Despite Putin, change is underway in Russia

Demonstrations can no longer be broken up with a few whacks.

The grimness of Grozny that day was only slightly softened by mild air of the early Caucasus spring. The centre of Chechnya's main city was a wasteland of fractured masonry. High-rise buildings, where they still stood, were scarred with blackened circles where shells had hit. Here and there, though, there were signs for polling stations.

It was the 26th of March 2000, and I was reporting on the election which would put Vladimir Putin in Kremlin's top job for the first time. Mr Putin had gathered great political capital from his promise to take a tough line with the separatist fighters then waging war on Moscow's control of the North Caucasus.

His first presidency was forged in this atmosphere of confrontation, and his entire political career has had this theme running through it. His campaign - such as it was - for this latest victory - also saw him warning against those who, he said, were seeking to interfere in Russia's affairs.

Political discourses of post-Soviet Russia have often been dominated by the sense that everything is a zero-sum game. In my time as a correspondent based in Moscow for the BBC, I heard the complaint from business people and diplomats alike: everything was a battle. No issue, it seemed, could be resolved in a way that would permit different points of view to co-exist.

Mr Putin has presided over that system. His first election victory was a response to the chaos which followed the collapse of communism. He seems to have understood better than most - including many of his critics outside the country - what would go down well with an electorate worn out by western-backed, wrongheaded, and unjust economic reforms.

He seems to have understood less well that things have changed since then. The generation who saw their humiliated parents struggling to put food on the table in the 1990s are no longer satisfied with the latest digital devices and the prospect of package holidays in the sun; nor are their parents. As Masha Gessen argued in the Observer, this is an opposition which includes a wide variety of voices.

That diversity may undermine unity. And their single demand after the parliamentary elections in December, that the vote be re-run, was ignored - with, as Sunday's result showed, little or no short-term consequence for Mr Putin.

Change is underway, though. On the day of the election, I exchanged messages with a friend of mine, Alexandra Eritsyan, a publisher from Moscow - and one of those who did not vote for Mr Putin. "I don't want a revolution, I don't have this irrational desire to see existing people in power go to jail," she said."I want peace, freedom and booming economy; where people can work and build careers and businesses. It can't happen at once but over time it can and I hope it will...I think lately something has shifted, a lot of people realized they want to be respected and that is great."

The extreme hardship of the 1990s has put many in Russia off the idea of radical, rapid, change. That does not mean that it is impossible, just less likely. At the launch last week of a new report published by Chatham House Putin Again: Implications for Russia and the West one of the authors, Lilia Shevtsova, told the story of a police officer offering an opinion on opposition demonstrators. "If there are two thousand, we will whack them. If twenty thousand, we will watch them. If two hundred thousand, we will join them."

Russia is entering a new phase of its post-Soviet life. The days when demonstrations were small enough to be broken up with a few whacks have passed. The numbers have grown - but not yet to the stage where the officer and his colleagues might be willing to switch sides. Now it's time to watch what happens.

James Rodgers is Senior Lecturer in International Journalism at London Metropolitan University. He first worked as a journalist in Russia in 1991, and has covered all the main news stories of the post-Soviet era, most recently as BBC Moscow correspondent from 2006-2009. His book, Reporting Conflict, is due to be published in June by Palgrave Macmillan.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.