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Free trade is the only freedom Putin knows


Sydney Morning Herald political and international editor

View more articles from Peter Hartcher

<em>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari</em>

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

When Julia Gillard got the news of her father's death and left the APEC summit in Russia early to return to her family, the host made a point of passing on his condolences.

"President Putin was very anxious to telephone Prime Minister Gillard and he was able to talk to her and that was a source of comfort," according to the Trade Minister, Craig Emerson, who deputised for her.

We have to assume this was Emerson at his diplomatic best, for who could take comfort from Vladimir Putin? The chest-baring former KGB officer leads a government of increasingly ugly repression and cronyism.

Even Madonna noticed the case of Pussy Riot. She had been silent as Russian journalists and human rights activists were mysteriously murdered in recent years and as Putin's party committed electoral fraud.

But the ageing American singer was moved to protest against the two-year jail term for the punk girl band on charges of hooliganism after they staged a protest against Putin in a Russian Orthodox church. The case was widely decried for illustrating the politicisation of the justice system. It was really just an attention-getter for the world for a much wider and deeper turn to authoritarianism under Putin.

Putin circumvented the constitutional ban on remaining in the presidency by installing a puppet president, Dmitry Medvedev, from 2008 to this year. It was a cunning manoeuvre and quite legal.

But even before Putin cast pretence aside and returned to the presidency himself four months ago in a rigged election, the then US defence secretary Robert Gates had lamented that "democracy has disappeared" in Russia.

He said the government was "an oligarchy run by the security services", according to US official cables published by WikiLeaks.

When Putin went to the polls in March, he claimed to have won 63.8 per cent of the vote, but an independent non-government election scrutineer, the Golos Association, found the figure was 50.75 per cent.

The authorities are increasingly intolerant of protest. The tens of thousands who had turned out despite freezing weather to object to the fraudulent December election - one man in the crowd sported a frozen beard dangling icicles - were closely marshalled but tolerated.

When demonstrators turned out to complain about Putin's inauguration in May, the police launched baton attacks, more than 450 protesters were arrested and 17 hospitalised. Putin's spokesman said he regretted the demonstrators had not been treated more harshly.

Since then, tough new laws against protest have been passed by the Duma and opposition leaders' homes have been raided. While one new law has eased the registration of political parties, another forbids the creation of coalitions, effectively preventing the emergence of a united opposition.

The former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, now leader of a pro-democracy group United Civil Front, gives a first-hand account of the treatment of dissenters.

Standing outside the courtroom where the members of Pussy Riot were on trial, he took questions from reporters, when "Suddenly, I was dragged away by a group of police. The men refused to tell me why I was being arrested and shoved me into a police van. When I got up to again ask why I had been detained, things turned violent.

"I was restrained, choked and struck several times by a group of officers before being driven to the police station with dozens of other protesters. After several hours I was released, but not before they told me I was being criminally investigated for assaulting a police officer who claimed I had bitten him.

"In the past, Mr Putin's critics and enemies have been jailed on a wide variety of spurious criminal charges, from fraud to terrorism. But now the masks are off … the leaders of the free world are clearly capable of sleeping through any wake-up call."

There is more to it than that. Putin may be waging repression at home, but he is offering the outside world the sort of economic engagement that companies and governments want to see. This was on display at the APEC summit. The 21-country meeting was held in the Russian Pacific port city of Vladivostok to promote Putin's turn away from a stagnant Europe and towards the vibrant Asia-Pacific.

"The very principle of free trade is undergoing a crisis," Putin wrote in an op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal. "We suggest that the dialogue in Vladivostok focus on freeing up trade and investment flows to stimulate economic growth, taking into account new realities such as Russia's accession to the World Trade Organisation."

This is exactly what Asia-Pacific companies and governments, including Australia's, want to hear. Putin delivered, and chaired a meeting that took some modest but real steps to hold protectionism at bay. Putting Russia's territorial dispute with Tokyo aside, he also gave the go-ahead to a $7 billion new LNG plant in Siberia.

"Putin is impatient to open Russia's window to the East in Vladivostok, emulating Peter the Great, who once opened Russia's window to the West by founding St Petersburg," Kirill Muradov, from the National Research University of Moscow, wrote in East Asian Forum.

By offering the world a liberal trade and investment regime, Putin knows he will be able to deflect any real international action against his repression at home.

The US Republican candidate for the presidency, Mitt Romney, has promised that "Mr Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone" in his America, but this is very likely to be empty campaign rhetoric.

The sort of comfort Putin offers is increasingly likely to be of the kind Stalin offered. When the Russian dictator sent bodyguards to his mother's home one day to check on her, she fainted in fright. She presumed her son had sent assassins to kill her.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.

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  • Peter, we have no right to criticize, Putin. Not while our very own leaders would willingly send our fellow Australian citizen to the electric chair for simply exposing the truth.

    Date and time
    September 11, 2012, 8:36AM
    • Louis is incorrect It is a serious mistake to believe that the crimes of one's government disqualify a person from expressing solidarity with others abroad.. We have the right to criticise -it is merely the ALP and the Liberals who don't. I have spoken up in defence of Julian Assange, David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, but I have also spoken up in defence of Bradley Manning, Modechai Vanunu and Pussy Riot.

      Never identify a government with the people it rules. It leads to extremely serious errors.

      Greg Platt
      Date and time
      September 11, 2012, 9:35AM
    • Well said Greg. I never elected the government, I did not vote for either of them and I will not vote for either of them when the next election occurs and they certainly do not speak for me. Even if I did I am free to criticise my government, anyone else's government and certainly the Russian government.

      Date and time
      September 11, 2012, 10:43AM
    • "Peter, we have no right to criticize, Putin"

      Russia actively backs the cruelest regimes on the planet. Being an oppressive dictator seems to be a pre-requisite to being friends with Russia.

      "I have spoken up in defence of Julian Assange, David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, but I have also spoken up in defence of Bradley Manning, Modechai Vanunu and Pussy Riot."

      Admittedly, I haven't folled the story of Bradley Manning and Pussy Riot. However, the others are all traitors that put the lives of their countrymen at risk. Julian Assange, David Hicks, Mamdouh Habib and Modechai Vanunu are not 'victims' they are unscrupulous characters

      Its amazing. The left venerate the likes of Assange, Hicks and Habib. They sympathise with terrorists and cruel dictators like Saddam Hussein. During the era of Communism, the left turned a blind eye to the evil oppression of of communist regimes. "who are we do judge" was the mantra of the left. Th greatest evils of our time have gone unrecognised by the left. These comments show a disturbing trend - the left will never miss an opportunity to defend evil.

      cruise missile
      Date and time
      September 11, 2012, 11:05AM
    • Methinks some people are confusing authoritarian - libertarian axis with left - right axis.

      Greens are left libertarians, Putin is left authoritarian. Get it?

      Don't get it
      Date and time
      September 11, 2012, 3:05PM
  • It seems the former British ambassador, Chris Patton, sort of got it right when he said something along the lines: "You can always take the man out of the KGB, but you can't take the KGB out of the man"

    it seems
    Date and time
    September 11, 2012, 9:38AM
    • @Louis, I think you have it back to front. Instead of failing to criticise Putin, we should ensure that we criticis the US and its western allies with equal vigour. we must not allow ourselves the same awkward shuffling and silences that the left gave during during Stalin's oppressive reign. Rather we should condemn Putin's actions while insisting on the parallels with Guantanmo, US suppressions of Occupy protestors and Assange. Not to mention how aptly the phrase 'oligarchy run by security services' applies to some western nations.

      Date and time
      September 11, 2012, 9:54AM
      • Very few comments shows the level of interest one supposes. But given that Clinton supported the illegal suspension of the Supreme Soviet in 1993 (as Yeltsin was then changing the Russian economy from a command economy to a "free market" one which transferred massive wealth from public to a select few) there is no surprise at the west's reaction here which is to speak a few words and then forget it. There is way too much money at stake to do anything real about it.

        Date and time
        September 11, 2012, 10:06AM
        • Peter you are becoming a US/Obama tragic. Please write about how many Executive Orders choking Democracy in The US Obama has signed into power. His record makes George W look like a Boy Scout.
          As I keep pointing out Peter The US is broke and Obama has accelerated the Debt Growth of the US again making George W look thrifty.
          Now you want to argue that Putin is an oh so nasty threat to all when if you do your homework and look at some of the Totalitarian legislation that Obama has on his signature bought into being you may wish to be more balanced in your commentary.

          Date and time
          September 11, 2012, 10:40AM
          • it strikes me that Obama (or any other US president) does such things under in accordance with their constitutional powers, whereas Putin is a bit of a law unto himself.

            strikes me
            Date and time
            September 11, 2012, 12:28PM

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