a video replay.
This result encouraged the leading attack dog of Russian television, Dmitry Kiselyov, to make his half-maudlin and half-aggressive claim on Sunday evening prime-time TV that American money was involved. The video is worth watching, although unfortunately only available in Russian
. What is the reason for this outburst, which contrasts sharply with the sporting spirit in evidence among the political leaders of all hues? In view of the lack-lustre performance of the Russian ice hockey players so far, Kiselyov was probably just preparing the ground. As I’ve said before, a failure to triumph over the old arch enemy in the ice hockey rink would mean that even first place in the medal table (which today – Monday 17 February – is still a long way off) would be only a consolation prize in the “public conscience”, as they love to say in Russia. Translated by Joanne Reynolds
13 February 2014
By Jens Siegert
Source: Boell Foundation Russia Blog
If you look at it from a certain angle, Vladimir Putin has simply been cursed with bad luck. How was he to know way back in 2007, before all of the financial and other assorted crises, that by 2012/2013 he would be fighting to maintain his rule over Russia? That he would choose (or be forced to choose) to go down the path of a re-ideologisation
of Russian politics in order to consolidate his power? That his well-oiled law-making factory would turn out one repressive law after another? That these would include such morally dubious laws as the Foreign Agents Act or the anti-gay and lesbian legislation? It would have been impossible for him to predict any of this.
What he could have known (and probably knows) is that there are certain specific features of Russian society (which are not unique to Russia, but are particularly prevalent there) that pose a problem when it comes to such a large-scale event, major undertaking and heroic feat as hosting the Winter Olympics in a sub-tropical region. To put it another way, people in Russia – more so than elsewhere – tend to make plans which exceed their practical capabilities. There is a Russian saying which gives a very fitting if somewhat vulgar description of the outcome of such endeavours: something what has been done “through the a…” (where I have omitted an unsavoury word used to refer to a person’s rear end). Fate then has to be cajoled into helping achieve these overly ambitious self-imposed goals. Fate dislikes being cajoled, however, and so the whole undertaking requires almost superhuman efforts. The end effect is that these efforts and the excessive demands they entail are evident in both the final outcome and the route taken to get there (more on which later). Many things fall that bit short of what was hoped, anticipated or needed.
Near-endless exertions of this kind are undertaken because a retreat is quite simply unthinkable, let alone a failure. Unthinkable, because the reputation (and sometimes the political fate) of the supreme ruler of the land is bound up with this undertaking. Unthinkable, because the country’s international prestige depends on it. Unthinkable, because Russia will never be happy with second place. The latter claim is sometimes perceived more as a kind of God-given right than a call for action, but it does not stem from a quasi-messianic conviction of supremacy (which is occasionally true of the USA). Instead, it has more to do with the country’s deep-rooted uncertainty about whether they meet the “international standard” of what is regarded or accepted as “civilised” (a standard which is still dictated by the equally loved and hated West). Repeated attempts to out-trump this standard are therefore quite simply a matter of vocation (or survival), and used more to boost self-esteem than to prove anything to anyone else (even though recognition by others is generally a requirement for belief in one’s own abilities).
It is not least for this reason that Putin has chosen to host so many major international events in the country – ASEAN Summit in 2012, Universiade in 2013, Olympic Games in 2014, Football World Cup in 2018 – with the Sochi Games being the most significant, representing something akin to a moment of creation. A short video which is doing the rounds of the Internet’s social networks and has even been aired on the Heute-Show
shows Putin declaiming to onlookers in the Caucasus mountains near Sochi. He points to the Olympic buildings being built at the time the video was shot, and says that he once drove up here in a jeep. It used to be a wilderness, with nothing here at all. So he said to himself that right here would be a great place to hold the Olympic Games, and that is exactly what happened – Putin’s Games in Putin’s Russia.
Let’s move on to the final product of all of this, the Games themselves. The tone has been set by the political soundtrack, the aforesaid re-ideologisation and the growing tension in relations between Russia and a West which still dominates the world’s media, which has assumed a very concrete form in the altercations in and around Ukraine in past weeks. Criticism has been levelled at this product from all sides, and there is indeed much to criticise – the excessive corruption, unscrupulous destruction of the environment and all-but-merciless attitude to former and current residents of the Olympic sites in Sochi and to the (guest) workers on the Olympic building sites are no minor matters. At the same time, however, these problems are not exclusive to Russia – we have seen them all before and on a similar scale, most recently at the 2008 Beijing Games.
There have also been many minor shortcomings which journalists delight in picking over (a tendency which has become more pronounced as a result of the global competition for editorial content that is a feature of the modern Internet). They have seldom had such an easy time of it. Two toilets in a room without a dividing wall. No water, no hot water or yellow sludge coming out of hotel taps. Funny, helpless or touching attempts at English translations on street signs, in restaurants and in shops. This is all excellent material for jibes and comments, but it could not be any further removed from the Russian Government’s stated intention of holding the best Olympics of all times, an Olympics which would be “world class” if not better. The Kremlin’s loud complaints about a “deliberately staged anti-Russian campaign” are simply the usual jerk response to (almost any) criticism. Justified as these jibes may be, however, they quickly ring hollow.
This holds particularly true for the atmosphere in Russia. People are of course still criticising everything I’ve mentioned here, but the criticisms have grown quieter since the Games began. Many members of the opposition are sports fans too and are hoping and fearing along with the athletes – mostly the Russian team, a fact which few could find surprising or objectionable. Another factor is also at play here, namely that almost no one (in Russia) expected the Sochi Games to be perfect. Expectations were never particularly high, since the people are well acquainted with their country and their state.
The implications are clearly evident from a survey by the Levada Centre
published the week before the Olympics. 47 % of those surveyed said that the high costs were the result of corruption, 34 % thought that greed and a lack of scruples on the part of the construction companies were to blame and 19 % referred to shortcomings in the state administrative structures (multiple answers were possible). At the same time, 62 % of respondents believed that the officials and companies guilty of corruption would get off scot-free. 38 % believed that one of the main reasons for holding the Olympic Games in Russia had been the potential for pilfering (“sawing up” as the Russians say). At the same time, however, 53 % still believe that it was a good idea to hold the Olympic Games in Russia, with 26 % holding the opposite opinion. 85 % of those surveyed believed that it was important for the Russian team to finish among the top 5 in the final medal table. 78 % believed that this would happen and 57 % were even sure that the team would secure a place in the top three, the idea presumably being that we at least deserve something back now that we’ve paid (and paid so much).
It follows that hardly anyone in Russia believes the assurances of President Putin or other politicians that almost none of the 40 billion euros or thereabouts spent on building the Olympic infrastructure was embezzled. Very few people have been persuaded that the Sochi investments will act as a boost for economic development in the country as a whole and not just the south of Russia. Since people’s expectations of the state are in any case low, however, their disappointment is also within tight bounds.
What does this all of this mean for Putin? First and foremost it means that the Olympic Games could still turn into a political success story for him, something which is in the process of happening, in Russia at least. Low expectations combined with a more or less satisfactory course of events (no major disasters, no doping scandals, no terrorist attacks and reasonable success for the Russian team) will increase the likelihood of this outcome. The Olympic Games were in any case unlikely to boost Russia’s image in the (Western) world following the protests of 2011/2012, the Kremlin’s hardline responses and the associated re-ideologisation, and indeed questions can justifiably asked as to whether the chances of this happening were ever particularly high following the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
PS: I completely forgot to mention the performance of the Russian ice hockey team, which must of course win in order for the Sochi Olympics to become the stuff of legend. Preferably in a neck-and-neck final against the USA. Or against Canada, 3:2 in extra time.
By Jens Siegert
Source: Boell Foundation Russia Blog
An important differentiating characteristic between the Soviet Union and Putin's Russia was, until recently, the widespread freedom of its people to define their lives as they wish. This freedom, the freedom to think what you want and to say what you think, to travel where you want to go, return when you like, to live with whom you wish, to love whom you wish, to work where you wish (all within the framework of given social and economic possibilities, naturally) was, moreover, a part of the often discussed (even when not being written about) “social contract” of the 2000s. According to this "contract", Putin determines politics and controls the most important economic resources. But he also cares for the growing prosperity of as many people as possible, does not interfere in the private lives of his citizens, and does not bother about what they think and believe. [Read more
Translated by Helen Corbett
22 January 2014
Source: Heinrich Boell Foundation Russia Blog
Yury Shmidt died one year ago, on 12 January 2013. He was a lawyer. In the West he was known mainly as a member of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s defence team, but in Russia he was first and foremost renowned as a human rights lawyer. The very phrase “human rights lawyer” is in truth a tautology, but one born of Russian (and previously Soviet) reality. [Read more