From Bad to Worse in Russia

Once again, the Russian government is moving rapidly to arrest and imprison a prominent regime critic who is calling boldly for an end to corruption.  And the appalling cowardice of Barack Obama is greasing the Russians' skids.

On October 8, 2010, the leading Russian newspaper Kommersant ("The Merchant") published the results (Russian-language link) of an online poll in which readers were asked for their preference among ten possible candidates for the post of Mayor of the City of Moscow, an enormous metropolis with over ten million residents and the seat of all Russian governmental power.

Gathering 45% of the nearly 70,000 votes cast, and winning by a landslide, was "Russia's Erin Brockovich," as Time magazine called him: the attorney activist Alexei Navalny, who in 2009 was named "person of the year" by the Vedemosti newspaper, Russia's counterpart to the Wall Street Journal.

The runner up, with less than 15% of the votes, was the "Against All" option common in Russian elections in which voters reject all the candidates they have been offered.

Coming in seventh in the field of ten candidates, with less than three percent of the vote, was Sergei Sobyanin, until recently the governor of the obscure and remote state of Tyumen near Siberia.  Why mention him?

Well, because two weeks after the Kommersant poll, the Russian federal government scrapped direct elections to the post of Moscow mayor after ousting the current occupant of the office -- the maverick Yuri Luzhkov, who had become too powerful for his own good -- and directly appointed Sobyanin to the post.

As with most things that involve Time magazine, the moniker "Erin Brockovich" was wide of the mark.  Navalny didn't hire a lawyer to fight against toxic contamination like Brockovich; he is a lawyer who buys stock in shadowy Russian firms and then demands transparency.  That makes him the Russian Ralph Nader.

Navalny also blogs about his work on the LiveJournal server (Russian-language link), each post typically drawing more than five hundred comments; operates an eponymous website; and he tweets (Russian-language link) to over 10,000 followers.  A few months ago, he launched a Russian counterpart of WikiLeaks, which makes him the Russian Julian Assange, too, and earlier this year, he became a fellow at Yale University.

The work Navalny is doing, however, is but a continuation of the path-breaking activities of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was sent to prison in Siberia for agitating in support of corporate transparency in the oil sector, which is also Navalny's favorite topic.  Whereas Khodorkovsky was jailed to preclude his making a bid for president, in Navalny's case, the Kremlin chose to simply eliminate elections as a means to office.  There is one more card the Kremlin can play, of course: The Russian blogosphere is continually ablaze with speculation about how long Navalny can the evade the assassin's bullet, the fate met by firebrand journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

But now it seems the Kremlin does in fact have the same plan for Navalny as it did for his mentor: prison.  Just days ago, it announced a criminal probe into whether Navalny's disclosures "damaged" one of the companies he was investigating.  It seems that, just as with Khodorkovsky, the combination of calling for honesty in business and threatening to run for office is fatal.

So to recap: In order to prevent Russia from becoming a civilized, modern country, the Russian government is prepared to resort to murder, to imprisonment, and to the outright abolition of elective office at the highest levels of local government.  Meanwhile, it's prepared to insert into crucial offices across the country any helplessly incompetent toady who will agree to do its bidding.

What's really disturbing about all this, though, is not the Kremlin's actions, which are only to be expected from a clan of proud KGB spies in a country that is one of the world's very most corrupt and dangerous.  The real outrage is the craven silence of the Obama administration as the Kremlin once again moves to use Soviet-style show trials to eliminate each and every political challenger who appears on the horizon.

So obsessed is Obama with scoring phony public relations points for reelection by getting the Russians to agree to nuclear arms limitation (which doesn't limit Russian arms) and sanctions on Iran (which don't involve Russian sacrifices) that he is prepared to allow Russia to slip back into totalitarianism, with the inevitable result of a new cold war.  Republicans have taken the first crucial steps in opposing this betrayal of American values by seeking to block ratification of the treaty and, via John McCain, issuing a tough condemnation of the Kremlin's outrageous misconduct.

But this is only the beginning of a long struggle to right the foundering ship of American foreign policy and restore the beacon leadership of Ronald Reagan.  If this struggle is not waged and won by the newly resurgent Republicans, new generations will know the horror of protracted cold war with a demonic neo-Soviet tormentor.