“Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,” shouts Shakespeare’s defiant Macbeth as the blood-soaked ghost of Banquo arrives to haunt his dinner party, although it remains invisible to Lady Macbeth and their guests. It’s interesting that even then “the rugged Russian bear” was the scariest thing Shakespeare could imagine for Macbeth to call upon as a preferable foe to his unwelcome spectral visitor. That was in or just before 1606, with Banquo’s descendants seemingly surviving because the newly crowned James I of England (who was also James VI of Scotland) believed himself to be a descendent of Macbeth’s former friend and ultimately victim. Rather like some of Putin’s ambitious apparatchiks today, Shakespeare was desperately sucking up to the new monarch who was looking favourably on his company of actors, and that is why, when he returns to the three witches with which the notorious “Scottish Play” begins, he is shown Banquo’s descendants in succession. “I’ll see no more,” he says, “and yet the eighth appears who bears a glass which shows me many more: and some I see that two-fold balls and treble sceptres carry.”
Shakespeare is, of course, making reference to James being king of two kingdoms, then three, creating a United Kingdom. Putin, on the other hand, is also keen to bring back under his control the lands there were once part of the old Soviet Union.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a man of action, more than willing to face armed and vicious enemies (even Russian bears) although he struggles a bit when it comes to intellectual activity.
But this was all more than four hundred years ago; do we still have to fear “the rugged Russian bear”? Well yes, so it seems. Indeed, looking at the suspicious demise or incarceration of so many of Putin’s enemies brings to mind another quote from ‘the Scottish play’: “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” We all know, of course, that Shakespeare’s Macbeth comes to a sticky end, his success apparently having been due to the horrid machinations of the ‘three weird sisters’, which was again a sop to King James VI, a man fascinated by witches. In 1597 he even wrote a book about it called Daemonology which is still available today. It may explain why he burned so many Scottish citizens, most of them women. I think he may have had a bit of a personal problem there that could have been better treated with cold showers and a cross-country run in the heather.
But today let’s concentrate on the real ‘rugged Russian bear’: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, President of the Russian Federation and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future because any potential rivals that appear on the scene and gain some popularity, however small, have a habit of dying unexpectedly.
The latest contender, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who has survived a poison attempt with a Russian military-grade nerve agent, owes his life to emergency treatment in Germany. Even so, he was thrown into prison the moment he disembarked on Russian soil. Putin-observers would have seen this as inevitable and it will inevitably lead to further action against Russia.
In the European Parliament, MEPs voted by a massive majority to impose immediate sanctions on members of Putin’s inner circle, especially those involved in Navalny’s arrest and imprisonment. Furthermore, any Russian wealth whose origin is not clearly legitimate and acquired honestly is not to be welcomed in the European Union, while perhaps most embarrassingly for Putin, all work on the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline is to stop immediately and for good. “The arrest of Mr. Navalny and its modalities,” said German Christian Democrat MEP David McAllister, “clearly contravenes international law and the Russian constitution. I urge the authorities in Moscow to release him and his supporters immediately.”
Not much chance of that; Putin’s ears are closed. No amount of witchcraft could have so immured him to the idea of tolerance or mercy. As far as his opponents are concerned, this particular rugged Russian bear only does to them what real bears traditionally do in the woods, so we should not be surprised. European Union foreign ministers, however, decided to put off imposing extra restrictions on Moscow, despite the arrests of some 3,500 people during demonstrations in which tens of thousands had participated. The ministers pointed out that demonstrations are permitted under Russia’s constitution, but that is only if they have prior approval from the authorities, which they clearly have not. Even so, there can be no excuse for their brutal suppression. Except, of course, that Putin cannot accept criticism.
He and his minions can dish it out, though. Take the case of Josep Borrell, for instance, the European Union’s accident-prone head of foreign policy. Last year he was accused of toning down an op-ed by ambassadors wherein it was suggested that the first case of COVID-19 arose in China (as far as we’re all aware, it did), albeit without in any way blaming Beijing for it. China objected, however, and it was alleged that Borrell authorised the bowdlerisation of the text. The European Parliament duly summoned him to a hearing to explain himself. It was not the most brilliant response. “I was not even aware of what was happening,” he told MEPs, somewhat unconvincingly. “I remember very well because the 24th was the day of my anniversary (birthday) and I was supposed to have a free afternoon, and on the afternoon of the 24, one of my friends from Spain told me ‘have you heard the news that there is a problem or something with the publication of a survey of some external action communication related with disinformation? This was the first time I knew about it.” From a purely personal perspective, I thought he looked shifty. So did several MEPs. Even so, it was, at worst, a case of covering up a minor act of kow-towing to Beijing and in today’s diplomatic world, many others have done it, too. And China is not the worst offender in the SARS-CoV-2 disinformation business; that prize goes to Russia, which even funds a disinformation website in German, claiming COVID-19 doesn’t exist (it does, of course). But Borrell, unwisely, chose to go there, against the advice of Poland and the Baltic States, who know from bitter experience what Russia is like. While he was there, Borrell apparently never asked to visit Alexei Navalny, and stood next to Russian Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov while he denounced the EU as “an unreliable partner” (unlike the ever-truthful, ever-innocent Russia, one assumes). In the speech, Lavrov mocked Borrell’s opposition to Catalan independence, talking of the Spanish government’s ill treatment of Catalan separatist politicians. While Borrell was there, possibly squirming with embarrassment, news surfaced that Russia had expelled German, Swedish and Polish diplomats for attending pro-Navalny rallies. Perhaps Borrell now understands better the opposition to his visit. As an illuminating example of public humiliation for the EU, it’s hard to imagine anything much worse. Naturally, there are calls for Borrell’s scalp and by the time this edition of EDM goes to press, he may be gone. Yes, the EU’s foreign policy has to be diplomatic, but not grovelling, surely? And perhaps a little more sure-footed?
CURING THE INCURABLE?
At the January session of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly there was a proposal to refuse to ratify the credentials of Russian members.
It was made by the head of the Ukrainian delegation, Mariia Mezentseva, backed by more than thirty other members of the Assembly, as required by the Rules of Procedure. The challenge was made under Rule 8, which allows such a challenge because of “serious violation of the basic principles of the Council of Europe” and “persistent failure to honour obligations and commitments and lack of co-operation in the Assembly’s ,monitoring procedure”. The challenge was, however, defeated, although a report was adopted that was highly critical of Putin’s Russia. The Assembly adopted a report by Stefan Schennach, a Social Democrat member of Austria’s Federal Council.
I asked him if it had been the right decision to allow Russian delegates to take their seats. “Yes,” he said, emphatically, “this is my way and I continued the way we are walking for more than two years, two and a half years. It is a stony way, and I brought in one paragraph that my hope is not so very big, but we have no other chance in the dialogue.”
Basically, Schennach is convinced that the rest of world must continue to talk to Russia, however hopeless it may seem to bring about a change of direction on the part of the Kremlin. His report committed the Assembly to dialogue, arguing that it still provides a platform where the Russian delegation could be “held accountable on the basis of the Council of Europe’s values and principles”. However, the report also listed several concerns, such as a constitutional provision that enables Russia’s Constitutional Court to declare a European Court of Human Rights judgement “non-executable”, so that the judgement can be simply ignored if it doesn’t please Putin and his cronies. It also takes issue with a new law that makes it impossible to solve the issue with Crimea in line with international law. It is, furthermore, highly critical of the crackdown on civil society, critical journalists and on the activities of NGOs, as well as laws limiting the human rights of members of the LGBTI community. Schennach is also highly critical of the lack of any serious investigation by Russian authorities into the poisoning of Navalny, as well as the violent reaction of police to peaceful demonstrations in Navalny’s favour. Putin’s response to criticism of his severity is always to become more severe.
As the pro-Navalny protests were brutally put down, pictures of the vicious beatings by police, shot on mobile phones by demonstrators, appeared first on social media and from there onto the world’s television screens. In response, the Kremlin threatened the social media outlets with fines for encouraging under-18s to demonstrate, which is illegal under Russian law. Nevertheless, opposition to Putin seems to be growing, possibly quite slowly, and thus engendering ever more stringent laws to stop it. Perhaps Putin should remember what the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov wrote in The Cherry Orchard in 1904: “If a lot of cures are suggested for a disease, it means that the disease is incurable.” Perhaps opposition to Putin’s Tsar-like reign is just one of those unstoppable things.
Certainly, Putin’s neighbours are getting increasingly angry over his actions. “The arrest on live TV of the Russian opposition [leader] Alexei Navalny on his return to Moscow last Sunday is unacceptable,” said Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, addressing a plenary session of the European Parliament, “both to Europe and to the international community, who live in the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Borrell issued a statement to Moscow that Europe stands in “strong solidarity” with Navalny, while German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, speaking before the meeting, called for the immediate release of the detained demonstrators.
One thing Putin has proved is that Russia does things differently, and not always in a way the West would like or approve of. “Russia invaded Crimea, invaded the territory of a member state” said Sir Edward Leigh, a British Conservative MP, “and basically, to cut a long story short, they were expelled from the Chamber, although never from the Council of Ministers.” In a Tweet, issued shortly after the session, Sir Edward set out his position very clearly. “We must condemn Putin’s crimes and we must also guard against institutional Russophobia. It’s still useful to engage with Russia even if just at a personal level as at the Council of Europe. And certainly we can still appreciate Russia’s contribution to culture over the centuries.” It is an unarguable position, although that does not mean that current breaches of what are seen as democratic norms should be ignored.
What Sir Edward wanted to clarify is that the way we in the West see things is not the way many people in Russia do. “As far as many Russians are concerned,” Sir Edward told me, “Crimea is Russia, and was Russia until Kruschev signed it away in a decree with a stroke of his pen in 1956.” In other words, some of today’s perceived abuses have very long roots; we may see them as abuses, many Russians do not. “We’ve got to condemn Putin for (Sergei) Skripal, for Navalny, all these human rights abuses,” he told me, “but we’ve got to be very careful, we’ve got to take a rather nuanced view. We can’t afford to be Russophobe. We’ve got to understand Russian sensibilities, Russian culture, Russian history. So by all means condemn Putin for particular aspects of his egregious behaviour, and his behaviour towards Navalny is such behaviour, bearing in mind of course that it’s not going to change anything in Russia. He just washes his hands of such criticism, but we have to be prepared to stand up to him.” I asked Sir Edward if he could imagine a post-Putin Russia. He could but without much clarity, he admitted: it’s a hard future to foresee. “Well, of course, there was an outbreak of democracy in Russia under Yeltsin, but unfortunately, as far as many ordinary Russians were concerned, what they saw in this outbreak of democracy was their state assets being stolen by oligarchs, by the economy crashing, by people being reduced to penury, by the Russian economy being reduced, I think, to the same size as that of Wales.” Iechyd da, Mr. Putin (it’s a traditional Welsh toast, meaning “good health”).
PROPPING UP THE PALACE
That may be a slightly unfair comparison. After all, like Yeltsin, Putin also enjoys the friendship of today’s oligarchs, the people who syphon off the nation’s wealth into their own already-bulging pockets. Even quite recently, it is an oligarch who has come to his aid over allegations that Putin has used money from Russia’s Treasury to fund an enormous palace at Cape Idokopas, beside the Black Sea. Arkady Rotenberg, one of Putin’s childhood judo partners, now a billionaire businessman, says it was being built for him to become a holiday resort, just another business venture. If that is true, Putin may be able to get away with spending a few days of leisure in the place once in a while, but he’ll never be able to live there.
Having said that, anything may be possible in the strange, byzantine world of today’s Russia, seemingly built around one man’s needs and desires. Even if the Russian people – or enough of them – believe Putin’s denial of owning the Cape Idokopas palace, they may still wonder how one of his pals was able to amass so much money that he could afford to build such a place while they’re struggling to get by. At the very least there must have been some ‘blind eye turning’ going on. It may not shake their faith much, though, even after a claimed 100-million plus viewings of the video about the place. Sir Edward also spoke about Putin’s public persona: “I’ve been a Council of Europe monitor for the Russian presidential elections and – people may not like this – but there’s no doubt that although he abuses his position by ensuring that he has dominance in the media and everything, he did win these elections fair and square.”
So what of this so-called “Palace”? It’s not just a residence, Navalny explained in his much-viewed video. “It has impregnable fences, its own harbour, guards, church, its own checkpoint, a no-fly zone and even its own border point,” he says in the commentary. The place also allegedly boasts its own helicopter pad and even a private strip club with a pole on which pole dancers can display their skills and much else besides. Navalny describes it as “a separate state within Russia” after its details were linked to his anti-corruption body by disgruntled construction workers, shocked at the opulence. There is, it’s claimed, an underground ice hockey rink, and it also has an amphitheatre and a tunnel that allows hidden access to its own little beach and to the sea. The video was posted on social media by Navalny’s supporters after he had been arrested and jailed. Initially, in hurried press conferences, the Kremlin dismissed the images as nothing more than compilations of other pictures, although that was before Rotenberg stepped forward to claim the place as his. It was clear that few would have continued to believe the pictures in the video were purely computer-generated images (CGI) or a mish-mash of unrelated pictures edited together to create the sort of structure more often seen in video games or Bond movies, perhaps, as the lair of the arch-villain. Would Putin have a white Persian cat, like James Bond’s arch-enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld? If he did, would he stroke it, as the fictional Blofeld supposedly did, or, as Putin’s critics might allege, eat it? We shouldn’t forget that Navalny is alleging not only that Putin owns this strange palace but that it was financed through corruption: the misuse of public funds.
Meanwhile, the protests continue, with Navalny supporters seen dancing in a circle on the frozen waters of Amur Bay at Vladivostok, despite the city centre being fenced off and the demonstration banned.
In Moscow, where Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, was arrested for a second time, one 40-year-old protestor told Al Jazeera: “I understand that I live in a totally lawless state. In a police state, with no independent courts. In a country ruled by corruption. I would like to live differently.” Putin has described the widespread protests as “illegal and dangerous”, but his methods for suppressing opposition do not seem to work. It is like trying to put out a fire by spraying it with kerosene. Insisting that your every order is followed to the letter without question can be dangerous; it led to Stalin dying without proper medical attention because the staff at his dacha were under orders not to enter his room until they heard him moving about, so, as he was lying unconscious on the floor, they didn’t open the door until many hours later. According to those familiar with life in the dacha, that was extremely unusual. The staff would not normally have been, as they claimed, ‘too scared’ to open the door until the evening.
Then, when he saw him, Lavrentiy Beria, the ambitious head of state security, assumed he was just drunk from the night before, he claimed, which also seems unlikely. Doctors were not called because Stalin was very suspicious of the medical profession, which he accused of plotting against the Soviet leadership. Leeches were applied to Stalin’s neck but unsurprisingly they failed to save the great leader. His meeting with others the previous evening, at which heroic quantities of vodka had been consumed, followed his surprising decision, despite his ill health, to remain in charge and not hand the reins to his deputy, Georgy Malenkov or to future premier, Nikita Kruschev. There have been suggestions, never seriously investigated, that they conspired to poison him, which would have been a form of poetic justice, since he is supposed to have poisoned the original leader of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin. But in reality, Stalin was almost certainly the victim of increasing age, declining health, excessive consumption of vodka and his own paranoia. Putin must be very careful to ensure that his own paranoia doesn’t prove equally dangerous.
Nobody should be afraid to talk, even if what they have to say may not be welcome. “Hate, or other things are not good in politics,” Professor Schennach told me, still calling for dialogue as the best possible solution to tensions between Russia and the Council of Europe, of which it remains a member. “You have to talk with them, you have to remind [them of] their rights, but also of their duties.” He said that the Russian authorities must allow access to the country for the relevant rapporteurs, of which there are currently five, each dealing with a different aspect of the topics in dispute. “The Russian Federation should be very clear: there are two red lines. One red line is not to let in our rapporteurs and the second [is] not to fulfil the judgements of the Human Rights Court.” That is very clearly not how matters are viewed in the Kremlin’s hallowed halls.
While many in the West complain about Russia’s deliberate campaigns of disinformation aimed at damaging societies around the world (often dangerously, as with COVID-19) as well as interference in the political process, Russian leaders claim to feel threatened by an Internet under foreign control.
Former President Dmitry Medvedev, for instance, now deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council, has threatened to cut Russia off from the globally accepted web providers and oblige its citizens to use only its own domestic version. This would, of course, protect people from being exposed to criticism of Russia or its increasingly tyrannical leader without preventing the famous St. Petersburg troll factory from tinkering. In many ways it is a strange state of affairs. Back in the days of the Cold War there were massive differences in the basic policies of Russia and the West: one Communist, the other capitalist. Now both are basically capitalist, with relatively no great doctrinal gulf between them. One could argue that one enjoys greater freedom and more access to justice than the other, although recent events involving police shootings in America have even brought that into question.
Let’s consider the charges against Navalny for which he was put into custody the moment he arrived in Moscow. For a start, we should consider the 2014 embezzlement case, which Navalny has always claimed was a trumped-up (and successful) bid to remove him from the political scene. Russia’s prison service has accused him of failing to report to it late last year in accordance with the rules, even though he was in a German hospital at the time being treated for Novichok poisoning. Being at death’s door because of a Russian military-grade poison is not considered a legitimate excuse for missing an appointment and has since been jailed for three-and-a-half years because of it. Then in 2019, Russian investigators opened an investigation into alleged money laundering by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. In the process, they froze a number of Navalny’s bank accounts, severely hampering the work of the Foundation. If he were to be found guilty, it could land him in prison for up to seven years. He has also been accused of fraud for allegedly spending almost €4-million of donations to his organisations on luxurious foreign travel. That could get him a decade behind bars if found guilty. Furthermore, a criminal investigation was launched into Navalny’s alleged slander of a World War II veteran who had appeared in a video welcoming the constitutional changes that could allow Putin to stay in power until 2036. Navalny had described those appearing in the video as traitors and lackeys of the Putin regime. Let’s face it, Putin doesn’t do things by half; if he has an enemy, he prefers him to be safely locked up in a prison cell, at least if he’s still breathing.
Navalny’s chances of a fair trial (or trials, I should say) must be very close to zero. Tsar Vladimir is not a man to accept the slightest threat to his throne, even though the European Court of Human Rights, sitting in 2017, concluded that Navalny’s 2014 conviction was “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable”.
Of course, Navalny has his supporters, and very determined (and brave) they have shown themselves to be. Although the ever-faithful Russia Today news channel says that the pro-Navalny protests are dwindling in size, they are still taking place, in the face of fierce and vicious violence by the police and security forces. Damelya Aitkhozhina of Human Rights Watch said in a Tweet: “For the second week in a row, Russian police forcibly and brutally dispersed peaceful protests, detaining over 5,000 people. Russian authorities continue to pretend peaceful protestors are a violent mob, but they are not.” Another sympathiser, Yulia Gorbanova, Tweeted: “Nothing can justify physical attacks on journalists covering protests. Such actions by riot police are completely illegal and should not be tolerated.” Meanwhile Wenzel Michalski, in yet another Tweet, highlighted another worrying line of defence for Putin: “Authorities sent a chilling warning to lawyers and human rights defenders when they detained and prosecuted 2 lawyers for defending FreeNavalny protestors in Russia”. It’s a way of trying to dissuade lawyers from defending the many demonstrators seized by the police and national guard.
Overreaction to protest marches by Russia’s security forces has also drawn condemnation from America’s new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who Tweeted that the United States “condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protestors and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight.” Russian state media and Kremlin officials have accused Washington and NATO of stoking up resentment against Putin, with the Russian Foreign Ministry responding to Blinken’s Tweet by saying his support for the protestors was proof of the US meddling behind the scenes. Putin is, without any doubt, a major world leader, in charge of an enormous country that has made a great many major contributions to global culture and science. He undermines that view, however, by apparently wanting to appear on the world stage to be a tin-pot despot, in which guise he sells his mighty country short.
It would come as no surprise to anyone that the Russian Federation heads the list of ten Council of Europe member states that have not been applying the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights quickly enough, or even at all. The issue was the subject of a report adopted at the January session of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly.
The report was written by Cypriot Socialist MP Constantinos Efstathiou. I asked him what was going on. “What comes out from the report is that most of the countries, for political or internal reasons, are reluctant to go into implementation of the judgements,” he explained. It is not, he is keen to point out, that they are incapable of applying the judgements or that they don’t understand them. “They pretend sometimes, or they take advantage of some structural problem they used to have; they don’t change it, they live with it, and of course they fear that by implementing a judgement it can harm their internal authority.” In Russia’s case, the authorities went even further by enacting a law that would even make it illegal to implement a judgement of the Court of Human Rights. And yet Russia remains a member of the Council of Europe, one of whose conditions of membership is that Court of Human Rights judgements must be implemented. As it is, Russia is making a mockery of the idea of respect for human rights protection under the law. It is all very strange. “So there is a contradiction,” Efstathiou told me, “between the membership of the Council of Europe and the obligation of respecting the rule of law, because without implementing the judgements, there is no rule of law.” It is rather as that anonymous pro-Navalny protestor told Al Jazeera about living in a police state without law and ruled by corruption. She said she wished it was different, but there is no sign that it will be any time soon.
Can anything be done? Efstathiou remains hopeful. “There is a special procedure,” he said, “which has certainly been used against Azerbaijan,” in cases of detention for reasons outside the law or pure political motivation. “It gives the Committee of Ministers the means of imposing restrictions, taking measures against the state,” he said. But there is, of course, a world of difference between Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation; what works to ward off a hungry moray eel may be less effective against a great white shark. It’s a matter of – if you’ll pardon the pun – scale. And before anyone points this out, moray eels don’t have scales, may I remind you that great white sharks do. When I was filming in Azerbaijan, my interpreter in Baku got very nervous if we stood still for more than a few minutes with the camera running and she walked away if I put up a tripod. In Moscow, journalists and camera crews have faced far greater danger and certainly more violence in covering protests against Putin.
The rugged Russian bear is a far more formidable foe; even the ghostly, ghastly Banquo might seem less of a threat.
At the moment, Putin seems to feel safe in the reassurance one of the witches gave to Macbeth: “Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn/The power of man, for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth.”
And yet he fell to the sword of a man who family he had slaughtered: Macduff. Perhaps Putin should be very wary of strange women with cauldrons.