The Sultan of Sochi

by Aryeh Neier Aryeh Neier, President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and a founder of Human Rights Watch, is the author of Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights 27.12.2013

NEW YORK – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pardon of the former owner of Yukos Oil Company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and his declaration of an amnesty that has freed Greenpeace activists and two members of the punk rock/protest group Pussy Riot are welcome gestures. But that is all they are: gestures.

Putin was most likely motivated, above all, by a desire to ensure the success of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. It is also likely that Putin sought to show the world a kinder, gentler face in an effort to consolidate victory in his tug of war with the European Union over Ukraine.

But, although freeing a few people who were unjustly imprisoned for long periods is significant, it should not obscure the Russian government’s ongoing major human-rights violations at home and abroad. And here, little seems likely to change. Khodorkovsky’s pardon does not look like the start of a Putin thaw.

For example, within the Russian Federation, a law that entered into force just over a year ago requires non-governmental organizations that engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents” if they receive any funding from abroad. The law defines political activities as actions intended to influence government policies; therefore, they include the work of all human-rights organizations operating in Russia. Because registering as foreign agents would be to identify themselves as the equivalent of spies, few organizations have done so.

Yet many NGOs in Russia can survive only with foreign support. Potential domestic donors fear that they could suffer the same fate as Khodorkovsky, who was the leading Russian supporter of human-rights groups until Putin imprisoned him for more than ten years. Indeed, some Russian human-rights organizations have been raided or shut down. The law gives Russian authorities discretion to close, whenever they choose, every significant organization promoting human rights.

Internationally, Russia is the mainstay of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s brutal regime. Russia’s diplomatic, financial, and military support has ensured that Assad remains in power, despite his government’s horrifying violence against Syria’s people. Western governments are understandably reluctant to provide lethal aid for Assad’s opponents, given the large number of jihadists among them, and because important elements of the opposition have themselves committed severe abuses. Russia has no such inhibitions.

The Assad regime’s indiscriminate attacks have forcibly displaced, injured, or killed millions of noncombatants. It is Russia’s role as a veto-wielding permanent member of the United Nations Security Council that has made it impossible to establish a tribunal to hold accountable those on all sides who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, or to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court. By providing steadfast support to the Assad regime and blocking measures that would bring war criminals to justice, Putin shares with Assad culpability for the largest-scale atrocities in the world today.

It may seem to some that a forceful leader like Putin and a powerful state like Russia are impervious to pressure to respect human and legal rights. More than any other political leader today, Putin seems to embody the characteristics of the “sultanist” leader described by the German social scientist Max Weber a century ago. To the sultanist, the state and its functions become “purely personal instruments of the master.” A figure like Khodorkovsky is imprisoned when Putin decides he should be imprisoned. And he is released when Putin decides he should be released.

Yet Putin’s recent actions make it clear that even a sultan must periodically make certain concessions. Of course, it will not be so easy to secure policy changes on matters that are more important to Putin than the freedom of a few people who have irritated him. But the task is not hopeless, as the run-up to the Olympics has shown. Even someone as sure of himself and his power as Putin becomes susceptible to the pressure of international public opinion as soon as he seeks its approval.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.

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