On the Right Side of History

It’s time for hope: What if the West called the bluff of Russia’s rigged elections instead of recognizing the legitimacy of Putin’s government?

The Russian presidential elections were rigged. Nothing illustrates this better than the official polling data: According to officials, 99.82 per cent of Chechens voted for Vladimir Putin. The man who ordered the destruction of this predominantly Muslim country is more popular than Prophet Muhammad.

The October 1917 coup d’état brought to power a Russian version of Social Democrats; a cohort of internationalists of all ranks and creeds, inspired by Marx and committed to building a “just and fair”, classless society. Seven years and a brutal civil war later, Russia was almost totally destroyed, with millions dead and exiled.

Yet the logic of economic cooperation prevailed: As soon as October 1920, the government of Estonia recognized the Bolsheviks as Russia’s legitimate rulers, broke an international trade embargo and became their major trading partner. Estonia supplied arms to the Soviet government and sold looted assets abroad.

In 1922, Germany concluded the infamous Treaty of Rapallo with a country still at war with itself. In 1924, the United Kingdom recognized Stalin’s government in exchange for lavish timber concessions and trade preferences. Mussolini followed suit. “Only poor M. Poincare still plays the role of Buridan’s ass, unable to choose between the hay of old debts and the oats of new profits,” wrote Communist newspaper Pravda the same year.

With economic crises intensifying, Putin will find his Western colleagues even less hesitant when it comes to recognizing his electoral “dominance”. Shameless destruction of electoral rights, severe limitations on civil rights and freedoms have neither deterred foreign governments from recognizing Putin’s legitimacy, nor stopped them from expressing their satisfaction with yet another act of barbarism.

The crisis in Russia could not have had happened at a worst time. Europe cannot possibly afford any disruption in energy supply. For Americans, civil unrest in Russia spells trouble in Central Asia and the collapse of its Afghan strategy — not to mention that of Obama’s presidential campaign. For China it means the end of economic growth. And, of course, the risks associated with nuclear proliferation are as high as ever.

Yet having made the mistake once the West cannot afford to make it again. If the 20th century has taught us anything, it has taught us two important lessons: That democracy is not negotiable, and that majority rule is immoral without the minority’s consent. The repression and prosecution of Putin’s political opponents, his total control over the federal media… In today’s Russia this consent is impossible. Forced underground, the opposition will not be marginalized, but radicalized. This means violence, not stability.

The only way out is a united front of viable democracies in support of the new Russia, and against dictatorship. Europe has to foster dialogue between political parties, press for judicial reform and for the strengthening of civil society. But it also has the obligation to protect those already incarcerated in jails and psychiatric facilities; those already deprived of their dignity and denied justice.

Why not apply the toolkit of international diplomacy before the civil unrest intensifies? Freeze bank accounts and arrest assets belonging to these perpetrating crimes against Putin’s political antagonists, and the effect will be palpable: Billions of dollars in Europe bank’s accounts belong to the people of Russia, not to members of the “governing elite”. Impose travel restrictions against those directly involved in torture and murder, and the impact will be immediate: Human souls are not for sale, even if price is not an issue.

Forty-nine years ago, on the 5th of March, Josef Stalin died in his Moscow country residence. The death of this Soviet ruler signalled the beginning of an era of great expectations. These hopes proved to be false. On the 5th of March 2012, thousands of Muscovites protested against the results of rigged presidential elections. These elections might still be won, not at the ballot box, this time, but through undivided support for the new Russia. A new Russia that is already coming into being. And no Glasperlenspiel of Western political establishment has the power to change the course of history.

Read more in this debate: Joseph Hammond, Mark Galeotti, Alexandr Sambuk.

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