Friday, August 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Change course in Russia

By Robert P. George

The Winter Olympics were Vladimir Putin's opportunity to showcase his Russia. Yet the grandeur of Sochi masked a darker reality. The road to Sochi was littered with human-rights abuses that threaten Russia's progress toward true democracy and even its security.

Violations include the sentencing of a political protester to Soviet-era psychiatric treatment and the holding of prisoners of conscience, despite Putin's release of four high-profile prisoners in December. They involve new laws banning blasphemy and limiting freedom of speech. In the volatile North Caucasus next door to Sochi, forces acting on Putin's behalf abuse Muslim civilians in the name of fighting terrorists, and impose collective punishment, which risks driving victims into extremist hands. An extremism law, enacted and expanded under Putin's watch, helps fuel these abuses, while also harming other religious minorities, from Evangelicals and Pentecostals to Jehovah's Witnesses.

Consider where Russia was a generation ago - when Moscow became the locus of freedom's newest advance. Then fast forward to 2012, when Russia's human-rights activists asserted that Russia had become a police state.

What happened? How did Russia move from those early days of promise to today, when Moscow is looking increasingly like the Kremlin of old?

The seeds were sown in 1997, when Russia passed its Religion Law. The law played favorites, creating categories of communities, each having different privileges. And while the preface to the law had no legal standing, it singled out four "traditional religions" - Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Orthodox Christianity - implying favored status for them.

The Religion Law spelled trouble for "outsiders" such as Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses, who had been persecuted under Soviet rule.

But it was Putin's Extremism Law - enacted in 2002 and then expanded later in the decade and again this month - which dealt a body blow to liberty. Its impetus was concern about terrorism, yet the law allowed for sanctions even against nonviolent religious groups that simply asserted the veracity of their own doctrines over those of others.

Russia has banned at least 68 Jehovah's Witness texts as extremist, and Witnesses now face prosecution for their possession. One might wonder: How does criminalizing the teachings of pacifists combat terrorism? In March 2012, a local court declared 68 Muslim texts extremist without proof that any approved, much less incited, terrorism. How does going after peaceful Muslims advance the fight against violent Islamist extremism?

And how do the massive human-rights violations of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's Kremlin-appointed president, make Russia more secure? Late last year, Kadyrov's first deputy interior minister told Chechen officials that Kadyrov had given him free rein to plant false evidence and to arrest, jail, and execute without trial anyone who "looks remotely like an Islamic militant." Might this create more potential "militants"?

In 2012, after Putin's return to the presidency, he oversaw a further campaign against freedom. He supported and signed laws raising fines against protesters one hundred fold; fining or jailing foreign-funded NGO leaders who refused to stigmatize themselves as "foreign agents"; and broadening the definition of high treason, potentially making participation in international organizations punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

In July, Putin signed a blasphemy law imposing fines and imprisonment for "disrespect" or "insult" of religious beliefs. He also approved legislation barring public advocacy of "alternative lifestyles." Yes, other countries are creating a hostile climate for freedom of expression of traditional moral views about sexuality and marriage - and this deserves condemnation - but two wrongs don't make a right. Societies must protect every individual's right (and the right of every religious or advocacy group) peacefully to express their beliefs about sex and marriage and other issues.

Behind these restrictions is a premise - that respect for human rights threatens Russia's cultural unity or national security. But when the government dishonors fundamental rights, there can be no unity or security, only more chaos and division, and, eventually, violence and terror.

When it comes to national security, Putin understands the need to fight not just terrorists, but also their ideology. But the Russian strongman needs to learn that the way to defeat bad ideas is with good ones in a public square that admits the peaceful expression of competing ideas. If Russia is to prevail, it must protect basic civil liberties - from freedom of religion or belief to expression, association, and assembly. It must create and maintain a free marketplace of ideas.

After Sochi, Putin must change course. If Russia is to have a future, he must trust the common sense of his people and make freedom Russia's cornerstone for stability and peace.


Robert P. George is McCormick professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. rgeorge@princeton.edu

Also on Philly.com
Stay Connected