On Pussy Riot and the politics of example

The Pussy Riot trial police dog. No doubt soon to be the Presidential Plenipotentiary to the Northwestern Federal District…

So, two years for each of the three Pussy Riot defenders — conveniently enough less than the three demanded by the prosecution (so this counts as the “leniency” for which Putin called), and meaning that, with time off for good behavior, they can be out before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Vast amounts of attention will be given this in the media and the blogosphere, so let me confine myself to wondering just why the Kremlin went ahead with this trial and — because I have no belief that this case was not wholly politically-staged — decided on such a penalty.

I may not often agree with the Kremlin’s calculations and solutions, but I certainly don’t believe Putin and his cohorts are fools or unthinking autocrats. They do what they do for reasons. The only plausible reason for this case is that it is meant to be an example.

First of all, an example to current and potential opposition activists. No doubt everyone will be hailing the bravery of the three very composed and impressive members of the band, but I can’t help but wonder whether they would have made their performance had they known they faced a couple of years in a (generally nasty and dangerous) Russian prison? Quite possibly so, but most of us are not heroes, and for all the negative feedback internationally and within liberal circles in Russia, it may well be that the Kremlin is assuming that the sentences will, after a few hours or days of outrage, have a chilling effect on most of the protesters. It’s possible that they are right. States rarely fall to pressure from outside and below so long as their elites are united and they retain and demonstrate the will and ability to deploy coercion. Remember Tienanmen Square?

The question remains, though, whether the Kremlin really has that will and ability. If this one case and the associated treatment of those protesting outside the court does cow the opposition, or at least enough of it that the Navalnys and Udaltsovs begin to look marginal, then it will have done its job. But what if it does not? In what is singularly bad timing for the Kremlin, the opposition has for some time planned to rally on Sunday, in commemoration of the failure of the hard-liners’ 1991 ‘August Coup.’ It will be interesting to see what kind of turnout that gets, and the mood of protesters and authorities alike.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the Kremlin has the stomach for any mass crackdown. Nor, for that matter, is it showing any practical signs of preparing for one. Like everything else in life, will must be backed with logistics, from making sure you have lots of handcuffs and detention spaces available to getting your forces ready — and I see no evidence of any of this.

But I also think this is an example to the elite and Kremlin support bases – including the Church. In my opinion, this was not a case the state should have built into such a cause celebre, making international icons out of Pussy Riot. However, there is a case to be made that if you keep giving ground, deciding this particular battle is not worth fighting in the big picture, there is a danger that as well as emboldening your enemies, you dishearten your friends. It is worth restating that the urban middle class protesters do not speak for a silent majority (yet: there is still scope for that to change, but it won’t be the right to make ugly music in a Church that becomes a cross-class rallying cry). From the Uralvagonzavod tank workers offering to come to Moscow and sort out the protesters, through the Cossacks Krasnodar governor Tkachev wants to keep migrants in check, to those ordinary folk who gave Putin an overall majority in the first presidential election round. And, of course, those beneficiaries of the status quo who do not want to see change which might lose them their comfortable niches, their opportunities for embezzlement, etc.

Sometimes politicians have to do dumb things to “play to their base.” It is not that you fear your base will vote for the other guy, it is that you don’t want those people deciding not to both voting, donating, organizing, etc for you. To fail to support the Russian Orthodox Church (which is a significant, if second-rank player within the power elite), would also have been problematic. In a situation such as Russia’s, where there is already concern about the future, where elements within the elite are toying with whether to prepare to deal with the opposition or even get out of Russia, then signs of irresolution from the Kremlin might make them all the more worried. It is a very human thing to prefer our leaders to be strong but stupid rather than unsure.

But I think there may be a third audience: the outside world. I have no evidence for this, but given Putin’s psychology, his tendency to strike back when challenged, I do wonder whether the very scale of the West’s condemnation of the trial might have helped ensure that the defendants were in for a prison sentence rather than a suspended one or a fine or the like. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the West is frankly hypocritical in which causes it raises and which it does not. This doesn’t just mean cases such as (pre-civil war) Syria compared with Bahrain, I even had one conservative-minded Russian from the security world grumble about why the USA in particular is so exercised by the Magnitsky Bill but doesn’t bat an eye at all those disappearances in the North Caucasus…

But also Putin’s experiences with the West are that if he takes a tough enough line he gets away with anything. Chechnya? It’ll blow over. Shut off gas supplies into Ukraine and Europe. Ah, they’ll still buy. War with Georgia? Don’t worry, there will be a reset along shortly. Sadly, we may even have conditioned him to believe that a hard line is safer than a soft one. I certainly don’t think this is a key issue, but I suspect it may have helped tilt the balance. If the West needed to be reminded that they don’t get to influence Kremlin policy, Putin was willing to oblige.

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12 Comments

  1. I may agree with you on all points!
    However!…
    1.All non-Western-leaning Russia(mainly all Russia outside Moscow,Peterburg and Kazan) learned that opposition consist of femenist,sexual minorities and atheist.
    2.The main question of current Russian discussion is not legacy of Putin regime but role of Russian Ortodox church in modern Russia and its place in Russian national identity.
    3.Rasul Mirzaev.The World Champion of Combat Sambo from Dagestan is going to be released from prison after killing of ethnic Russian.Now everyone concerned with Pussi)))not with new Manezka…
    Making a long story short,I watch in Putin eyes and see…KGB!The most effective intelligence organization in the world!
    By the way,did you read memories of Putin comrade about their work in East Germany? There are many interesting insights…

    Reply
  2. I support your third option; that the disproportionate caterwauling in the english-speaking media outside Russia, which elevated obscure nobodies that I’m sure 90% of western audiences had never heard of to overnight celebrities, was the deciding factor in their sentencing. Given the western-backed opposition’s propensity for loudly interpreting any sign of cooperation on the Kremlin’s part as desperation or weakness, the louder the noise, the harsher the sentence. I would, however, disagree that it was the state which “built the case into such a cause celebre and made international icons of Pussy Riot”. It was the international media which was chiefly responsible for that, and the state which merely reacted to it – either the state was going to permit itself to be backed down by the international media and its domestic opposition, taking its cues for jurisprudence from the likes of Sting and Madonna and The Guardian, or it was not. Once upon a time it might have been possible to let them off with a little community service or something of that nature, but that option was off the table as soon as the press and western pop icons began demanding they be freed at once. No state is going to outsource its decision-making to a bunch of international busybodies and its own opposition, and if it did it could kiss any hope of independent decision-making for the future goodbye – such audiences are very quick to capitalize on success.

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  3. A show trial (particularly in the Russian Soviet tradition is all about narrative control. Of course such trials are designed to be used for signaling, both intra ruling elite and to broader society about acceptable norms.

    This trial backfired for several reasons and undercuts the fundamental assertion of Putin’s strength. And here I specifically refer to domestic Russian prism, not the Western infatuations re the band.

    First, the regime lost narrative control. Widespread public support for prosecution greeted the regime’s arrest and prosecution. From all across the political spectrum.

    That support *fell* each and every month since then, with late July polling showing pro-prosecution support at only 33%. Leniency *rose* every month in polling, reaching almost 60%.

    *The numbers aren’t important. It’s the trend line.* Anyone working in politics knows that. The regime *lost* control of the narrative and the direction. This is a stunning defeat.

    And shows that Surkov or not, this ruling apparat does not know how to function in a new digital socially networked society. The one to many analog broadcast model failed.

    Second, the regime flinched. From the initial clampdown to Putin’s statements the regime has signalled backpedalling. Before the verdict, Putin signaled to Vladimir Lukin (Human Rights Ombudsman) he is open to an appeal (note the move away from leniency). These are not signals of a ruling apparat confident in it’s handling or course.

    Third, the regime’s commitment to economic and defense modernization will not come from the agitated 30% demanding harsh treatment for PR – even the iron mongers at Uralmash, etc. It will come from network savvy, technologically comfortable others, not of the 30% base. The regime needs some portion of the 60% who wanted leniency even if Navalny et al. are to be managed.

    It’s hard to see how this fiasco demonstrates the ruling apparat (Putinism as a system function of factions with him as arbiter) shows strength. (Western froth aside).

    Btw, my experience with Russian Soviet affairs goes way back, from before being in Moscow when the GLCMs and Pershing IIs were going in, to early Gorbachev to pre and post 1991.

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  4. I submit it was much easier to retain rock-steady narrative control when there was no internet and the mass media was not able to introduce alternative “spin” in real time. During the Soviet show trials there was no internet, and even during the August 1991 coup attempt internet penetration in Russia was insignificant. The outside world was talking to itself. At the same time, the most dramatic examples Russia has observed of the west’s recent use of the internet is its facility for mobilizing flash mobs and implementing regime change. It is hardly surprising if the government is wary of it.

    I can’t see how this was a stunning defeat for the government, although I suppose it is a matter of perspective. The accused initially claimed they were not even present when the event took place, but eventually admitted they were and offered an apology when it was too late to make any difference. I agree with Mr. Galeotti that the government quite possibly was amenable to a lesser sentence, but reacted to the attempts of the western press to turn them into heroines and freedom fighters who had done absolutely nothing wrong when the host countries would certainly not tolerate the same behaviour themselves. The west made a fairly insignificant group of hooligans famous, and now those hooligans are paying the piper for their overnight stardom.

    I don’t know that the increasing group which supported leniency will be as disappointed as you think with the verdict; remember, the maximum discussed penalty was 7 years, and although gossip suggested the prosecution was asking for 3 years, there was nothing preventing the judge from imposing the maximum sentence. Therefore, 7 years was still part of the equation, and 2 years looks pretty lenient compared with that. I believe if the question had been phrased differently – perhaps, “Do you agree the accused punk group should be freed without further detention or punishment?” – a much stronger consensus for some punishment would emerge. Careful phrasing of the poll question is a longstanding tool for shaping public opinion, or for manipulating its apparent support.

    Announcing triumphantly that the regime “flinched” is exactly the sort of analysis that causes the regime to harden its heart and its policies, and vow to be harsher next time. I’m certainly not suggesting you’re wrong, because again it is largely in the eye of the beholder, but I would argue a reasonable case for leniency by the west on behalf of the group, followed by praise for any evidence of rapprochement, might have paid dividends and perhaps resulted in a lighter sentence.

    Reply
    • One quibble at the outset. Let’s pust aside adjectival labeling for a moment. Those who knows me in the Soviet and Russian field would hardly ever call me a ‘triumphalist.’ (I proved that in Moscow 1991 before and after).

      As for the Net in 1991, it didn’t exist anywhere except in small U.S. pockets. CNN back then was the equivalent of the Internet. For those in DC or in Moscow.

      Second, the analysis and critique I offered here are not focused on the young women per se or their specific disposition. Rather, it’s a systemic look at the larger socio-political forces involved and mechanisms used. In that framework one places the optics, procedures and tactics of the punk event and the trial outcome.

      Third, you’re quite right about polling (and focus groups, for that matter). Having run them nationally for decades I agree that posing questions is often outcome determinative. Levada’s methodology or cross tabs are not available to question. Their post verdict poll looked superficially sloppy in the media but still had the PR support at 44% (it was 58% with a differently phrased question).

      44% is not a victory for an authoritarian regime trying to set national discourse, modes of thought and managed political facades. As a purely clinical analysis on the utility of a show trial, that would be failure.

      Finally, we agree this particular government will work hard to overcome its new media deficit. Factions already used YouTube re Medvedev and Georgia and so on. But it assuredly has been blindsided and stumbling to date.

      The more interesting question is what how would such a governing apparat operationally use new media and in so doing be affected by it? For a few in the inner circle, their more prescient worry would be what successfully modernizing authoritarian State has allowed alternative means of communication while preserving its absolute prerogative?

      Reply
      • “Their post verdict poll looked superficially sloppy in the media but still had the PR support at 44% (it was 58% with a differently phrased question). ”

        Now, you see, I find that curious, because Reuters is reporting the opposite effect, also sourced from Levada. So either public opinion is swinging too wildly in the space of hours for it to be in any way meaningful, or we are looking at two very different polls. According to Reuters, post-sentencing support for PR stood at 6%, while 51% “found nothing good about them or felt irritation or hostility. The rest could not say or were indifferent.”

        http://ca.news.yahoo.com/russias-pussy-riot-face-verdict-putins-tolerance-trial-075502673.html

        How does that change the analysis? Certainly sounds like a shout-out for authoritarianism to me, rather than a condemnation of blindsided, stumbling failure. Certainly the Reuters story could be wrong – God knows the press can barely be trusted to look for lettuce in a green salad without supervision; but considering the tone of the article, which is relentlessly anti-Putin, it’s difficult to imagine how they could cock up so thoroughly what might have formed the bones of the story.

  5. jgleisner@freeuk.com

     /  August 18, 2012

    Why condemn the act given Kiril’s overidentification of church with state to which it was an effective if provocative response ?

    Reply
  6. There’s no reason to condemn it at all, provided those who shout about its injustice are advocating for complete freedom for similar artistic performances in churches throughout the world. But I have a hard time believing a similar performance featuring balaclava-sporting women jumping around in the Westville Synagogue in Newhaven shouting about the Lord’s shit and demanding God cast out Bibi Netanyahu would be lauded by anyone as an artistic event vibrant with inspiration and courage.

    If Kiril’s overidentification of church with state is offensive, it should be dealt with in the usual manner of registering disapproval. Taking advantage of the church’s tradition of not locking the door or posting guards in order to stage an obscenity-laced and deliberately disrespectful publicity stunt is outside the norms of advocacy, just as standing in an art gallery naked except for a dead kitten tied around your neck would be an inappropriate protest against an artist or a painting you did not like. I don’t know that you’d get 2 years for that one, but you might if you denied ever being there right up until the trial commenced, stalled the start of the trial by calling the President of the United States as a witness and constantly behaved with disrespect and contempt throughout the hearing, while simultaneously a media blitz by the popular press of Russia, China and Venezuela hailed you as one of the remarkably courageous heroes of your time.

    Reply
    • Mark Galeotti

       /  August 18, 2012

      Mark, I’d never under-estimate what some people will consider fine artistic happenings! More seriously, whatever the virtues and sins of their stunt, the reason for the furore is

      (a) the disproportion of the sentence. As I’ve written in my most recent post, as near as I can tell in Britain you wouldn’t even get a custodial sentence. The ‘hooliganism’ statute that was used, in this case, Article 213 of the Criminal Code, is for “Hooliganism, that is, a gross violation of the public order manifested in patent contempt of society and attended by the use of weapons or articles used as weapons” – saying they used weapons or articles used as weapons is a distinctly dubious assertion, and what allowed this maximum 7 year figure to be raised.

      (b) the manner of the trial which was marked by a very strong bias against the defendants, even though it was, of course, not some Stalinist show trial; and

      (c) the language used, which confused canon and state law, and concepts such as blasphemy and disrespect for the Russian Orthodox faith which, while possibly reprehensible, have no standing in the Criminal Code. Article 63 of the Criminal Code says that punishment might be increased in the cases of “commission of a crime by reason of national, racial, or religious hatred or enmity, out of revenge for the lawful actions of other persons, or with the purpose of concealing or facilitating another crime” but even then, that’s not a crime, but a modifying factor.

      As for whether the defendants deny being there, call the US president as a witness, etc, that in law should have nothing at all to do with the sentence. You can be cited for contempt of court as something separate, but there is no scope for topping up the sentence because they did not play ball.

      Reply
  7. Yes, as far as that goes, you’re right. The only law now in the west which remains ambiguous is family law, ie divorce and child custody, in which it’s still possible to see surprises. Not often in criminal law. Generally speaking, the progression should be crystal clear – THIS is the law, including the attributes under which the defendant/defendants are charged; THIS is evidence of what the defendant/defendants did,; THIS is the scope of sentencing; THIS is the sentence awarded.

    The Russian court did indeed mix canonical and criminal law, apparently in an attempt to fix a criminal penalty to an offense that was not specified in criminal law as an offense. It was clumsy, and if there are any decent defense lawyers in Russia (I have to be careful what I say, because I have a friend in Russia who is a judge, although not of the criminal court) the defendants will probably win on appeal.

    Misrepresentations as to guilt should indeed have nothing to do with the sentence in a criminal trial, although they are extremely relevant as to presumption of guilt as a function of the defendant’s character. If a defendant appears to be an habitual liar, or one who will readily obfuscate on the advice of council, the court would be right to believe any other testimony by that person to be likely untruthful. As to calling witnesses who have nothing to do with the trial and introducing specious delays, the judge should have firmly stopped that herself, and I believe she let it go on as long as she did because of the political nature that attached to the trial, in an attempt to show fairness.

    The thing is, the offense itself does not presently appear in criminal law as an offense. This appears to be a loophole in the law which is likely to be exploited again considering it has stirred up so much attention. Therefore, it will probably be closed by introduction of an amendment making such behaviour a criminal offense. What’s going to be the media slant then? That’s right: the state is moving to crush dissent. Faced with a choice of amending the law or enduring a rash of progressively more outrageous publicity stunts featuring the church, what would the international community have the state do?

    Reply
  8. Great post!

    About the last bit – Russians make a point of ignoring outside interference, not giving in to Western moralizing, they insist on doing things their own way. Partly because they perceive West as hypocritical but again I’m wondering whether this obsession with autonomy is not some sort of “sacred value”? I mean, hell, they will even go as far as sue Madonna! (no matter that it makes them look ridiculous).

    Reply
  9. Interesting to contemplate conspiracy theories, such as that advanced by Leonid Bershidsky in Bloomberg, that, “the Pussy Riot case could be a Kremlin plot meant to split the anti-Putin movement. Alexei Plutser-Sarno, a member of the St. Petersburg-based protest-art group Voina, wrote in his blog that Tolokonnikova left the group after her husband, Pyotr Verzilov, was ejected for acting as a police informant.

    Now, its now well known that Verzilov is a dual Russian-Canadian citizen (Tolokonnikova merely a Canadian resident), and today, we see evidence of Canadian Foreign Minister Baird soft-peddling the Canadian response to the Pussy Riot case (http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/08/20/baird-pussy-riot/).

    This is at the same time as Royal Canadian Navy officer is in a closed trial for selling vital Western military secrets to an unnamed country, but also “uncharacteristically ambiguous” is that the Canadian government has been careful to not mention Russia at all, and to “expel” Russian diplomats who had already left Canada.

    Hmmm…so, what is Baird expecting as a pay-back for all this careful pussy-footing around (no pun intended!) the Putin government?

    Reply

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