How Many Times Can Putin Screw Up before the Olympics?
Paranoid, petty, and panicky: that's how Russia has responded to protests against the Kremlin's policies on the environment and on homosexuality. Russia's conduct reveals not a strong, confident nation, but one that worries it can be toppled by the slightest breeze of diversity or change. And Vladimir Putin, apparently slowly grasping the notion that he may have created a Frankenstein's monster that could destroy his beloved 2014 Olympics project, is apparently trying to back away from his own policies.
1. The Environmental Activists
Last week, following furious international pressure and just before bring ordered to do so by the United Nations, the Kremlin released on bail 29 of the 30 Greenpeace activists who were arrested in connection with a peaceful protest action at a Russian oil rig in international waters. The activists had already served two months in the neo-Soviet gulag without trial. The American in the group, Peter Willcox, captain of the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise, was among them. Russia's treatment of the activists so far has smacked of barbarism -- certainly not calling to mind a nation in the G-8 and on the U.N. Security Council.
For comparison, look at what happened in New Zealand last year when a very similar incident occurred there.
In February 2012, eight Greenpeace activists illegally boarded a ship called the Nobel Discoverer, which was docked in Port Taranaki (not international waters) and owned by Shell Oil. The ship was being used for exploration of oil drilling options in the Arctic. The activists climbed the ship's 174-foot-tall drilling tower and stayed there for four days, briefly interrupting the ship's work activity. Among the activists was Lucy Lawless, better known to the world as Xena, Warrior Princess.
The activists were arrested and immediately released. The charges they faced could in theory have sent them to prison for three years, but when they came to trial a year later the court sentenced them to 120 hours of community service and a $547 fine each. Shell asked the court for $545,000 in reparations for the interruption of its business activities. The court awarded Shell nothing.
The contrast with Russia is rather stark, isn't it?
In Russia, the arrested activists never set foot on Russian property or in Russian waters (the vast majority of the arrested group did nothing more than circle the Russian rig in the Arctic Sunrise), and a small number who spent a few minutes, not four days, on Russian property -- property located in international waters, not sitting at a dock in Russia. In Russia, the arrested activists spent two months in prison before being released on bail, and they face a shocking maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
How about a comparison the United States? Russia fares no better.
In April 2002, 14 Greenpeace activists illegally boarded a container ship called the APL Jade moored outside Miami en route from Brazil. Greenpeace believed that the vessel was carrying timber illegally cut from a protected rainforest. Because of Greenpeace's actions, the U.S. government investigated the cargo, which it had previously been planning to release into the U.S. market, and impounded it.
After the arrest, Greenpeace states: "the Greenpeace activists waited on the dock as media crews filmed from a distance. On several occasions, they were told that they would be held for just another hour or so. The atmosphere was calm and friendly, and the Coast Guard officers permitted the Greenpeace crew to order pizza (although they declined offers to share a slice)." Though they ended up spending a weekend in jail, the activists were immediately released on bail, appeared in court, and were cleared of all charges.
Does that sound similar to the Russian behavior? In both the U.S. and New Zealand, the only activists arrested were those who actually committed acts of trespassing, not mere bystanders. In both the U.S. and New Zealand, periods of incarceration were very brief and entirely civilized. In neither case were the activists in international waters when they were seized.
When Captain Willcox was released from prison, he had some pretty startling things to say about the behavior of Russian "law enforcement" after they boarded his ship -- things that put an exclamation point on Russian barbarism. He stated: "The first thing they did was search everybody's cabins and steal everybody's liquor, and then they proceeded to drink it." The Russians staggered on the deck and were "quite drunk," he said. In other words, the conduct of the Russian "police" simply mirrored that of their government and their country.
The Putin regime itself seems somewhat disturbed by the potential consequences of its actions and has even let it out that the Greenpeace activists may be permitted to leave Russia. Slowly, it seems to be dawning on Putin that whipping the world into a frenzy of anti-Russian fervor just months before the Sochi games may not be such a great idea. But if Russia backs down now, it will be an epic humiliation for Putin. He can't really win either way.
2. The Homosexual Activists
In a pair of startling op-ed pieces last week, the director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch and the editorial page editor of the Moscow Times exposed a very similar response from Russians in regard to the issue of civil rights for homosexuals.
At a time when the United States is moving to implement sweeping reforms for homosexuals, Russia is speedily moving the opposite direction. The op-ed pieces relate a typical example of Russia's attitude: it comes from a major Russian talk show on Kremlin-controlled national broadcast TV called Special Correspondent and hosted by one Arkady Mamontov.
The Rossiya 1 broadcast channel is a sponsor of the 2014 Olympic Games, and Mamontov's show was emblazoned from start to finish with the Olympic Rings logo. What transpired behind them dragged the Olympic spirit through the filthiest of Russian mud.
Michael Bohm, the MT editor, was invited as a guest. He states that the first questions Mamontov asked him were: "Why do you stick your nose in our business? Why do you try to impose your alien values on us?" So much for any notion that Mamontov might be a journalist. And so much for the ballyhooed notion of Russian hospitality!
Another guest was Mikhail Degtyaryov, a member of parliament who has called for forcing all homosexuals to undergo psychiatric treatment to convert them. When Bohm called this a "primitive" idea, Degtyaryov responded that Bohm was "a podonok," or "scumbag" and then he threatened to vmazat Bohm, a crude slang word that means "to pound someone in the face."
Mamontov demanded an apology. From Bohm! It was not forthcoming, whereupon Bohm was shouted down by an audience behaving like a pack of braying wolves.
Minky Worden, the HRW director, was involved in the Mamontov broadcast, too, although she was not present in the studio. During the broadcast, Mamontov played recordings of a meeting Worden attended with LGBT activists in St. Petersburg to discuss Russia's draconian new laws rolling back the citizenship rights of Russian homosexuals. Clearly, the meeting had been bugged by Russian law enforcement, who then supplied the tapes to Kremlin TV for propaganda use.
Worden notes that Mamontov opened his program by stating breathlessly that "Western European sodomites are trying to infiltrate Russia and organize a protest movement here, among our Russian perverts."
Well. One would have to wonder what Mamontov thinks of Russians like Tchaikovsky, Eisenstein, Yesinin, Nijiinsky, and Diaghilev, some of the greatest figures in Russia's cultural history. Each and every one of them was homosexual. Apparently, though, they were "sodomites" and "perverts" who needed to be medicated and cured. Perhaps that is why Russia produces so very little in the way of impressive culture these days.
One sees precisely the same childish panic from Russia on the issue of homosexuality that one sees in regard to environmental issues. Where other nations calmly accept diversity, Russia seeks to eradicate it as if it were a disease. For this reason, Russia lacks the creativity and innovation that would make it competitive internationally and lacks the ability to scrutinize and reform its own faults. As such, Russia continues to wallow in the international backwaters, seeking alliance with pariah states like Venezuela, Syria, and Iran rather than with the leading nations of the world.
Seemingly aware of his second massive error, as with his environmental policy, Putin took the surprising step of actually backing away from the crackdown legislation. He publicly stated: "Not on a single score should we create this kind of xenophobia in society against anyone, including against people of nontraditional sexual orientation." Clearly chastened, Putin even agreed to examine criminal charges against dozens of activists that have been branded political.
But the genie of racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism that Putin has released from its bottle won't be so easily put back in. With amazing short-sightedness, Putin has created a situation in which Russia can be humiliated by a wide variety of protest actions during the Sochi games, and humiliated still further by investigative journalism reporting on the array of repressions his country is inflicting on all manner of minorities. He's risked turning what could have been one of the highest highs in Russian history into one of the lowest lows. And worst of all, his own much-ballyhooed reputation for competence has been tarnished beyond repair.
Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.