Like James "Whitey" Bulger, Vladimir Putin likes to make the bodies bounce.
Bulger is the reputed mob boss on trial for multiple murders in Boston. After Bulger learned that a confederate was singing to the FBI, according to some recent testimony, Bulger shot him, and shot him, and shot him, until "his body was bouncing off the ground."
Putin is the president of Russia, who last week saw to the conviction for tax evasion of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who blew the whistle on massive corruption among Putin’s underlings. Magnitsky died three years ago, when he was beaten and denied treatment in prison. But Putin can’t stop shooting.
The ghoulish conviction is just one stop on a breathtaking rollback of rights and freedoms Putin has engineered since reclaiming the presidency in May 2012. The clampdown has been remarkable for its speed and comprehensiveness — and for President Barack Obama’s apparent utter indifference to it.
Russia has been slipping since 2004, when Putin, in his first term, began dismantling laws that had allowed for political opposition. But in the past year, "the Russian government has unleashed a crackdown on civil society unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history," as Human Rights Watch documented in a 76-page report this spring.
The Washington Post’s Kathy Lally and Will Englund have chronicled the stifling of independent voices in vivid detail. A few headlines from just the past few months:
Russia to charge independent mayor.
Head of Russian news website faces prison.
Russia cracks down on U.S.-linked NGOs.
Trial of Putin critic opens in Russia.
Russian women’s rights rally broken up.
Having reduced parliament and provincial governments to puppets, Putin in his second wave of repression aims to destroy the civil society that began to emerge under Mikhail Gorbachev and flowered after the Soviet collapse in 1991. Independent journalists, environmental advocates, historical societies — anyone who is not subservient is an enemy. And wielding pliant courts and police, Putin transforms his enemies into spies, embezzlers or drug dealers. The more ludicrous the charges, the better everyone understands that Putin can do as he pleases.
The rule-by-fear is Soviet, but this time there is no ideology — only a noxious mixture of personal aggrandizement, xenophobia, homophobia and primitive anti-Americanism.
In Moscow four years ago, Obama saluted a group of civil society representatives "for the passion and perseverance" they brought to their fight for freedom, the rule of law, justice and accountable government.
"I don’t think these are American ideals and I don’t think they are the monopoly of one country," Obama said then. "They’re universal values. They’re human rights. And that’s why the United States of America will support them everywhere. That is our commitment. And that is our promise."
With that audience now in Putin’s sights, Obama’s promise is, to be polite, not yet fulfilled. Search the White House website for Russia and an entirely different country emerges, one whose officials work shoulder to shoulder on the "reset" in relations and on drugs, terrorism and arms control.
After meeting with Putin last month, Obama told reporters they’d had a "very useful conversation ... I began by thanking him again for the cooperation ... extensive discussions about how we can further deepen our economic and commercial relationships ... we both agreed to consult closely ... the kind of constructive, cooperative relationship that moves us out of the Cold War mindset."
No mention of the attacks on venerable human rights groups such as Memorial. No time for Alexei Navalny, the courageous blogger about to be sentenced to six years in prison. Not a nod to the many journalists who have been jailed, beaten or killed — nor to those who, against all odds, keep trying to tell the story.
So much for "our commitment."
Of course the United States needs to work with Russia on a host of issues. Of course it has limited influence over Russia’s development.
But when the United States stands with people who are struggling for freedom, it gives them courage. It shines a spotlight on injustice. It emboldens fellow-democrats in unpredictable corners of the world. It can make a difference, and it is, as Obama said just two weeks ago, the right thing to do.
When Obama was a college student, he said during a visit to South Africa last month, "I knew that while brave people were imprisoned just off these shores on Robben Island, my own government in the United States was not standing on their side. That’s why I got involved."
"We don’t tell people who their leaders should be," Obama concluded, "but we do stand up with those who support the principles that lead to a better life."
A college student today watching Obama embrace Russia — or China, or Vietnam, or any number of other unfree nations — might wonder when that standing up will begin.
—The Washington Post