Category Archives: freedom

Happy birthday, 1984!

Slightly belated (the actual date was June 8).

My take on the 60th anniversary of George Orwell’s great novel can be found here: “We have met Big Brother, and he is us.”

Meanwhile, here’s a gallery of the covers of the many editions of Orwell’s dystopian novel.  Here’s a quaintly hilarious one from 1955:

orwell84-big

1984 as pulp romance.  (That’s a pretty alluring uniform for the Junior Anti-Sex League!)  Pity the poor reader who picked this up expecting a steamy tale of forbidden love, fear, and betrayal.  What a cruel way to sell books.

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Neither a borrower nor a lender be

Is it just me, or does the new credit card consumer protection legislation protect less responsible cardholders (those who accumulate a lot of debt or exceed spending limits) at the expense of more responsible ones who usually pay off their bills on time, and who are likely to get hit with new fees or have rewards canceled as banks try to make up for lost revenue?  Transparency is generally good, and requiring credit card companies to notify cardholders in advance of an interest rate hike seems unobjectionable — but what if the bank has to respond quickly to changing market conditions or lose money?   Is there really anyone who doesn’t know that credit card companies generally have fines for spending over the credit limit or paying by phone?  And is it really such a good idea to impose extra hurdles on young men and women between 18 and 21 — old enough to marry, vote, drive,  join the Army — before they can apply for a credit card?  (One of the options is to have a parent or guardian as a guarantor; apparently, parental control is oppressive when it comes to sex or contraception, but  not money.)  

Meanwhile, on HuffPo, Arianna rails against the evil of usury, invoking the Bible, the Koran, and St. Thomas Aquinas (inter alia).  Apparently, invoking religious texts as justification from social policy is also fine when the policy in question is a politically liberal one.  It seems that some scripturally condemned activities between consenting adults are not okay after all.

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New Russian treason law opposed by Medvedev?

Last month, I wrote about a proposed law in Russia that would make the definition of “treason” disturbing broad and vague, and reminiscent of Soviet-era statutes that outlawed dissent. As I explained, Russian law currently defines treason as “hostile actions intended to damage the security of the Russian Federation from foreign threats.” The bill, proposed by the government (i.e. the cabinet headed by Vladimir Putin), amended that definition to include “rendering financial, material, consultative, or other assistance to a foreign state, a foreign or international organization, or representatives thereof in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation, including its constitutional system, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity and statehood.” The definition of espionage was also broadened to include broad categories of passing potentially sensitive information to foreigners even with no intent to commit espionage, giving rise to concern that the new law would drastically inhibit scientific contacts between Russia and the West.

Well, according to a report in yesterday’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta (link to Russian-language article), the draft law has run into opposition from members of parliament who are close to President Dmitry Medvedev. Continue reading

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Russia: winds of change?

My op-ed in today’s Boston Globe. Reposted below, with a few extra lines The Globe cut for space.

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A year ago, Russia was in an odd place between oppressive stagnation and a glimmer of possible change. The ruling party, United Russia, had just consolidated its hold on the parliament in a rigged election; the presidential transition was revealed as the farcical anointment of a handpicked successor to Vladimir Putin – the docile Dmitry Medvedev, who quickly promised to make Putin prime minister. Yet some Russian liberals, and sympathetic Westerners, harbored at least modest hopes that Medvedev might prove more liberal than Putin and that the division of power between president and prime minister might weaken Russia’s neo-autocracy.

Today, the winds of change in Russia are blowing again – harsh winds that may yet turn into a storm.

The liberalization from above turned out to be a non-starter, despite Medvedev’s declaration that “freedom is better than non-freedom.” Any hopes of a thaw, or a Putin-Medvedev fissure, were crushed when Medvedev’s first 100 days ended with the war in Georgia. (Whatever Georgia’s responsibility for triggering this war, it was preceded by years of provocation and manipulation by the Kremlin – intended to destabilize a government perceived as unfriendly and send an assertive message to the West.)

The surge of “patriotic” sentiment that followed Russia’s victory threatened to take the country even further down the authoritarian road. But history works in mysterious ways.

While Western sanctions in response to the war proved short-lived, Russia paid a heavy price for its victory in the flight of foreign capital – which both predated October’s financial crisis and exacerbated its effects in Russia.

The crisis revealed the clay feet of the Putin/Medvedev regime, not only showing the extent to which its relative prosperity was tried to high oil prices but also exposing the fakery of its feelgood propaganda machine. While state-controlled television news avoided the word “crisis” – except with regard to the West – Russian citizens rushed to convert rubles to dollars. Polls by the Public Opinion Fund found a sharp drop in confidence in the mainstream media. By late December, close to half of Russians said that media reports on the economy were biased and minimized economic problems; 30 percent (up from 23 percent in November) said that “journalists know the real state of the economy but are not allowed to tell the truth.”

Trust in Putin and Medvedev may suffer as well. Bizarrely, over 80 percent of those polled recently still approved Putin’s performance as prime minister – though only 43 percent thought Russia was headed in the right direction. Yet, of the 17 percent of Russians who watched Putin’s live televised question-and-answer session on December 4, fewer than half were satisfied with his answers.

The first rumblings of discontent came after the government announced a hike in custom duties on imported used cars to help Russia’s auto companies (run mostly by Putin cronies). Importing used cars from Japan is a major source of livelihood in the Far East, which responded with major protests that quickly became political. Some demonstrators openly denounced Putin, Medvedev, and United Russia; many angrily demanded television coverage. After a week of protests, a peaceful rally in Vladivostok was brutally broken up by the riot police on December 21; several journalists, too, were beaten and arrested. While television news ignored the incident, many mainstream newspapers did not. Remarkably, several local legislatures in the Far East have backed the protesters’ demands. So far, the government has refused to budge. But what will happen if the ranks of protesters swell from hundreds to hundreds of thousands?

So far, the Kremlin’s strategy for dealing with political opposition is a carrot-and-stick approach. Among the carrots: an effort to co-opt the opposition with the creation of a Kremlin-funded “liberal” party, the Right Cause, and the appointment of a prominent liberal politician, Nikita Belykh, to a governorship. The sticks include proposed legislation that would make it easier to convict dissenters of treason or espionage, at least if they have any foreign contacts, and to take such cases out of jurors’ hands. These laws have drawn objections even from the governmental Public Chamber, a monitoring body meant to function as a collective ombudsman – though whether these objections will have any effect remains doubtful.

Unlike the Communist regime, the authoritarian Russian state still has room for some legal resistance – from the independent media to pro-democracy movements to judges who refuse to convict government critics under vague “extremism” laws. These small islands of freedom face a vastly unequal battle against the forces of repression; but the outcome in this battle is more uncertain than it has been in a long time.

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More Russia news: the good and the bad

According to Moscow Times:

In a rare example of grassroots political power, angry protests by drivers prompted lawmakers in the far eastern Primorye region on Monday to ask the country’s two leaders to delay raising import duties on foreign cars. The Primorye regional legislature, led by United Russia deputies, voted unanimously Monday to ask President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to postpone the tariffs, which take effect on Jan. 11, according to a decree signed by Putin. Thousands of drivers took to the streets in several far eastern cities and towns Sunday to protest the tariffs, blocking traffic, clashing with police, openly insulting Putin and Medvedev and even calling on Putin to resign. Putin’s decree would increase the prices for imported cars by between 10 and 20 percent, a move the government has defended as a way of protecting domestic auto makers during the growing financial crisis.

According to the Russian daily Kommersant, similar though less massive protests took place in Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk. In Novosibirsk, an officially sanctioned picket of 100 people on the main city square was joined by 200 cars whose drivers argued with the police and tried to block traffic. In Krasnoyarsk, a column of 300 cars sporting black ribbons drove very slowly through city streets, then parked across from the regional government headquarters and honked their horns for fives minutes. Many people who drove by also honked in support.

Slogans at the rallies — carried by protesters on foot or displayed on the rear windows of cars — included: “Putin, trade your Mercedes for a Volga!”, “Mr. Putin, help the tycoons out of your own pocket!”, and “Raise the tariffs on the actions of the Russian government.”

In Vladivostok, when Mayor Alexei Pushkarev begged the protesters to disperse, saying that they had already made their point, some people in the crowd shouted, “We need Channel One so that the whole country would know about our demands: no higher tariffs and cheaper gasoline!” Indeed, none of the state-controlled TV channels have given the protests any coverage at all. The average Russian will know nothing about them, neutralizing the potentially empowering and mobilizing effect of these events.

All this happens at a time when Putin’s aura as the savior of the nation may be finally wearing off. According to a new poll by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, reported in Izvestia, not only did Putin’s televised Q & A with the people have a smaller audience than in previous years (17%), but only 48% of those who watched said they were satisfied with Putin’s answers.

Meanwhile, there are more signs that the Kremlin is preparing to tighten its grip on dissent, or at least to give itself a weapon to squash dissent when they want to. A new law submitted to the parliament by the government would broaden the definition of treason. Existing Russian law defines treason as “hostile actions intended to damage the security of the Russian Federation against foreign threats.” In the amended version, the definition of treason would include “rendering financial, material, consultative, or other assistance to a foreign state, a foreign or international organization, or representatives thereof in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation, including its constitutional system, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity and statehood.” Many human rights activists are concerned that this signifies a de facto return to Stalinist law which made “anti-Soviet activity” a crime. Perhaps this is hyperbole, but is it too much of a stretch to think that this law could be directed against an opposition newspaper or website, or a human rights group critical of the government, which has received assistance from the USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, or the Soros Foundation?

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Russia: Freedom and thuggery

A day of “Marches of Dissent” in Moscow and St. Petersburg has been marked by massive police action, including about 90 arrests in Moscow and 10 in St. Petersburg and the cordoning off of two squares by Moscow police.

According to CNN.com:

A spokesman for Moscow City Hall told Interfax [the rally organizers] had been offered places to hold a rally, “but they again deliberately staged provocations and called on their supporters to attend unauthorized events.”

This is, of course, a load of B.S. The organizers of the rally, the Other Russia coalition, had legally applied for permission to hold the rally at central locations in downtown Moscow (Triumph Square and Pushkin Square). Instead, they were offered “alternate locations” in godforsaken places. For those familiar with New York geography, it would be a bit like an organization wanting to march down 5th Avenue and being offered an alternate location in Washington Heights. It should be noted that The Other Russia tried repeatedly to negotiate a compromise with City Hall, to no avail.

[More: A correction is in order. The alternate location offered to The Other Russia was Bolotnaya Square — literally meaning “Swamp Square” — which is, in fact, fairly close to the Kremlin. The organizers’ objection to this location was that it’s relatively unpopulated, away from the main flow of the crowds in downtown Moscow, and would impede their goal of “interaction with the people.” Bolotnaya is more a park than a square, and serves mainly as a hangout for young people and a spot for fire shows.]

Those arrested included fifty retired generals (who had joined the protest in the vain hope that the police would not have the nerve to arrest armed force veterans) as well as Roman Dobrokhotov, the brave young man who interrupted Dmitry Medvedev’s Constitution Day speech in the Kremlin the other day.

A few dozens dissenters (50 according to the Associated Press, 80 or 90 according to reports in the independent Russian media) were able to hold a brief march in an alternate Moscow location that was not disclosed in advance, blocking off Sadovaya Street for a while.

In St. Petersburg, where the city authorities allowed a rally but not a march, things went more peacefully, though harassment of opposition activists (including, in one case, a beating that left the victim hospitalized) is still reported.

It is often said that the liberal opposition in Russia has no base, and to a large extent that’s probably true. Still, the government’s actions show that it’s afraid of the opposition broadening its influence. Those actions, moreover, are not only thuggish but dumb. Suppressing the rallies draws more attention than letting them happen unmolested.

Speaking of thuggery, a remarkable (and truly disgusting) act thereof took place on December 12 in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, where 100 to 200 opposition activists (including chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov) gathered for the founding congress of a movement called Solidarity.

According to a BBC report:

A pro-Kremlin youth movement, Young Russia, set off smoke bombs outside the conference hall. Some wore monkey masks and taunted delegates by tossing bananas at them.

But the BBC omits any mention of antoher stunt by members on one of the pro-government youth movements that specialize in harassing opposition activists: releasing live sheep, clad in shirts and caps with a Solidarity logo, outside the conference center (apparently to make the point that the conference attendees were “sheep”). Three of the sheep died for unknown reasons (perhaps due to being roughly tossed from the bus that brought them in). Eyewitnesses say several others had broken legs. A video made by opposition activist Oleg Kozlovsky captures a part of the outrageous event. (Warning: video contains brief images of dead animals.)

Will the thugs be prosecuted for animal abuse? Don’t hold your breath.

More: On its website, The Young Guard claims that it was not behind the stunt with the sheep, and that it approves of the “political content” of the action but deplores animal abuse. Its site also features a video that purports to rebut allegations that the sheep were abused. Of course, this video — apparently shot by people associated with the stunt — shows only that some of the sheep were unharmed and in no way disproves Kozlovsky’s video.

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