Gold, censorship, and a meteorite make for a really bizarre week
by Gibson Merrick
It’s been a busy week for Russia. Sure, a minivan-sized meteorite exploded and injured over a thousand people, but the great Slavic nation also made headlines these last few days for its steadfast dedication to oppressing its people and alienating the rest of the world community. I’m talking about President Vladimir Putin doing what he does best, whether it be placing anti-government protestors under house arrest, obsessively buying gold, shutting down websites, or just laying down the law. While the western world focuses on the Middle East and North Korea, Russia continues down the slippery slope to dictatorship, a trend that, for the most part, is not being talked about in the media.
The week got off to a banging start on February 9 when Sergei Udaltsov, a leader in the Russian Opposition movement, was sentenced to two months house arrest for supposedly plotting riots in major Russian cities. Udaltsov had gained notoriety during the 2011-2013 protests against Putin’s third presidential term. These protests, named “For Fair Elections,” culminated on May 6, 2012, the day before Putin’s inauguration, in confrontations with police and the arrest of hundreds of people, Udaltsov among them. As a result, Udaltsov has been dubbed a “prisoner of conscience” by human rights group Amnesty International, a title also awarded to the jailed members of the female punk band Pussy Riot earlier that year. Since then, Udaltsov has been implicated in conspiracy charges against the government, allegedly meeting with Georgian politician Givi Targamadze for the purpose of “plotting mass disturbances.” February 9 marked the Moscow courts’ house arrest, citing Udaltsov’s unwillingness to remain in Moscow. House arrest bars Udaltsov from all major forms of communication (internet, mail, telephone) and, prior to the beginning of his punishment, Uldaltsov tweeted he could only be in contact with family and lawyers. Following his April 6 release date, Udaltsov can face up to ten years imprisonment for his conspiracy charges.
Adding to the general “what the fuck?” sense was the February 11 report that Russia has become the world’s largest buyer of gold in the last ten years, with a reserve of 570 metric tonnes (1.25 million pounds). To put it in perspective, that’s enough to make three Statues of Liberty. Russia’s gold binge was summed up by lawmaker Evgeny Fedorov, saying “the more gold a country has, the more sovereignty it will have if there’s a cataclysm with the dollar, the euro, the pound or any other reserve currency.” It’s reassuring to know Russia is sticking to the communist motto, “always prepared.” Or maybe Putin just really likes Goldfinger and economic doomsdays?
James Bond villainy aside, February 14 marked an internet crackdown on anti-Putin journalists Andrei Malgin and Vladimir Pribylovsky, wherein the recently instated “Internet blacklist” law was used to shut down a blog hosting their work. Pribylovsky had previously published a series of official government documents that allegedly revealed corruption in a manner similar to Wikileaks. The blacklist law, which took effect at the beginning of November, was meant to “protect the children” from “harmful information” citing child pornography, self-harm blogs, and violent content. Shortly after being put in place, however, the law was used to censor blogging site LiveJournal as well as a Wikipedia imitator, Lurkomore. Now the law was used to blacklist the blog LJRossia.org, which hosted material from these journalists, citing “child pornography elements” as the primary cause. That same day, President Putin warned non-government organizations (NGOs), which work similarly to Political Action Committees (PACs), that funds from abroad will no longer be tolerated. He said, “no one has the monopoly of speaking on behalf of the entire Russian society, let alone the structures directed and funded from abroad and thus inevitably serving foreign interests. Any direct or indirect meddling in our internal affairs, any forms of pressure on Russia, on our allies and partners is inadmissible.” This policy, one of Putin’s increasingly isolationist economic policies, is also marked by the president’s promise to achieve a stronger Eurasian Union by 2015. Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had previously called this integration of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), formerly part of the USSR, a move towards “re-sovietization,” something Putin called “nervous statements” on February 14.
In his recent State of the Union Address, Obama spoke of reopening nuclear disarmament discussions with Russia, but aside from the occasional warning against Putin’s direction, addressing the oppressions listed above are not at the top of anybody’s to-do list. It’s a strange and confusing time when America, a nation that loves to push for democratic rights throughout the world, seems to turn a blind eye to a country which is so obviously on it’s way towards a full fledged dictatorship once again. And while Putin’s approval rating remains high in Russia, it has been slipping in recent months, falling from 90% to 60%. Ultimately, whether or not you buy into the idea of Putin as a dictator, you have to admit it’s been a weird week in the former USSR.