The new Congress was sworn in just last week, but events far away - in Russia - already are causing members to vent their ire. For one, Russian police detained Boris Nemtsov, one of the leaders of the Russian opposition, during a rally in defense of the freedom of assembly, on Triumfalnaya Square in Moscow on the last day of 2010.
Demonstrators called on Russian authorities to respect the constitution and demanded the resignation of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. More than 150 people were arrested in Moscow and at a similar rally in St. Petersburg. So much for freedom of assembly.
Demonstrators also expressed support for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos Oil Co. chief executive officer, today Russia’s most famous political prisoner. On Dec. 29, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to an additional 14 years in prison, after a kangaroo court in 2005 already had meted out an eight-year sentence for tax evasion.
His trial was deliberately postponed until after the U.S. Senate ratification of the New START, a strategic nuclear weapons treaty. This was done to avoid complications during a heated advise-and-consent process. Khodorkovsky’s conviction in a staged trial worthy of Andrey Vyshinsky, a notorious prosecutor of the 1930s Soviet purges, sent a chilling message throughout Russia and around the world.
Congress is also angry that Moscow’s ongoing crackdown on dissent continues apace. Three leaders of the Russian opposition, including Mr. Nemtsov, received short prison sentences for “disobeying the police” on Jan. 2.
On Thursday, Yelena Stashina, a Moscow judge, denied Mr. Nemtsov’s appeal and sent him back to jail. This is the same judge who sent the terminally sick lawyer Sergey Magnitsky back to detention, where he died four days later in the fall of 2009. Congress is now preparing sanctions targeting her personally and other officials for complicity in Magnitsky’s death. Sen. Ben Cardin, Maryland Democrat, chairman of the Helsinki Commission for human rights, harshly denounced the miscarriage of justice in Russia.
This latest round of political persecution amid the vaunted “reset” between the United States and Russia has greatly resonated in the U.S. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, issued a strong statement expressing deep disappointment over the unjust treatment and arrest of Mr. Nemtsov and other opposition leaders. So did Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat, who published a declaration condemning the arrest, and his colleague Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican.
The ongoing arrests of protesters are as illegitimate as is Khodorkovsky’s draconian sentence. These are signs of a freeze in Russia domestically, which will translate quickly into a freeze in U.S.-Russian relations.
Punitive actions taken by the Russian authorities are intended to warn dissenters, and not even the fuzzy rhetoric from President Dmitry Medvedev, principal counterpart of the Obama administration, will change this reality. The Kremlin is deaf to the administration’s admonitions about a need for a “kinder, gentler” handling of Russia’s civil society.
After coming to power, Mr. Medvedev tried to reach out and co-opt the democratic opposition. He invited pro-democracy activists to the Kremlin for tea and gave interviews in the liberal media. Whereas Mr. Putin orchestrated the Khodorkovsky sentence and derided democrats as “jackals begging around foreign embassies,” Mr. Medvedev treated their leaders with marked respect and even called Mr. Nemtsov “a strong politician.” No matter - Mr. Nemtsov is in jail.
Moreover, Mr. Medvedev’s chances of getting a nod from Mr. Putin for the 2012 presidential nomination do not look promising. Mr. Putin’s agenda is at the forefront once again, and he wants the job for himself. Opposition leaders are being “warned” physically not to stick their necks out.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian journalist and human rights activist, writes, “The second Khodorkovsky trial and the New Year’s arrests may have been intended to frighten opponents, but instead showed a frightened and desperate regime. In the end, no amount of pressure can sustain a government that has lost the confidence of its citizens.”
Fine words these - however, the Russian economy is on the mend, unemployment is at 6.7 percent, and the authorities collect and allocate massive oil and gas revenues and control secret police, law enforcement, TV and myriad social benefits.
The crackdown indicates that Mr. Putin and the siloviki (men of power) are firmly in charge and that Mr. Medvedev’s push for modernization, innovation and the rule of law is extremely limited. Obviously, for the Russian elites, “stagnation” - the Brezhnev-era catchall term - is no longer a dirty word, and the democratic promises of the past two years are coming to naught.
There is no new glasnost and no perestroika in 2011 Moscow. A new wave of repression is likely to intensify as the parliamentary and then presidential elections approach. The U.S. Congress will not be amused. This, unfortunately, puts a huge question mark over Mr. Obama’s reset policy. Congress definitely is taking notice - and will take action.