Warm Southern Breeze

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Pussy Riot: Now that Putin’s in charge again, the gulags aren’t all that bad!

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Friday, August 17, 2012

People everywhere cry for freedom.

Oppression of political speech?

Or something else?

Putin asked the courts to go easy on them.

And yet, cries of ‘six more years’ was not heard after the verdict was rendered.

Either way, Putin‘s gotta’ go.

Reckon Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is turning over in his grave?

Russia: Pussy Riot and the investor

August 17, 2012 5:28 pm by Stefan Wagstyl

Members of the all-girl punk rock band Pussy Riot have been recently convicted in Russian court of “hooliganism,” for performing an impromptu song in a Russian Orthodox Church which was critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On the face of it, there would appear to be little reason why foreign investors should worry much about Russia’s Pussy Riot court case.

So what if three young female punks have been jailed for two years, as they were on Friday, for hooliganism after a noisy performance in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral? After all, there are many western countries where such a provocative public display would also result in prosecution.

But that is to misunderstand Russia. In fact, the case should give even the most hard-headed international business people pause for thought.

First,  it’s a reminder – not that we need one – of the heavy-handed arbitrariness of the Russian courts. The three women could have been prosecuted – as they might have been in the west – for a minor offence such as disturbing the peace. Russia has a law on protecting the dignity of a church for which the normal penalty is Rbs1,000. But it was not applied.

Next, the decision to charge the defendants with a crime that carried a maximum penalty of seven years was clearly influenced by the fact that the Pussy Riot trio performed an anti-Putin song. Either the prosecutors were given instructions from on high to deal harshly with the offenders because of the perceived insult to the president – or they chose to do so at their own initiative on the assumption that those on high would approve. Either way,  the interests of the state have been put before the interests of justice.

Third, the verdict comes at a time of growing pressure on Russia’s political opposition.  The chances are that future public protests against Putin will generate more prosecutions.  Indeed,  the harsh verdict makes further demonstrations more likely. Even on Friday opposition leaders were protesting – and being arrested – outside the Pussy Riot trial court room.

There is a direct link between all this and the investment  climate. First, as is well known, business people have themselves been the victims of arbitrary legal action – and worse. Oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, fund manager Bill Browder and deceased lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, whose clients included Browder’s company, are all examples. The Magnitsky case is the most serious, as the lawyer died in jail. His supporters claim he was abused and denied medical treatment after he accused officials of widespread theft from the state.

This is not to say that all business people in Russia are beyond reproach and should be immune to court action. Russia suffers from widespread corruption, which gives rise to multiple prosecutable offences. But justice is not applied in a balanced way – those who Putin sees as enemies are targeted, while allies of the state go scott free.

Every arbitrary application of the law makes it easier for prosecutors and other officials to pursue other arbitrary actions that they judge might please their political masters. In that sense, the Pussy Riot case could lead to the next selective prosecution of a business person.

Big companies such as ExxonMobil which has recently signed a wide-ranging deal with Rosneft, the state-controlled oil group, might argue that this has little to do with them, since their investment plans have Putin’s explicit support. And it is true, the president’s blessing is the best possible guarantee in Russia.

But, as BP learnt to its cost,  there are many people in Russia, and beyond, competing for the Kremlin’s support. Putin’s favour doesn’t necessarily last for ever. The UK company found, in the disputes involving TNK-BP, its Russian joint venture, that it was out-maneuvered by its Russian oligarch partners, including in the Russian courts.

Also, even if a company feels safe it may not feel comfortable. The more unpredictable the Russian legal environment, the more it will cost to hire lawyers to police it and to recruit staff willing to work in Moscow. Few foreign executives will want to sing punk songs in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour but will they really want to work in a country where people who do go to jail?

“Huge damage has been done to the country’s image and attractiveness for investors,” former finance minister Alexei Kudrin wrote in a message posted on his website.  Kudrin is no punk rocker. He is a sober bureaucrat who served Putin for 11 years. If he makes the connection between Pussy Riot and business, business should listen.


Mixed Russian Feelings on Jailed Punk Rock Band

August 2, 2012

MOSCOW — The Rev. Aleksandr L. Ptitsyn did not pause even a fraction of a second when asked if Jesus would have forgiven the three young members of a feminist punk rock band — two of them the mothers of small children — who have been jailed since March and face up to seven years in prison for staging a guerrilla performance on the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

“Of course he would,” the priest said. “No doubt.”

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In February, band members chanted a “punk prayer” against Russia’s leader, Vladimir V. Putin, in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Three members face up to seven years in prison. Photo by Sergey Ponomarev/Associated Press

But Father Ptitsyn, who is the rector of the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross, the Russian Orthodox parish closest to the courthouse where the members of the band, called Pussy Riot, are now on trial, was not so quick to offer forgiveness of his own. Instead, retelling the story of St. George, who reputedly killed an evil dragon even after taming it, Father Ptitsyn made a forceful case for punishing the three women whom he described as paid agents of the West. “The gist of this parable is that evil unpunished is the same as evil encouraged,” Father Ptitsyn said, sitting in the gated courtyard of his church, which was built in the mid-1600s.

And yet, he could not help but fall back on a message of mercy. “I think the time they spent in prison is quite enough,” he said, waving a huge hand in front of his blond-bearded face. “They were there with criminals, drug addicts. They have seen the other side of life. I feel compassion for them. I would give them a suspended sentence of, say, two years, provided they don’t do anything like that again.”

Until Thursday evening, the Kremlin so far had shown no such pity, seizing on the case as an opportunity to link arms with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is an increasingly important political ally, and to use the growing religiosity in Russia in a bid to shore up public support.

But in London on Thursday, President Vladimir V. Putin weighed in, telling reporters that while there was “nothing good” about the band members’ demonstration, “nonetheless, I do not think that they should be judged severely for this,” according to the Interfax news agency. Mr. Putin, who was in Britain to meet Prime Minister David Cameron and attend the Olympics, said the final decision must be made by the court. “I hope the court will make the correct, reasonable decision,” he said.

Conversations with parishioners at the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross, an elegant, lettuce-green temple with a bell tower and onion dome, suggested that even many faithful churchgoers genuinely offended by the band’s “punk prayer” — in which members profanely beseeched the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Mr. Putin — and unwilling to shrug it off as a harmless political stunt, viewed the response by the Russian authorities as disproportionate.

Viktoriya Khodernkova, 34, a manager for the customs service, said that jail seemed too severe a punishment. “I think it should be something different,” she said, as the celestial melodies of the choir reverberated off the gilded icons on the walls and the fresco-covered ceilings and floated out into the church’s sun-drenched courtyard. “Some kind of public work; they can work in an orphanage or hospital,” she said. “Something for the good of society.”

Still, Ms. Khodernkova wanted her outrage noted. “It was an act of vandalism and extreme case of debauchery,” she said.

In recent months, the plight of the band’s activists, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23; Maria Alyokhina, 24; and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, has become an international sensation, with rights groups calling them prisoners of conscience and celebrities like Sting pleading for their release. That sentiment was repeated by Pete Townshend of the Who and other musicians in a letter published in The Times of London on Thursday and aimed to coincide with Mr. Putin’s arrival in Britain to meet with Mr. Cameron.

Although the formal charge against the young women is hooliganism — punishable by up to seven years in prison because they acted as a group — they have been accused in court of Satanism, inciting religious hatred and causing “moral harm” to at least 10 churchgoers. “They spit into my soul and into the soul of my God,” Tatyana Anosova, who sells candles at the cathedral, testified this week. “My soul still hurts, but I cannot show my soul.”

The diminutive, girlish defendants have been treated as dangerous criminals, led in and out each day in handcuffs and forced to sit, like defendants in virtually all Russian criminal trials, in a glass enclosure or a cage depending on the courtroom. While court employees and journalists were briefly evacuated after a bomb threat on Thursday morning, the defendants said they were never taken from the building.

Critics of the Russian government say that the women’s real crime was not offending God or the Orthodox Church, but the country’s true higher power — Mr. Putin — and that turning the other cheek is typically not his way of doing business.

“I think that had it not been a politically motivated act, they would not have been treated so severely,” said a parishioner who would give only her first name, Vera, and who said she worked in the logistics section of a private company. “So many awful things go unpunished in our country.”

Like other women at the church, Vera, 32, covered her head with a scarf — in her case pale green, matching her eyes. She said that political action in the cathedral was wrong. “I think it was not necessary to go to a church and desecrate it,” she said. “I am categorically against the existing regime, and I attend rallies and go to demonstrations.”

Lilya Malkova, 26, a lawyer, a white kerchief over her head as a blazing summer sun beat down, said she believed that the prosecution was being directed by higher-ups in the government. “The girls did nothing horrible,” Ms. Malkova said. “If we follow God’s commandments, we should forgive the girls.” She added, “But they will not be forgiven. This is all politics, and these days politics are above God’s commandments.”

Mr. Putin, in his comments in London, said the Russian church had already shown itself to be more compassionate than other faiths in its response to the band, echoing a view expressed by church officials. Mr. Putin said that had the band caused offense in Israel, it would have had trouble leaving the country, and that worse would have happened had it insulted Islam in the predominantly Muslim Caucasus. “We would not even have time to take them under protection,” he said.

Still, there are many people who want the band members punished, in some cases severely.

“They should be in prison,” declared Zhenya Nikolayeva, who works at an investment company and, at 23 years old, is about the same age as the defendants. “For me the church is a sacred place,” Ms. Nikolayeva said, as she left the morning service at the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross. “If they have their own ideas about life they want to express, they should have found another place.”

“They meant to offend, and they wanted fame,” she added. “I want them to be in prison.”

Yelena N. Yudova, 56, a pensioner who lives near the church, said a harsh punishment was appropriate. “In my opinion, this is pure Satanism,” she said. “They could do what they did in any other place, but they came to the temple.”

Andrew Roth, Nikolay Khalip and Anna Tikhomirova contributed reporting.


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