Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Power Vertical

The Show Trial Must Go On

Flipping the bird at a kangaroo court
Flipping the bird at a kangaroo court
By Brian Whitmore

The actors change, but the stage always looks the same.

The wood-paneled courtroom. The officious judge robed in black. The stern prosecutor. That creepy cage for the accused and the stone-faced cops guarding it. And the defendant in the dock -- sometimes somber, sometimes defiant.

The script changes, but it always follows the same template: Patently ridiculous charges are presented and debated as if they were actually plausible, followed by the faux suspense of a verdict that everybody knows is a foregone conclusion.

It's a game of pretend that has long been a legitimation ritual for Vladimir Putin's regime -- and it has disrupted and ruined many lives in the process. 

In fact, the spectacle of the show trial has been an ongoing set piece, a trademark of Putin's rule, virtually from day one.

It's ensnared earnest academics like Igor Sutyagin, wealthy oil barons like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, youthful dissidents like the women of Pussy Riot, and anticorruption crusaders like Aleksei Navalny.

Foreign citizens like U.S. businessman Edmond Pope, Estonian law-enforcement officer Eston Kohver, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, and, of course, Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko have found themselves trapped in this weird and cruel hall of mirrors.

And in 2013, whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky became -- to my knowledge -- the first dead man subjected to a Russian show trial.

And in this peculiarly Russian form of performance art, courts aren't bound by the normal rules of reality and logic.

Russian show trials have convicted Khodorkovsky of stealing oil from himself, Navalny of embezzling money without making a profit, and found Sutyagin guilty of espionage for passing "state secrets" to foreign colleagues that came from newspapers. 

And later this month, a court in the Rostov Oblast is widely expected to convict Savchenko of killing two Russian journalists in the Donbas -- even though they were killed after she had already been abducted by pro-Moscow separatists.

Each show trial has had its own unique purpose.

The prosecution of Sutyagin, who was Putin's first show-trial victim, appeared to be a signal that the security services were back in charge, as well as a message to academics to be careful about contacts with foreigners.

The Khodorkovsky case was designed to establish Putin's bona fides as a leader who was not afraid of the oligarchs and to send a message to leading tycoons to stay out of politics.

It also had the added benefit of allowing Putin crony Igor Sechin to seize the assets of Khodorkovsky's Yukos oil company.

The Pussy Riot case established the zeitgeist of Putin's third term, an anticosmopolitan conservatism that played to Russia's working classes and rural poor. 

And the prosecutions of Navalny and the Bolotnaya Square protesters showed that the Kremlin was prepared to get rough with the opposition.

But while show-trial victims are invariably convicted, the carefully calibrated sentences vary.

The fact that Navalny has avoided prison despite two convictions shows that the Kremlin metes out only as much punishment as it believes it can get away with -- no more and no less. 

But as Peter Pomerantsev, author of the book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: Inside The Surreal Heart Of The New Russia, notes, the overarching purpose of the whole exercise -- from Sutyagin to Savchenko -- is the same: to show that the Kremlin "has full control of the script" and is the master of reality.

"This absurdity appears to be deliberate," Pomerantsev wrote in a 2013 report for the Legatum Institute. "It proves to the public that the Kremlin can re-imagine reality at will, can say ‘black is white' and ‘white is black' with no one able to contradict."

And given this, Savchenko's defiant gesture -- giving the judge and the court the middle finger during her closing statement -- was such an appropriate response to the whole outrageous show. 

In fact, it may be the only appropriate response.

(Thanks to RFE/RL editor Steve Gutterman for his helpful input and contribution to this post.) 

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Neil Nelson from: UT, USA
March 10, 2016 19:26
Obama's remarks here http://www.rferl.org/content/obama-ukraine-vulnerable-russian-military-domination/27603145.html are a bit confused.

If I were in the Baltics and Poland I would be wondering where Obama would draw the line. It is better to keep Putin guessing than to say Ukraine will not be defended if overrun by Russian forces.
In Response

by: Bo from: CK
March 11, 2016 21:32
Barry is dangerously clueless and only shows his disdain for human rights and true democracy.

As a US president, leader of free world, how else could you be so cold towards a nation in Ukraine's boots?
In Response

by: Neil Nelson from: UT, USA
March 13, 2016 20:09
To get a better handle on Obama's remarks I read through The Atlantic's article, The Obama Doctrine, here http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/. Overall I would say Obama has an excellent approach and agree that using US military force needs to be extremely well considered as it will affect the lives of our military servicemen, the spending of treasure, and a realistic assessment of the goals we expect and can achieve. Also Obama's promotion of alternate methods of achieving international goals through diplomacy and such makes excellent sense.

Is ISIS really a national security problem for the US? Well, yes and no. Is Afghanistan really a national security problem for the US? Well, yes and no. Is the Ukraine conflict a national security problem for the US? Well, yes and no. We can apply a variety of measures to argue for or against the many world issues we face.

Take NATO. NATO is fundamentally the belief (most importantly) and capacity that an attack on a NATO member will be defended by all against the attacker. It is in very large part the credibility of the US. And certainly we should use our influence to help the NATO members shoulder their share. But the idea that the US can afford to let its credibility slide very far would be a serious mistake. Of course we can not react to every provocation to defend credibility and we need to work our diplomacy to a maximum, but we need to be sure the world understands with sufficient clarity that our defense relations will be maintained.

Obama's statement from the article

"The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do," he said.

A large chunk of eastern Europe is vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do, in Obama's sense, including some NATO countries such as the Baltics. Are we defending the Baltics merely because they are in NATO? I think we need to get a better grip on what NATO is about, why we have NATO. NATO is more than we got stuck with all these European nations to defend in case of war. It is about a defense ideology that must extend, and has extended in several cases, beyond the NATO countries. Eastern Europe and Ukraine are clearly covered by the NATO ideology, making Russian military domination merely a military planning problem.

by: Volodya
March 11, 2016 04:43
Oh, Brian, you always hit the nail on the head, period! Keep exposing the ridiculousness of Putin's Russia.
In Response

by: Hans from: Germany
March 11, 2016 12:49
Brian Whitmore, who is for you Nadezda Savchenko? In your piece you did not answer to this main question. Why do you put her name among human rights activists, businessmen and so on? If you don't know who she is, then I remind you: Nadezda Savchenko is an artillery gunner who directed artillery towards civilians of Donbass, and she is personally responsible for the death of many civilians in Donbass, including a Russian journalist. Rather, you are not interested in this side of the issue. Although, I know that Americans are always on the side of terrorists, regardless whether it is the Middle East, or the Ukraine.
In Response

by: Mykola from: Banderachuk
March 11, 2016 14:08
Hans--do you have any proof of the allegations you are making?
In Response

by: Mike from: USA
March 11, 2016 15:39
I, too, would like to know who Nadezhda Savchenko is, especially since the name of the Ukrainian pilot (not artillery gunner) currently undergoing an entirely illegal show trial in Russia is named: Nadiya Viktorivna Savchenko (in Ukrainian: Надія Вікторівна Савченко). The facts have been established for some time now, that the fighting in Donbas has always been undertaken and controlled by the Russian military, who shot down a civilian airliner. So, there is no point in pretending that this fighting is a civil war. It began and continues today as a Russian invasion of sovereign country. Lastly, this world has seen collusion between elements in Germany and a totalitarian Muscovite regime before, most notably the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Any attempt to revisit such an unholy alliance is certain to alarm all concerned.
In Response

by: elmer from: next to Hans' troll house
March 11, 2016 19:24
The Kremlinoid troll has done his heroic work for Hero of the Sovok - er, Rashan Federation, Vlad Dracul Putler Khuylo the Pedophile.

Noone believes the Kremlinoid trolls, and they are always wrong, never in doubt.

Nadia Savchenko has now been morphed into an "artillery gunner," according to Hans the Kremlinoid troll.

What kind of artillery was she using, Hans the Kremlinoid troll?

Or did Kremlinoid troll HQ not tell you?

I hope those rubles that they give you for posting your Kremlinoid troll garbage spend will in "Germany."

by: Fernandez from: USA
March 11, 2016 12:39
Brian, don't you want to list the names of hundreds of foreigners, you have been kept in Guantanamo prison for more than 13 years? Without any trial! Don't you want to list the names of tens of thousands of prisoners - Mexicans who are not extradited to their country, and are being kept in the private US prisons, just in order to launder money from the state budget? Think about this topic next time.
In Response

by: elmer
March 11, 2016 19:26
Another Kremlinoid troll does his duty, with one of the standard Kremlinoid troll techniques -


"Ferndandez" from the "USA" - start your own Kremlinoid troll blog where you can bash the USA about Gitmo to your heart's content.

This topic is about Putler Khuylo the Pedophile and his insane asylum - the Russian Federation and its kangaroo courts.
In Response

by: Jerry Banderachuk from: Oakville
March 12, 2016 00:02
what about the milliions of Ukrainians sent to the gulag?

by: elmer
March 11, 2016 20:02
Right this minute on this Friday, March 11, 2016, Savik Shuster has as his guests on the Savik Shuster Show various people who have been "guests" of jails in the Russian Federation on trumped up charges.


One of the guests is the mother of Nadia Savchenko, who will be 78 years old on March 29.

The Kremlinoids stoop so low as to deprive Nadia, and others, of any reading materials, and even letters.

Nadia's mother says that if the letters are written in Ukrainian, they are not passed on to Nadia.

It gets worse than that. A young man named Yury (George) Yatsenko was detained for over a year, subjected to beatings, had guns fired next to his head, had a mentally ill person placed with him in the cell who requested that he be killed.

He was placed in a solitary confinement cell, where you couldn't move around, the floor was cold, and there was no light.

They wanted him to make "confessions" about EuroMaidan.

Russians should be thoroughly and profoundly ashamed.

by: IM from: Cleveland, Ohio
March 12, 2016 02:17
Truer words were seldom spoken. Perhaps the only recourse in the N. Savchenko case would be for Ukrainian President Poroshenko to terminate all relations including diplomatic and commercial with Putin's Russia, close the borders and declare a state of war with their northern neighbor.

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or