I May 2023.
by Ilya Shablinsky, legal expert, member of Moscow Helsinki Group
Joseph Biden, the incumbent president of the United States, announced he will run for a second term. This came as no particular surprise to anyone – American presidents usually try to stay on for a second term. Although there has never been such an elderly president in U.S. history.
The news was expected, but nonetheless unpleasant for the Russian ruling group. Volodin, the speaker of the State Duma, commented that Biden needed to retain his presidential status in order to ‘avoid prosecution for his crimes.’ What did the speaker mean by that? It’s hard to say, but probably to help Ukraine.
In the eyes of a majority of Joe Biden’s compatriots, it was the large-scale support of the Ukrainian state, which had become a victim of aggression, that ultimately turned out to be the main foreign policy achievement of the White House. So far, there has been a more or less firm cross-party consensus in the United States on this very issue.
Moscow would very much like to see the strengthening of that group of Republicans that would be willing to take a lesser interest to the war in Europe. But at this point almost no one in the current American elite is willing to take this stance. Except the obvious fringe elements. But the people in the Kremlin have not given up hope.
A historical analogy suggests itself, similar to the hopes that the leaders of the Third Reich had that there would be a split in the alliance between the Russians and the Anglo-Saxons during World War II. We shall not develop this theme here for now.
By the way, Joe Biden, despite his current low ratings, can by no means be considered a failure as president. He came to power in the second year of the pandemic, and, by and large, has successfully solved some of the most pressing key problems of the time. He achieved an expansion of the system of testing for Covid and a significant increase in vaccine production. The administration’s programme to financially support corporations and ordinary people on the way out of the pandemic is considered a success. Biden also had success in the process of improving social security. His administration also decided to provide significant funding to infrastructure projects – hundreds of bridges were built and roads repaired all over the country. These investments were also approved by Republicans.
Biden’s biggest setback was in Afghanistan. As we know, the Americans had to get out from Afghanistan because of the Taliban’s rapid advances. Though they have probably done everything for their allies in the country that they could. And indeed, Biden had promised to withdraw American troops from the country. But certainly not in such haste. This is where he lost a great deal. It is his firm support for Ukraine that to a certain extent has helped prevent his rating from falling further. And it will continue to do so for some time.
Of course, people in the Kremlin hope Biden will be replaced by someone who believes that massive aid to the victim of military aggression in the east of Europe is not in the interests of the US at all. But so far no such American politician is in sight. In fact, such politicians have not been very popular in the United States since World War II.
Russian domestic politics, on the other hand, has its own stable trends. There are more criminal cases and more bans on human rights organizations. Moscow’s Basmanny district court has held a hearing in which it ruled to give Aleksei Navalny 10 days to study the materials of a new case against him. The case has 196 volumes. According to information from the court, Navalny is to be charged with ‘organizing an extremist group’ (Article 282.1 of the Russian Criminal Code) and ‘financing extremist activities’ (Article 282.3 of the Russian Criminal Code).
What is the first thing to point out here? The fact that the leader of the Russian democratic opposition is going to be accused of doing what he and his associates have been doing quite legally for about 7-8 years and which is guaranteed by the Constitution. These include researching and publishing materials exposing corrupt officials (which no one has refuted), organising branches in many parts of Russia, holding peaceful rallies and demonstrations, speaking at those rallies, and so on.
All the ordinary political activity that could be carried out between 2012 and 2020 – even though in the already narrowing corridor of what was permitted – is about to be declared ‘extremism.’ In essence, here we are again confronted with blatant disregard for Article 54 of the Constitution, which states that ‘no one may be held liable for an act that was not considered an offence at the time it was committed.’
Clearly, it is senseless in talking about law here. This is retribution by Putin against his most serious political opponent. The hearing at the Basmanny court was held in closed session. And no reason was given for it. But the 2021 court hearing at which Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation was declared ‘extremist’ was also held in closed session. In general, it is clear why. In this way, the court was facilitated to solve the psychological task of formulating charges that are in no way based on the law. Even the current legislation against extremism does not provide any grounds to see anything ‘extremist’ in the activities of Aleksei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Nonetheless, Navalny faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted.
All of the above also applies to the trial of Liliya Chanysheva. Last week, the prosecutor demanded a 12-year sentence in a penal colony for her. We must understand what these words actually mean once again. A young woman who had acted as a leader of a civil society movement within the law – holding meetings, communicating with like-minded people, taking part in peaceful rallies – suddenly, at the whim of a group of officials, is to spend more than a decade in prison!
The Kremlin has decided to declare the Anti-Corruption Foundation extremist in June 2021. Apparently, this decision was made in view of the impending war. But Liliya Chanysheva has been charged only with what she did before June 2021.
These extraordinarily long sentences are one of the hallmarks of the state’s return to the 1930s. It seems insane. But we see that in the regime’s leadership, and among those next to this leadership, there has already taken shape, if not a party, then a sect whose positions could be assessed as radical-conservative-nationalist. But in view of their genetic affinity with Stalinist practices, it would be more correct to call these positions national-Bolshevik.
We can read the following in the Telegram channel of one of the sect’s ideologues, the writer Zakhar Prilepin: ‘It was precisely the legacy of the USSR that allowed Putin to follow Lenin and Stalin, who politically tore Russia away from the West. Putin, of course, does not act as consistently as they did, but in the same direction. Those who revere the Soviet era are his like-minded colleagues in this, but victory over the West alone does not guarantee the return of our country to a reasonable and just socio-political order, without which we have no future.”
Archdeacon Andrei Kuraev, one of the few priests and theologians of the Russian Orthodox Church who dares oppose the Church’s policy to fully support the war, has been stripped of his ministry by Patriarch Kirill, who has already fully accepted the role of a servant in the entourage of the Russian dictator. Andrei Kuraev is neither a politician nor a public figure. But he publishes posts and articles which consistently describe and explain the intellectual crisis at the top of the Russian Orthodox Church and its transformation into a state ideological department.
While in Russia a military dictatorship regime is well established, in Turkey, despite the fact that one politician, Recep Erdoğan, has clearly dominated for the past 20 years, the political regime has yet to acquire all the features of absolute power. This is not because Erdoğan was recently forced to cancel his participation in some events due to ill health, and the Turkish press has written quite openly about this, considering different versions and diagnoses.
The fact is that real political competition is possible in Turkey, and there are still the conditions for it: a whole series of independent media outlets and courts that can still rule against the country’s chief politician. One of Erdogan’s rivals is ready to challenge him in the presidential election scheduled for 15 May. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the opposition candidate who is a member of the Turkish Parliament and leader of the Republican People’s Party, has stated bluntly he wants to do away with authoritarian rule and return to a parliamentary form of government. He does not plan on breaking off relations with Russia, but says he will emphasize the fact that Turkey is a NATO member.
For us, this example is perhaps of particular interest. Turkish democracy is referred to by some political analysts as an ‘illiberal democracy’ – that is, a regime that allowa for the coexistence of de facto authoritarian power (of a leader who enjoys considerable popularity and actually secures the support of the majority of voters) and real democratic institutions. In this case, we see that in Turkey opposition parties can operate quite freely and, under certain conditions – a drop in the president’s ratings – instantly increase their influence. The two rivals are now, judging by the latest polls, almost level with each other, counting on the support of around 40-45% of the electorate.
And again there has been shelling of towns and the deaths of civilians. The Russian army sent some 20 rockets into Kiev, the Dnieper and Uman. In Uman, a missile hit a nine-storey apartment building. So far it has been established that 23 people were killed, including four children. In Dnipro, a woman and a child were killed as a result of a missile hitting a private house.
And meanwhile, on the same day, the Russian TV channel Russia-1 showed footage from Uman, which has already made the rounds of the world media, showing the burnt ruins of the multi-storey building where the Russian missile hit. At the same time, the TV channel told its viewers that the pictures were of the shelling by ‘Ukrainian militants’ in the Donbas. The TV presenter explained that Nikolske village and the town of Yasnivataya were shelled, however, without specifying what town was on the screen.
At the same time, a minibus in Donetsk was indeed hit by a shell, killing 7 people. Local authorities blamed the shelling on the Ukrainian armed forces. The Ukrainian command has not commented on this episode.
At any rate, one thing is clear. Any indiscriminate use of long-range artillery against large urban agglomerations is fraught with the risk of killing civilians and destroying civilian facilities. The Ukrainian side can and should be urged to avoid such shelling that is not necessitated by military requirements. These issues can and should be raised and discussed with the Ukrainian government and its allies.
However, it seems to be useless to even discuss these issues with the Russian side, since the main target of such rocket attacks has been and remains civilian infrastructure – power plants, gas pipelines, gas distribution stations, viaducts and other similar targets. Well, if that is the case, other civilian targets could also come under attack. If you cut down a forest, chips will fly. These people are quite deliberately committing war crimes. Immediately after a missile hit an apartment building in Uman, a photo of a missile being launched with the slogan ‘Right on target’ appeared on the Telegram channel of the Russian Ministry of Defence.
Translated by Rights in Russia