Pussy riot proves problematic for Putin’s ‘democracy’

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In mid-August the controversy surrounding the legitimacy of Pussy Riot’s conviction brought Russia’s already questionable freedom of speech back into the spotlight. Pussy Riot argued that their ‘punk prayer’, which was performed at the altar in Moscow’s main cathedral, was a political message which sought to criticise Vladimir Putin and draw attention to the close relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the State. Three members of the band were sentenced for two years on the grounds of hooliganism driven by religious hatred.

The ‘punk prayer’ was prompted after the head of the Church, Patriarch Kirill, declared that Putin was a ‘miracle of God’. Under the Russian constitution the relationship between the Church and the State is supposed to be two separate entities. However, since the fall of the officially atheist USSR in 1991, the relationship between Church and State has become increasingly interconnected. Last year Patriarch Kirill was granted official residence in the Kremlin, he is an overt supporter of Putin. The Russian government relies on the Church for its loyalty and support and the church relies on the state’s generosity.

Pussy Riot is one of many recent crises concerning the legitimacy of Russian democracy. In 2011 approximately 50,000 people gathered near the Kremlin to condemn alleged ballot rigging and demand a rerun of the election. Furthermore, since his rise to power, criticism of Putin on national television has been suppressed. Having control over the state media, being able to harass and censor the press, and use judicial and administrative technicalities to intimidate their rivals, resulted in officials being accused of manipulating election results. Freedom and liberty are dependent on competition, without which there is no need to ensure that rights are upheld. If this is so, a country is in danger of slipping into an authoritarian style of government: no competition, no alternative candidate. Relative to the time of Boris Yeltsin, who was the first President of the Russian Federation from 1991-1999, the credibility of Russia’s political system has become increasingly questionable. For example, in 2008 Putin became Prime Minister after his protégé Dmitry Medvedev won a landslide victory in the presidential election, indicating that significant power appears to be held in the hands of a few.

Putin has been known to deter potential political rivals in a variety of ways. Many deemed the arrest of billionaire, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to have been motivated by the fact that Khodorkovsky was funding other liberal political parties. Russia has further been accused of kleptocracy by Sergei Magnitsky, a corporate lawyer, who believed officials had wrongly granted a $230 million tax refund, which ended up in the hands of criminals. Magnitsky was arrested and died in Prison after a severe beating and months of medical neglect. If you cannot challenge officials, the state monopolizes the ‘free-press’, potential political rivals tend to be deterred, and punk groups are sentenced to two years in prison after essentially challenging the state’s authority, it is hardly surprising that Russia’s claim of being a ‘democracy’ has been called into question.

Pussy Riot appealed against their sentence on October 10, 2012. The weekend before, Putin had remarked that they “got what they asked for”, potentially pressurising the court into making a negative decision concerning the sentence. The Church said any penitence shown by the group should be taken into consideration when re-determining their sentence. However, repentance is a religious not a legal domain. One of the members of Pussy Riot was released and had her sentence suspended, as she argued that she had not taken part in the ‘punk prayer’ at the altar. The other two activists’ sentences remained in place.

As a result of Pussy Riot, the world’s attention has been refocused back towards the legitimacy of Russia’s democracy. The fact that a group of individuals chose to express their political opinions in this manner, along with demonstrations held concerning Russia’s last general election indicates that Russia is changing. Perhaps lack of political competition will not be a problem for that much longer.

PHOTO CREDIT: pussy-riot.livejournal.com

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