Tuesday 26 January 2016
For those of us who believe democracy and social justice are universal principles, it’s clear why we should express our solidarity with Russia’s embattled leftists
A rightwing authoritarian leader who attacks civil liberties, stigmatises lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, indulges in chauvinistic nationalism, is in bed with rapacious oligarchs, and who is admired by the European and American hard right. Leftwing opposition to Vladimir Putin should be, well, kind of an obvious starting point. BBC One’s Panorama broadcast allegations that the Russian leader has secretly amassed a vast fortune. However accurate, there is no question that Putin is close to oligarchs like Roman Abramovich, who profited as post-Soviet Russia collapsed into economic chaos thanks to western-backed “shock therapy”.
Last week, a British public inquiry concluded that ex-Russian spyAlexander Litvinenko was likely to have been murdered at the personal behest of Putin. We don’t know exactly who is behind all the murkykillings of journalists in Russia, but we know that some of those critical of the government – like Anna Politkovskaya, who courageously opposed Putin’s war in Chechnya – met violent ends.
Putin has become something of an icon for a certain type of western rightwinger. Donald Trump is a fan: when Putin called the rightwing demagogue a “very colourful, talented person”, Trump called it a “great honour” and described Russia’s strongman as “a man highly respected within his own country and beyond”. When challenged on the alleged role of Moscow in the murder of journalists, Trump engaged in what is typically known as “whataboutery” (or the “look over there!” approach to debate), responding: “Our country does plenty of killing also”. Last year, a delegation of French rightwing MPs visited Russia to fight “disinformation from Western media”, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Frontwhich was given a multimillion-euro loan from a Russian bank – is a Putin fan. Our own Nigel Farage assailed opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, suggesting Putin is “on our side” in the war against terrorism, while Ukip MEP Diane James celebrated him as a strong leader and for being “very nationalist”.
We don’t have to choose between critiquing our own foreign policy and opposing unjust foreign governments
Sure, the west’s attitude towards Putin is hypocritical. When Putin prosecuted his savage war in Chechnya, there was none of the western outrage later meted outwhen the Russians annexed the Crimea. Bill Clinton once lavished Putin for having “enormous potential”; Tony Blair, meanwhile, continues to call for the west to work with Putin against Islamic fundamentalism and last year attended a Putin “vanity summit”.
But for the left, opposition to Putin should go without saying. Those who claim the left as a whole is soft on Putin are disingenuous at best: as, indeed, this article illustrates. But why are some silent, or even indulgent? Firstly, some profess a fear that – by critiquing those who are already supposedly bête noires of the west – the left will provide cover for western military expansionism. We become cheerleaders for western foreign policy, in other words, feeding the demonisation of foreign foes that is a necessary precondition for conflict. Secondly, it is seen as hypocritical: look at, say, the calamities of Iraq or Libya. Should we not focus on what our governments get up to, rather than what foreigners get up to elsewhere, which is in any case well covered by the mainstream press and political elite?
Yes, there is something rather absurd about the baiting of the anti-war left for not protesting against, say, Putin or North Korea. The baiters are always free to organise their own demonstration (I would be happy to join), and protest movements can only realistically aspire to put pressure on governments at home, whether it be on domestic policies or alliances with human rights abusers abroad (whether that be, say, the head-chopping Saudi exporters of extremism, or Israel’s occupation of Palestine). In democracies, protests that echo the official line of governments are rare. If the west was actively cheering Putin on and arming him to the teeth, we might expect more vociferous opposition.
But for universalists – those of us who believe democracy, freedom, human rights and social justice are universal principles that all humans should enjoy, irrespective of who or where they are – that shouldn’t be good enough. We shouldn’t have to wait for a possible western-Russian alliance in, say, Syria to speak out. We should express our solidarity with Russia’s embattled democrats and leftists. We don’t have to choose between critiquing our own foreign policy and opposing unjust foreign governments. In a sense, critics of western foreign policy have more of a responsibility to speak out. While supporters of, for example, the Iraq calamity can be more easily batted away by Putin apologists, nobody can accuse people like me of hypocritically failing to critique western foreign policy.Russia is ruled by a human rights abusing, expansionist, oligarchic regime. The Russian people – and their neighbours – deserve better. And the western left is surely duty-bound to speak out.