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The Decline of Political Protest


Once upon a time there was an organization called Amnesty International which was dedicated to defending prisoners of conscience all over the world. Its action was marked by two principles that contributed to its success: neutrality and discretion.  In the context of the Cold War, the early AI made a point of balancing its campaigns between  prisoners from each of three ideological regions: the capitalist West, the communist East and the developing South.  The campaigns remained discreet, avoiding ideological polemics and focusing on the legal and physical conditions of captives. Their aim was not to use the prisoners as an excuse to rant against an “enemy” government, but to persuade governments to cease persecuting non-violent dissidents.  It strove successfully to exercise a universal civilizing influence.

Since the end of the Cold War, the work of Amnesty International has become more complicated and more difficult.  Back in the early days, most of the “prisoners of conscience” were held either in the Soviet bloc or in the US satellite dictatorships in Latin America, which facilitated symmetry without unduly offending the U.S superpower.  But especially since the Bush administration’s reaction to September 11, 2001, the United States has increasingly become the world’s most notorious jailer.  This has brought an organization whose core is Anglo-American under conflicting pressures.  While it has protested against such flagrant abuses as Guantanamo and the abusive jailing of Bradley Manning, it appears to be under pressure to “balance” such punctual criticism by blanket denunciations of governments targeted for regime change by the United States.  In the case of U.S.-backed “color revolutions”, human rights organizations such as AI and Human Rights Watch are enlisted not to defend specific political prisoners, but rather to denounce general abuses which may or may not be seriously documented. The United States has increasingly managed to take control of AI for its own foreign policy campaigns.

A milestone in this takeover came last January, when the talented State Department official Suzanne Nossel was named as executive director of Amnesty International USA.  As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, Ms Nossel played a role in drafting the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on Libya. That resolution, based on exaggeratedly alarmist reports, served to justify the UN resolution which led to the NATO bombing campaign that overthrew the Gaddafi regime.  Credited with coining the expression “smart power”, taken up by Hillary Clinton as a policy slogan, Ms Nossel has won international recognition for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, thereby positioning the United States as a vanguard of human rights against the world’s many traditional societies, especially those whose regimes U.S. “smart power” wishes to embarrass, isolate, or even overthrow.

In its new phase, AI, like Human Rights Watch and other Western “humanitarian” organizations, has ceased to make any distinction between genuine repression of dissident thinkers and the sort of repression that is triggered by deliberate provocation, that is, by actions whose sole purpose is precisely to provoke repression, in order to accuse a targeted regime of being repressive. The Serbian group “Otpor” pioneered this sort of action, following teachings of Gene Sharp. Actions which anywhere in the world would be considered disorderly conduct are elevated to the level of Victor Hugo eloquently defying Napoleon III.

Neither the quality of dissidence nor its context seem to matter.  And nobody stops to ponder seriously how to deal with provocateurs who deliberately break the law in order to be arrested.  Should the law be suspended especially for them?  Or what?  Arresting them falls into a trap, but not arresting them would arouse complaints from indignant citizens who dislike such exhibitionism. It is a real dilemma.

Amnesty International has devoted extraordinary attention to the Pussy Riot case, while totally ignoring, for instance, the threat of U.S. prosecution that led Julian Assange to seek political asylum.

What is most notable about this attention, and the attention of the Western media in general, is its tone.  The tone is by no means a diplomatic appeal intended to persuade authorities to free the women in question.  Rather, it is a tone of provovation.

For instance:

“Masha, Nadia and Maria, who are being detained for their peaceful performance of a protest song in a cathedral, could very well be carted off to a labor camp in Siberia where they will be at risk of rape and other abuses.” (All stress is from the original texts, which I received from the organizations cited.)

“Pussy Riot’s crime? Singing a protest song in a church.

“Amnesty International is mounting a strong global response to help keep Pussy Riot’s case front and center. Help us send a truckload of colorful ski masks to President Putin in protest.

Today’s verdict is emblematic of increased efforts by President Putin and his cronies to stifle free speech in Russia. That’s why we’re sending President Putin as many colorful masks, called balaclavas, as we can. Donate $20 or more to send a mask to Putin. … It is clear that Russian authorities are trying to silence these women and instill fear in other activists — don’t let them succeed.”

This is a tone that can only make it more, not less, politically difficult for President Putin to overturn the court’s ruling and grant amnesty and early release to the young women.

Amnesty International, like Western media, have constantly simplified the case in terms designed to suggest that Russia is returning to Stalinist rule of the 1930s.  The French tabloid Libération splashed across its front-page photo of the three women, “To the GULAG for a song”.

Paying the Price

Avaaz, the on-line protest organizer, went farther.

Russia is steadily slipping into the grip of a new autocracy …Now, our best chance to prove to Putin there is a price to pay for this repression lies with Europe.

The European Parliament is calling for an assets freeze and travel ban on Putin’s powerful inner circle who are accused of multiple crimes. … if we can push the Europeans to act, it will not only hit Putin’s circle hard, as many bank and have homes in Europe, but also counter his anti-Western propaganda, showing him that the whole world is willing to stand up for a free Russia.”

The whole world?  Is this really a major concern of the whole world?

Avaaz goes on:

What happens in Russia matters to us all. Russia has blocked international coordination on Syria and other urgent global issues, and a Russian autocracy threatens the world we all want, wherever we are.”

The world we all want?  Or the world Hillary Clinton wants?

At a so-called “Friends of Syria” (meaning supporters of Syrian rebels) meeting in Geneva last July 6, Hillary Clinton lashed out against Russia and China for blocking US-sponsored Syrian regime change initiatives in the United Nations. “I do not believe that Russia and China are paying any price at all — nothing at all — for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime. The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price,” Clinton warned.

What Hillary wants, Hillary gets – at least in the narrow world of the “international community” made up of the U.S., its NATO satellites and their totally obedient media and NGOs.

Avaaz concludes: “Let’s join together now to show Putin that the world will hold him to account and push for change until Russia is set free.”

Now think about this.  “We”, the signers of Avaaz petitions, aspire to “show Putin” that despite being legally elected President of Russia, the outside world is going to “push for change until Russia is set free.”  Set free by whom?  Pussy Riot?  When did they, when could they, win an election?  So how is Russia to be “set free”?  By a no-fly zone? By U.S. drones?

Russia must “pay a price” for obstructing U.S. designs for Syria.  Is Pussy Riot part of the price?

The chorus of Western media, pop stars and other assorted self-styled humanitarians have all echoed the notion that the Pussy Riot women were jailed “by Putin” because of an innocent song they sang against him in a church.  But where is the evidence that they were arrested by Putin?  It seems they were arrested by police on a complaint by the Orthodox Church, which did not appreciate their hijinks on the high altar.  Churches tend to considers that their space is reserved for their own rites and ceremonies. The Catholic Cathedral in Cologne called the police to arrest Pussy Riot copy cats.  It was not the first time the Pussy Riot group had invaded an Orthodox church, and this time the offended ecclesiastics were fed up.  The group had demonstrated “against Putin” several times previously without being arrested.  So where is the proof that they were “jailed by Putin” as a “crackdown on dissent”?

Putin is on record, and on video, as saying he thinks the women should not be harshly punished for their stunt. But hey, Russia has a judicial system. The law is the law. Once the women were arrested on a complaint by the church, the wheels turned, a trial was held, they were convicted and sentenced by a judge on the basis of complaints by offended Christians.  It is an interesting detail that the witnesses failed to hear any mention of Putin – they were simply offended by the cavorting and the dirty words uttered by the masked performers.  It seems that the “song”, if that is what it was, and the anti-Putin lyrics, if one can call them that, were added subsequently to the video put on line by the group.

So why was this “a crackdown by Putin”?  Because, once the West labels a disobedient leader of a foreign state a “dictator”, his state no longer has a judicial system of its own, free elections, independent media, freedom of expression, contented citizens – no, none of that, because in the collective groupthink of the West, every “dictator” is Hitler/Stalin combined, and nothing bad that is done or happens in his country is a result of anything but his own wicked will.  In the end, of course, his greatest aspiration is probably to “kill his own people”.  But Avaaz, Amnesty International and Libération are vigilant…

Of course, it would be absurd to imagine that citizens of Russia, or any other country, are all contented with their leaders, even if they elected them by an overwhelming majority.  Even democratic countries offer only a limited choice of presidential candidates to their voters.  But after centuries of Tsarist autocracy, invasion by Mongols, Napoleon, and Hitler; Bolshevik revolution, Communist single-party dictatorship, then the economic and social collapse of the Yeltsin years, Russia has nevertheless now largely adopted its own version of Western capitalist democracy, complete with respect for religion.

And here is an oddity: the West, which used to aim its intercontinental ballistic missiles at “atheistic communism”, does not seem at all satisfied that the Orthodox Christian Church has re-emerged as a respected component of Russian society.  The Western criterion for a free society has changed.  It is no longer freedom to practice a religion, but freedom to practice a form of sexuality condemned by religion.  Now, this may be an important improvement, but since it has taken the Christian West two thousand years to arrive at this level of wisdom, it should be a little bit patient with other societies lagging a decade or so behind.

It is a notorious constant of Russian history that its leaders are torn between emulating Western Europe and reasserting their own traditions – what is called Slavophilia.  After a period of Westernizing, the Slavophiles usually triumph because the West rudely rebuffs the friendly overtures of the Westernizers.  This gives the more aggressive Western leaders the perfect excuse to use force and coercion against the “backward” Russians.  It seems to be happening again, with a particularly bizarre post-modern twist.

Many informed commentators have pointed out that Pussy Riot is not a “rock band” made up of singers and musicians.  They compose no songs, they make no recordings, they do not sing and dance at concerts for fans.  At best, they could be described as “performance artists” along the lines of the nutty Doonesbury character “J.J.” Their art consists of attracting attention by, among other things, taking off their clothes and copulating in a museum or masturbating with a dead chicken in a supermarket. (All to be seen on line.)

This is called protest art.  It is provocation.  What does it provoke?  According to the practitioners of this sort of thing, who tend to think of themselves as vastly more clever than ordinary mortals, it is meant to wake up the sluggish masses, teach them by example to be free, to break taboos, to defy authority.

Clever performance art may make a political point people can understand.  But what is the message from public sex with dead poultry?

The West, or at least Western media, politicians and humanitarians, seem to get the message.  They interpret Pussy Riot as a significant political protest against Vladimir Putin.

A small percentage of Russians, especially those who regularly visit U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul in his Moscow embassy for spiritual and material encouragement, may also see it that way.

But it is a fair bet that even more Russians see Pussy Riot’s exploits as an expression of “Western decadence”.  Especially when they see the entire West cheering and even imitating their actions. And indeed, in its readiness to use anything and everything to embarrass a government obstructing U.S. geopolitical goals, Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy establishment is favoring a widespread backlash against perceived Western corruption and decadence.  Whatever their intention, Pussy Riot is a gift to the Slavophiles.

And to the new Amnesty International and its followers, who instead of taking the trouble to write thoughtful letters on behalf of persecuted dissidents, are merely asked to contribute $20 (or more) for a rag with holes in it.  Fun!

DIANA JOHNSTONE is the author of Fools Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions. She can be reached at


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