So one of the outcomes of the RT debate has been some astonishing assertions that Russia is a democracy. This comes from the same thinking that My Enemies Enemy is my Friend. It’s the same place we get some weird apologists for Assad popping up. So, one minute you’re wanting self-determination for Scotland, the next you’re excusing away repression, propaganda or ethnic cleansing.

So is Russia a democracy and is RT a broadcaster worth associating with?

For some background this is good from Martin Docherty-Hughes (the SNP MP for West Dunbartonshire) from May last year “Kremlin’s RT and Sputnik are tools for disinformation”.

One of many good points he raises that must be confronted by pro-Putin pro-RT nationalists here is: what is their attitude to national independence movements inside Russia itself?

“The Kremlin also seeks to get its own narrative across through directly-funded news services such as RT, formerly known as Russia Today; and Sputnik, an agency which has started broadcasting an English language radio station based in Edinburgh.

This brave new world of the Russian media is well depicted in Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, a spellbinding look at the system created by Putin to support his illiberal democracy.

Pomerantsev, an Englishman, found himself working as a TV producer in Moscow, where media bosses were keen to use his London experience to create a uniquely Russian style: his conclusion is a rather depressing one, especially for those who hope we may be able to see a loosening of Mr Putin’s grip: “This isn’t a country in transition, but some sort of post-modern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends.”

AND

“It is true that if you go onto the RT website, and can click past the exaggerated stories of the refugee crisis in Europe; the maliciously fabricated ones about those of the Muslim faith raping ethnic Russians in Germany; or the truly bizarre reports of a genocide being perpetrated by the Ukrainian Government against its own people in the Donbass, it is possible to find a couple of stories which give a supportive slant on Scottish Independence.

Therein lies the problem. We can’t as Scottish Nationalists kid ourselves the support RT and Sputnik show for our cause is for any other reason than it misguidedly thinks that it will undermine Western institutions, and fundamentally the international rule of law: somewhat short-sightedly it has to be said, given an Independent Scotland would be an enthusiastic member of both the EU and Nato; and given the contribution that small, Northern European states have made to European security, through agreements like the Helsinki Accords, or in organisations such as the UN.”

AND

“What you won’t hear on the new Sputnik station, of course, is any examination of the situation of national independence movements inside Russia itself: difficult as that may be given the potential prison sentence that awaits anyone expressing a belief in independence from the Russian Federation. You won’t see much of an examination into how Russia’s LGBTI community reacts to its Eurovision entry, given the punishments that await anyone “actively promoting a homosexual lifestyle”.

He concludes:

“These are the groups inside Russia who I’d love to say I was speaking to if I went on RT or Sputnik, but I don’t ever think they’ll ask me for comment. Recent tensions between Russia and the West have underlined the need for a dialogue between the populations of our common and diverse Europe, and the proud and diverse culture and communities of Russia: but I remain to be convinced this will ever be the right forum to do that: instead of being a tool for dialogue, RT and Sputnik are a tool for disinformation. These channels are happy to go with a lie if the lie fits; or with the truth if that truth proves to be inconvenient to Western institutions.”

But what of the claim that Russia is a democracy?

The Russian politician Boris Nemtsov and the commentator Kara-Murza have defined Putinism in Russia as:

“a one party system, censorship, a puppet parliament, ending of an independent judiciary, firm centralization of power and finances, and hypertrophied role of special services and bureaucracy, in particular in relation to business”.

In December 2007, the Russian sociologist Igor Eidman (VCIOM) categorized the Putin regime as:

“the power of bureaucratic oligarchy” which had “the traits of extreme right-wing dictatorship — the dominance of state-monopoly capital in the economy, silovoki structures in governance, clericalism and statism in ideology”. [1]

In 2000, Russia’s political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky called Putinism “the highest and culminating stage of bandit capitalism in Russia”. He said: “Russia is not corrupt. Corruption is what happens in all countries when businessmen offer officials large bribes for favors. Today’s Russia is unique. The businessmen, the politicians, and the bureaucrats are the same people.” [2]

Freedom of Press

In order for you to have a functioning democracy you need a free and open press.

In 2013 Russia ranked 148th out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders. In 2015 Freedom House report Russia got score of 83 (100 being the worst), mostly because of new laws introduced in 2014 that further extended the state control over mass-media.

Freedom House reports on the new laws:

“Two new laws that took effect in 2014 significantly extended state control over the online sphere. Federal Law No. 398, signed by President Vladimir Putin in December 2013, came into force in February 2014, allowing the prosecutor general’s office to bypass the court system and order—via the state telecommunications regulator, Roskomnadzor—the blocking of websites that disseminate calls for mass riots, “extremist” activities, and participation in illegal assemblies. The law was regularly invoked against independent and opposition websites in 2014, as were older laws that allowed blocking on a variety of other grounds. In the first half of the year alone, Roskomnadzor blocked more than 85 websites for containing “extremist content” based on orders from the prosecutor general’s office. In March, access to opposition leader Aleksey Navalny’s blog, hosted on the website of the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, was blocked after Roskomnadzor notified internet service providers that the blog contained banned information. Ekho Moskvy removed the blog, and access to its website was reestablished the following day. Also that month, the prosecutor general issued an order to block access to three websites known for carrying opposition views: the news site Grani.ru, the online magazine Yezhednevny Zhurnal, and Kasparov.ru, the site of opposition activist Garry Kasparov. In July, officials used the online extremism law to block mention of a planned march supporting Siberian autonomy. In May, Putin signed Federal Law No. 97, nicknamed “the bloggers law,” which requires any blog or website with more than 3,000 daily viewers to register with Roskomnadzor as a media outlet.”

Irony is crushing sometimes.

There are many examples of attacks on press freedom but lets take just one, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

She was a human rights activist who reported on political events in Russia, in particular the Chechen War, for which she became famous to many and a thorn in the side to the Russian authorities.

Anna was arrested by Russian military forces in Chechnya and subjected to a mock execution. She was poisoned on a plane flying from Moscow via Rostov-on-Don and was threatened and intimated for years.

On 7 October 2006, she was murdered in the elevator of her block of flats.

In May 2007, after her death Random House published Politkovskaya’s A Russian Diary, containing extracts from her notebook and other writings subtitled A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption, and Death in Putin’s Russia.

You can’t describe any of these facts and then expect to be taken seriously describing Russia as a functioning democracy.

The Ministry of Justice maintains a list of “extremest materials” which are illegal to share. These include an image of Putin as a “gay clown” which was added earlier this year as item 4071, as a result of a 2016 legal case against social media activist A. V. Tsvetkov.

An Amnesty International reported in 2009, that:

“Human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers who spoke openly about human rights abuses faced threats and intimidation. The police appeared to be reluctant to investigate such threats and a climate of impunity for attacks on civil society activists prevailed.” The Amnesty International reported also a “climate of growing intolerance towards independent views”. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Russia is a more dangerous place now than it was during the Cold War. Only Iraq and Algeria outrank it on the list of most life-threatening countries for the press.”

Freedom of Assembly, Homophobia and Human Rights 

Human rights are severely under assault in Russia. Political repression and violence are rife. In 2015 the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

In June 2013 the national parliament (the State Duma) unanimously adopted, and President Vladimir Putin signed, a nationwide law banning distribution of materials promoting LGBT relationships among minors.

The law doesn’t explicitly mention the word “homosexuality” but instead uses the euphemism “non-traditional sexual relationships”.

Under the statute it is effectively illegal to perform any of the following in the presence of minors: hold gay pride events, speak in favor of gay rights, or say that gay relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships.

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

What you can see is a convergence of bandit capitalism and strict religious orthodoxy. It’s telling that Pussy Riot were imprisoned after their Punk Prayer for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

As with almost all authoritarian states, violence is codified and directed towards women as a form of social control.

Earlier this year the Russian government decriminalised domestic abuse. Global Voices reported:

“The Russian federal government is very close to decriminalizing several kinds of domestic abuse, reclassifying “violence that doesn’t cause significant injury” as a misdemeanor. According to criteria laid down by Russia’s Health Ministry, the draft legislation will decriminalize beatings within families that result in “minor harm,” like “small abrasions, bruises, superficial wounds, and soft-tissue damage.”

Last Friday, the State Duma approved the final draft of the legislation.”

They continued:

On Jan. 27, hours after the Duma passed the final draft of the decriminalization bill, the pro-Kremlin tabloid “Life” shared a bizarre video on social media, titled “He Beats You Because He Loves You,” reviewing the “top five ways to commit domestic violence without leaving any traces on your loved ones.”

You can’t describe any of these facts and then expect to be taken seriously describing Russia as a functioning democracy.

There is nothing of this that is of “the Left”. To criticise Russia is not to criticise “the Left”.

Russia is a right-wing authoritarian state running a chaotic corrupt turbo-capitalism.

But what of Russia’s foreign policy and black ops?

Twitter Bots

Matt Burgess here in Wired outlines what they call the “first evidence that Russia used Twitter to influence Brexit”.

He outlines how Russia-based Twitter accounts that targeted the US presidential election were also used to create divisive and racist rhetoric in an attempt to disrupt politics in the UK and Europe:

“A network of accounts posted pro and anti-Brexit, anti-immigration and racist tweets around the EU referendum vote while also targeting posts in response to terrorist attacks across the continent. The accounts amplified their own messages to reach a greater audience and their impact raises questions about the full extent of Russia’s propaganda campaign. In a small snapshot of what is likely to be a much bigger issue, 139 tweets from 29 accounts show Russian trolls using hashtags related to the Brexit vote, pictures of London Mayor Sadiq Kahn, anti-Muslim language around European terror attacks and racial slurs against refugees.”

That might not convince you on its own. If not here’s J.J.Patrick’s research:

“Over the course of 2017 the Russian hybrid offensive on the West, which specifically targeted the Brexit referendum and the election of President Trump, has been extensively investigated and confirmed. From Sweden to the online world of Social Media this is the whole story and a growing archive” See ‘Brexit, Trump, Russia the Whole Story’ [3]

That might not convince you on its own. If not here’s Jonathan Chait’s research for New York magazine:

“We don’t have proof that all these figures were acting together. But it certainly appears that Cambridge Analytica was heavily involved with trying to get Clinton’s stolen emails, and was aware that Russia had engineered their theft, and played an important role facilitating cooperation between Russia and the Trump campaign.” More here: “Cambridge Analytica Denies Working With Russia, Unconvincingly“).

Not a Democracy

The deluge of evidence about the actions of Russia to effect the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the US election will continue, and as they do it will become not just increasingly absurd to call Russia a democracy, it will become increasingly offensive to do so.

Reviewing Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible Tony Wood writes:

“As Pomerantsev points out, one key to the success of this new authoritarianism is that “instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting them and rendering them absurd”. The clearest example of this is the creation of a political system that has the appearance of democracy – regular elections, multiple parties, a free media – without any of the substance: the elections are rigged; the parties are all under the president’s control; the media do what their owners tell them, and the owners obey the Kremlin. It’s this mismatch between form and content that has earned the Putin regime the name “virtual” or “imitation democracy”.

The case for Scottish independence cannot be strengthened by association with, or apologism  for repressive states.

The argument for self-determination for Scotland, the argument for democracy which I passionately believe in, cannot be advanced by defending anti-democracy.

 

 

Notes

[1] (in Russian) Популяры вместо оптиматов. Оппозиция в России может быть только новой и левой. Vremya Novostei № 230 14 December 2007.

[2] Putinism: highest stage of robber capitalism, by Andrei PiontkovskyThe Russia Journal, February 7–13, 2000. The title is an allusion to work “Imperialism as the last and culminating stage of capitalism” by Vladimir LeninArchived July 11, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.

[3]  https://www.byline.com/column/67/article/1936