In Australia we conjure Russia through the basest of filters: take your pick of Pauline Hanson expressing her admiration for Russia’s autocrat Vladimir Putin, or of the sometime boxer-sometime- Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s vows to ‘shirtfront’ said autocrat.
If we leave thinking about Russia here, we do ourselves and Russia a great disservice.
Russia’s people need to hear our government’s voice of support, right now.
After many years of mute acceptance of their police state, Russians are standing up to the corrupt power vertical that runs and rips off their country and its people.
A little over a week ago, thousands of anti-corruption protesters crowded into central town squares from Moscow and St Petersburg to Vladivostok in the East, Kaliningrad enclave in the West and over 90 cities and towns between.
What made this most notable was the strong presence of young Russians at the rallies and the fact that they were held in the provinces, not just in politically-sophisticated Moscow and ‘Peter’. Mainstream political protests in Russia’s long-suffering regions are almost unheard of. Something big was happening.
The lightning rod for these rallies was the remarkable work of one man and his immensely courageous team. Alexei Navalny is a tall, handsome Russian lawyer in his early forties. He’s the most prominent and fearless opposition leader in that country today. Time magazine has in the past listed him as one of the top influential thinkers in the world. Having been beaten (only just)to a possibly rigged run-off election for the powerful Mayorship of Moscow in 2013 (Putin’s man unsurprisingly won that race). Navalny has since announced his intention to run – presumably against Putin – in the 2018 Russian Presidential election, on an anti-corruption platform.
Until 2015, Navalny’s voice was joined by that of Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic former deputy Prime Minister under Yeltsin and outspoken critic of Russian State corruption. Nemtsov was assassinated on a bridge near Red Square in February of that year.
Navalny’s efforts against Russian corruption are not just hot air- his remarkable forensic accounting examination of the corrupt billions of Russian Prime Minister and former President Dmitry Medvedyev was launched recently as a youtube film. Millions of Russians have since watched the film online: it exposes Medvedyev for siphoning billions through charitable funds. The funds were in fact fealty payments from the country’s top oligarchs. They fuelled Medvedyev’s lifestyle of luxury secret villas, yachts and vineyards. Navalny’s team used drones with cameras to film all these secret villas from the air, which brought the obscene extent of the rort home to ordinary Russians.
Churchill famously called Russia ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, but it appears that for most of its history, Russia’s political system has been simpler: one might argue that it has been, and remains in essence, a feudal system, with the King at the top and the Dukes and Lords and minor landholders all jockeying to curry favour.
One might presume that many Russians would already have assumed privately that such corruption was the norm for most if not all top Russian politicians and businessmen. What Navalny’s remarkable investigation did was to provide the evidence in compelling detail. It was this video that drove the crowds to protest.
I cannot recommend Navalny’s Medvedyev corruption video (with subtitles) highly enough, for its thoroughness, but also for its wonderfully black sense of humour. In it you will see a principled young leader of his country in full flight:
This video paralysed the Kremlin into silence at the same time that the South Korean leader was impeached and jailed along with her own cronies, for crimes in a similar vein. The contrasting responses of these governments have not been lost on many ordinary Russians.
Alexey Navalny himself was arrested at the protests last week. He has been arrested many times before, but this time, a suspended sentence hangs over his head. In the week since the protests, Navalny’s entire Anti-Corruption Foundation – the atelier of the Medvedyev expose and of many others like it – was trashed, its contents confiscated and Navalny’s whole team arrested.
We should all pray that Navalny is considered too problematic a foe now for the Russian autocracy to dispatch, as so many others appear to have been dispatched, who spoke truth to power.
We should also demand that our own government speak in the strongest terms on Navalny’s behalf.
What irony that at the turn of the last century, Russia’s revolutionary agitators placed Australia on the highest pedestal of admiration for its democratic institutions, plain speaking and rule of law. Let us be the inheritors of that mantle again.
As of today, our ministerial media centres don’t even mention Navanly’s arrest or the protests.
Our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, that grand liberal after-dinner speaker, has not issued a formal press release. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop – she who so enjoyed her time ‘upgraded to business class’ – speaking earnestly from the UN pulpit with Australia as Security Council chair – hasn’t bothered to publish a press release calling for Navalny’s release either.
Our government must speak in the strongest terms on these matters, which affront democracy.
If Turnbull and Bishop are having trouble finding the words, this recent statement from a US Republican Senator would do: he at least hasn’t lost his moral compass:
“Putin’s thugocracy is on full display. The United States government cannot be silent about Russia’s crackdown on peaceful protesters. Free speech is what we’re all about and Americans expect our leaders to call out thugs who trample the basic human rights of speech, press, assembly and protest”[i].