Merry Christmas, Mr. Putin
Friday , July 19, 2013 - 12:46 PM
“Such a present ... Merry Christmas.”
That statement by President Vladimir Putin sums up the irony Russia faces in having Edward Snowden on the premises. For Moscow, the renegade American intelligence analyst represents both political pawn and political problem.
The leader made the Christmas-in-July reference while meeting with a group of students on an island in the Gulf of Finland. Addressing these young people, Putin played the martyr.
According to this scenario, Snowden was merely a transit passenger, heading elsewhere, when the Americans froze further flight. The Kremlin is being held captive by Washington’s exploitation of world-travel regulations. Poor Putin can do nothing.
In fact, the Russian government controls this situation, which is being milked for every last drop of propaganda advantage. One legacy of earlier totalitarianism is active monitoring of travelers.
When Snowden departed from China to Russia, rest assured that the situation was being closely watched by these once-close old communist allies.
Even the selection of Finland as backdrop for Putin’s performance was likely carefully calculated, an opportunity to exercise public influence in a historically vexing neighbor. During the Cold War, the Finns accommodated Moscow but were never under direct Soviet control. The Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40 was ended through negotiation. This was embarrassing for Soviet leader Josef Stalin and the Red Army, which had anticipated easy victory.
Meanwhile, Snowden continues in limbo in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. While his actions provide Russia and also China short-term propaganda and possibly intelligence advantage, longer-term he represents a serious potential political problem. His permanent residence in Russia would only draw further international attention to the serious human-rights problems there.
In March 2012, onetime KGB career enforcer Putin was once again elected president of Russia, after ally Dmitry Medvedev served as interim place-holder to satisfy constitutional term limits. Putin’s return to the top job argues powerfully that a cabal of cronies holds continuing control.
The voting was rightly publicly criticized as tainted. Human-rights activists both at home and abroad complained bitterly about fraud. The Russian activist group League of Voters publicly denounced the election. International observers confirmed that fraud took place.
December 2011 legislative elections witnessed similar controversy, centered on accusations that Putin’s United Russia Party committed widespread vote fraud. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev called for holding the elections again, with no success.
Russia remains dangerous for dissenters. In early 2009, near the Kremlin on a sunny day on a public street, activist attorney Stanislav Markelov was murdered. Journalist Anastasia Baburova was killed as well while trying to aid him. The hit man was a practiced pro, his pistol equipped with a silencer.
Baburova worked for Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya of that paper was prominent in investigating human-rights abuses in Chechnya. She was murdered in 2006.
The killings reconfirmed in bloody manner that ruthless repression takes place, especially regarding the media. While print journalists occasionally have been gunned down, the Kremlin has been more systematic if somewhat restrained in trying to restrict television, with expanded direct state censorship.
After the Russian elections, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held a press conference to criticize fraud.
Meanwhile, Putin’s Christmas reference does symbolize some progress.
Communism denied the legitimacy of religion.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.