As if to remind us that there is a world outside the feel good Olympic bubble that has engulfed Britain over the last week or so, the icy visage of Vladimir Putin found its way into a number of newspapers, marking the Russian President’s first visit to the UK in seven years.
Discounting the tussle between the two countries to win the third highest number of medals behind China and the USA (who said the Olympics was not political?), there are a number of reasons why this was a diplomatic meeting of significant importance.
…the dirtier he will play, and the greater the erosion of democracy will be…
The last time Putin came to Britain was in 2005. A year later, Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in a London restaurant, leading to serious tensions between the two countries that have never been truly healed. More recently, antagonisms have erupted over Russia’s refusal to give consent to a UN resolution over Syria, as well as anger over the apparent supplying of President Assad’s forces by the Russian state-owned arms company Rosoboronexport.
The issue that is likely to prove the most fragile, however, is Putin’s crackdown on anti-government protests on the streets of Moscow over the past year and specifically on the incarceration of members of the feminist punk rock band, Pussy Riot. While Putin has sought to brush off the significance of their imprisonment, calling for lenient sentences to be handed out to the band members, in private it is a deeply personal issue for him, and one that David Cameron must tread on carefully. Pussy Riot has become a major source of embarrassment for the Russian Premier, targeting him directly within their satirical songs. The harder he is forced to hold onto that power, the dirtier he will play, and the greater the erosion of democracy will be, hopefully for the rest of the world to see.
…Vladimir Putin’s iron grip over the Russia will no longer be as secure as it once was.
Which is why I hold a somewhat contradictory attitude towards Pussy Riot. We should, of course, be abhorred by their imprisonment without trial that started in March. Equally, the seven year sentences that the three young women – two of whom are mothers – could receive should be internationally condemned. Yet their treatment at the hands of the Russian authorities is providing a means (with evidence) for the rest of the international community to judge the process of justice and democracy in Russia. International awareness and support for the members of Pussy Riot and everything that they stand for would be negligible in comparison to what it is now had they not been imprisoned after their performance inside Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February and faced with a lengthy sentence.
Furthermore, Putin’s crackdown on dissent and pro-democracy campaigns would be far easier had Pussy Riot not been a major focus of the international media. In this sense, their imprisonment is acting as a means to an end. Whether they like it or not, they are facilitating a debate on the state of democracy in Russia, in much the same way that Ann San Suu Kyi’s house arrest highlighted the injustice in Burma, or internment without trial and the subsequent hunger strikes did in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. So yes, we do lament their imprisonment, but symbolically, the power those three women possess has a far greater potential.
Pussy Riot have personified their original protest songs, becoming representations of the injustices they so opposed. They have been incorporated into the very system that they are fighting against: their experience demonstrating first hand their argument, providing it with depth and integrity. There can be no other better form of propaganda, and Putin has fallen for it all too easily. The international community will not forget Pussy Riot, however long they are imprisoned. The Russian people will now take comfort in the exposure of injustice within their country, and Vladimir Putin’s iron grip over the Russia will no longer be as secure as it once was.