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Pussy Riot: Misguided Martyrs? By Iain Waterman

by on August 27, 2012

It could have been worse: unsurprisingly, members of the all-female Russian punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced this week to two years in custody, but the prosecution had been pushing for three. President Putin may be hoping that his statement in London that the three should not “be punished too harshly,” will be interpreted as benevolent intervention; in reality, the trial has only served to draw media attention back towards Russia’s increasingly autocratic and repressive political system. It is becoming more and more apparent that free speech is not something that the Russian political elite are keen to hand out.

Across central Asia and the Indian sub-continent, in Burma (a country that until recently matched the repression of Russia in its Soviet heyday)  the military junta has astonishingly announced a lifting of the press censorship laws. Simultaneously, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy out of fear of extradition to the US, for blowing open American secret diplomatic and military documents. Whatever you say about Assange, and the sex charges he faces in Sweden, the likelihood of him ever emerging from a US jail if he enters are slim. All in all, a big week for free speech; but did Pussy Riot’s protest have any positive effect?

As seems to be consistent with Putin’s approach to the rights of the individual in Russia, he did himself no favours with Pussy Riot. As The Economist has argued “the longer the members of Pussy Riot sat in pre-trial detention, the greater their profile—and their legend—grew at home and abroad.” Since successfully winning a rigged election, Putin (and his regime) have taken several steps against opposition groups, from a law introduced in June upping the fine for street protests to £12,000, to charges being levelled against opposition leader Alexei Navalny for embezzling a state timber company.

The Pussy Riot trial is therefore by no means an isolated incident. What they have achieved, in quite dramatic fashion, is to bring a fresh dose of infamy to Putin’s regime within the international community. Everyone from Madonna to the Sex Pistols has been queuing up to support them. However, such an outspoken international reaction may only play into the regime’s hands: inconspicuous amongst the regime’s recent laws is one that forces all foreign NGOs in Russia to label themselves “foreign agents”; a move indicative of the Cold War ‘”foreign conspiracy” mentality used by the regime to justify its authoritarian existence. International support for the band will only add to this.

This is especially so when the group’s actions and the charges laid against them are considered: the group chose to stage their anti-Putin protest in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, and were found “guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Though highly successful in shocking the regime and bringing a wave of international interest to Russia, the group has received relatively little domestic support. Although recent polling by the Levada Centre shows that many questioned the court’s objectivity and saw the hand of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin in the prosecution, fewer are ready to support Pussy Riot: 51% held negative or hostile views toward the group’s actions, another 20% were neutral or indifferent (The Economist). The most significant divide is generational: support for the band almost entirely resides with the country’s young people – their actions may thus serve to galvanise elderly support for the regime.

Moreover Pussy Riot may have accentuated a trend already occurring under Putin; the collusion of the United Russia party and the Russian Orthodox Church. As The Observer has said, Putin and the Patriarch of Moscow (Kirill I) have “struck a deal”.  Putin has returned state support to the church with aid for the restoration of churches destroyed by the communists, and the return of priests to schools and universities.  Kirill returns the favour by “making support for the Kremlin kleptomaniacs a quasi-religious duty.”

Pussy Riot performed a valiantly defiant protest against the growing squeeze on civil liberties in Russia and will become martyrs for the cause; however the likelihood is that they have only given ammunition to the reactionary forces in power.

[Iain is a writer at Catch21.com and cromerterrace.blogspot.com]

http://theweek.com/article/index/232191/all-girl-punk-band-sentenced-to-two-years-in-russian-jail-too-harsh

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/19/nick-cohen-pussy-riot-putin

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/aug/19/pussy-riot-putin-russia-jail

http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2012/08/pussy-riot-verdict-0

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From → Foreign Affairs

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