The Show Trial State

Why Russia's ludicrous attempt to silence Alexey Navalny is a throwback to the bad old times of Stalin and Khrushchev.

MOSCOW — "Russia is like a tub full of dough. You push your hand all the way to the bottom, pull it out, and right before your eyes, the hole disappears, and again, it is a tub full of dough," Nikita Khrushchev once said, assessing the country he ruled.

The former premier -- my great grandfather -- who 60 years ago denounced Joseph Stalin and his pervasive security apparatus, must be turning in his grave. Russia's legal institutions are still run along the lines of Stalin's "show trials."

Following the politically motivated prosecutions of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and feminist punk rock agitators Pussy Riot, the latest of these affairs is the ongoing sham trial of anti-corruption lawyer, opposition activist, and blogger Alexey Navalny. A few years ago, Navalny began speaking out against Russia's ruling party of "crooks and thieves" -- President Vladimir Putin's United Russia. A charismatic leader, Navalny headlined protests against rigged parliamentary elections in 2011 and Putin's presidential victory in 2012. Once an advisor to the governor of the Kirov Region with alleged access to state property, in April Navalny was charged with defrauding state-run Kirovles timber company of 16 million rubles ($530,000) and now faces up to ten years in prison. Last year, the investigators deemed the charges bogus, but recently reinstated them, perhaps because of Putin becoming increasingly fearful of Navalny's growing political clout. His popularity now stands at almost 40 percent and last month Navalny announced he would run for president in at attempt to unseat Putin. No doubt the current president is not pleased. And it seems he's resorted to the old handbook: after all, accusing anti-corruption activists of corruption has long been a favorite Kremlin tactic.

The trial has been on and off for the past month, but the last few days of the procedure have been an embarrassment for the prosecution -- featuring a damning testimony from its own witness, a Kirov region official, who said that Navalny could not have stolen lumber from Kirovles as he didn't have the power to do so. The court in turn declined Navalny's request to declare last week's warrantless search of his Kirov office illegal. Another witness, the company's former deputy director, said Navalny was guilty of advising on the unfair contracts, but once again (in testimony humiliating to the state) admitted that Kirovles voluntarily agreed to his proposals. As the audience began to chuckle, the ex-director angrily replied, "Are you in the circus?" Most in the room indeed felt they were, as several other witnesses had already testified they could not remember dealings with Navalny at all. In any law-abiding state, one such statement should have been enough to drop charges.

This is just déjà vu all over again for Russians, who remember the show trials of the 1930s -- ponderous affairs with pre-fabricated guilty verdicts that ended in thousands being sentenced to death or the gulag. Perversely, the trials were held to demonstrate the USSR's "fairness" towards the accused, who, terrified for their lives and their reputations, assisted in their own prosecution, readily admitting to non-existent crimes. 

Purge-era charges ranged from attempting to assassinate Soviet leaders to spying for the West. These accusations decimated the Soviet military leadership, dealing a devastating blow before World War II. They swallowed among others Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, the "old Bolsheviks," who used to share power with Stalin after Vladimir Lenin's death, as well as Nikolai Bukharin, an erudite editor of Pravda, once known as the "Heir of Lenin."

Bukharin had dared to challenge Stalin's supreme leadership by questioning the government's lack of transparency, a crime that prompted a devious response. In one well-known story from 1937, the Great Dictator saw the Heir of Lenin standing in the Kremlin alone. "Why are you by yourself, Bukharchik?" the leader gently asked, "Come closer, you are one of us." Bukharin enthusiastically obliged but Stalin was just toying with him -- a week later Bukharin was arrested, interrogated for months, and, after confessing to threatening Stalin's life was executed for attempting to bring capitalism to Russia.

Khrushchev, at Stalin's side, was himself an enthusiastic participant in show trials, including Bukharin's. After assuming power in 1953, the premier tried to atone for his own despotic past by releasing or posthumously rehabilitating many Gulag prisoners. Just in 1954-56 the number of "politicals" in Soviet prisons dropped from at least half a million to a 100,000, but the old Bolsheviks' deaths -- Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, and others -- remained hushed.

Ousted from the Kremlin in 1964, Khrushchev regretted his dithering and, according to my mother, once said at home: "I should have rehabilitated them. There was no guilt! But I didn't want to embarrass communist leaders from abroad. They were on their knees begging me to be silent."

My grandfather pondered these questions as the show trials began to make their return under his successor, Leonid Brezhnev. In 1965, writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuly Daniel were arrested, and after a vociferous trial got sentenced to a Gulag hard labor camp for publishing abroad their anti-Soviet works under pseudonyms Abram Tertz and Nikolai Arzhak.

Fast-forward another half-a-century -- through Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost when Bukharin and everyone else were finally rehabilitated, through the chaotic post-communist period when Gulags were firmly thought to be the thing of the past -- and we find ourselves again staring at, or rather, living in, Khrushchev's "tub full of dough."

Following Stalin's example in perverse "justice," Putin has recently weighed in on the Navalny case: "People get sentenced not for their political views or actions, but for abusing law.... And this and other cases should be treated extremely objective."

But while Stalin's show trials bred fear in the observers and atonement from the accused, the current leader's "objectivity" fools only a few. As many as 52 percent "do not believe the trial to be objective."

A new public opinion poll shows that over half of the country considers Putin's party hopelessly corrupt. And altogether it's rich irony that Putin, who during his dozen years in power has reportedly amassed a $70 billion fortune, is judging Navalny and before him, Khodorkovsky (once Russia's richest man), for abusing the law. In 2010, Putin said about the former Yukos chief, "A thief should stay in jail." But it was not thievery that brought Khodorkovsky's demise; it was his generous contributions to opposition parties. Since 2003, he has endured numerous public trials and is now exiled to a gulag in northern Russia until 2016. Recently his sentence was reduced due to changes in the economic crimes law, but many are skeptical that he will actually be released.

Similarly, in 2012, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in the Soviet-era camps.

Indeed, in Russia, history repeats itself -- in a twist on Karl Marx's dictum -- as tragedy and farce all at once. Cases are decided on the whim of the authorities, because with us power is subject to inertia with an apathetic public traditionally surrendering to the country's paradox of tyranny: a weak state functions as strong by depriving citizens of basic liberties. In the absence of the rule of law, Russians perceive themselves as subordinate to the state rather than as citizens acting out lives in an independent civil society. This de facto surrender creates a fertile environment for despotism, squashing most political initiatives.

And yet we evolve, slowly. Russians went to the streets after the 2011 rigged parliamentary elections; they opposed the 2012 presidential elections, which "unfairly" and "unfreely," as stated by the protest slogans, brought Putin back for his third term as head of state. Now only 26 percent of the country says they would support Putin in his fourth 2018 presidential term. And the new show trials revealing an occurring shift. Neither Navalny, nor Khodorkovsky has admitted any guilt. Instead, they continue to speak out from prison cells and courtrooms.

Are we almost free from the stagnant "dough"? Khrushchev repeatedly stated at home and wrote in his memoirs that his own experience with despotism -- only after Stalin's death did he repent; and he denounced the man, not his system -- taught him that focusing on the leader rather than functioning institutions was only half the victory.

Stolen elections don't start with manipulated ballots or banned alternative candidates. They begin when people allow the legal system to go awry. And Russia kept silent for almost a decade while Khodorkovsky was repeatedly denied justice. The truth is that we have the legal system we deserve. The question today is not whether Navalny gets acquitted by the courts; it is how angry we'll get when he isn't.

Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Prickly Politics of Aid

Development aid is inherently political - and that's not a bad thing.

In a fiery May Day speech in La Paz, Bolivian president Evo Morales announced that he was expelling the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), accusing it of conspiring against his government. He did this despite the fact that USAID shut down its democracy and governance programs in the country several years ago in response to Bolivian government objections. The Americans then pledged to work only in apparently uncontroversial areas like health and environmental conservation. 

Bolivia's decision to end U.S. assistance to the country after nearly 50 years of USAID presence reflects the ideological tensions between Bolivia's first-ever indigenous-led government and Washington. But Morales isn't the only one targeting aid providers. Last September, Russia asked USAID to leave, making similar accusations of political interference. Earlier that year, the Egyptian government charged a group of Americans, Egyptians, and other employees of five Western democracy and rights organizations with illegal activity, driving almost all of the Americans out of the country. 

These cases are only the most visible examples of growing pushback by governments around the world against foreign assistance they deem too political. Dozens of governments have proposed or enacted measures to limit or block foreign aid flows to domestic groups, vilified local non-governmental organizations for working with foreigners, and harassed or kicked out international NGOs. 

By its very nature, foreign aid is politically sensitive. Efforts by one country to change basic elements of life in another through injections of financial and technical resources are inherently intrusive. The modern aid enterprise that emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s attempted to address this sovereignty concern by limiting their efforts in two crucial ways: they would pursue only socioeconomic objectives -- economic growth and other public goods like basic infrastructure and health care -- and they would direct their aid to governments, not to competing domestic actors. 

For more than 30 years the aid community largely held to these implicit terms. But in the early 1990s aid providers moved beyond this formally apolitical framework. Frustrated with decades of poorly performing programs and unmet development objectives, donors embraced the idea that governance failures in aid-receiving countries were often at the core of disappointing socioeconomic results. Sustainable advances in education, agricultural productivity, economic growth, or other key priorities require more than technical knowledge and capital -- they need well-functioning government institutions. Focusing on governance meant focusing on politics, no matter how much aid providers initially tried to portray the concept as neutral and technical. It meant fighting corruption, confronting patronage networks, and many other politically sensitive tasks. 

In the same years, the dramatic spread of democracy in the developing and post-communist worlds prompted many Western aid groups to adopt democracy as a goal. They embraced a new orthodoxy which held that democracy and socioeconomic progress go hand in hand. Donors created a whole new range of programs to support democratic transitions, from elections assistance and political party aid to civic education programs and legislative support. Western aid programs aimed at democracy and governance now total somewhere around $10 billion annually. 

With these political goals came more political methods, including a sharp increase in foreign assistance to nongovernmental actors. This move initially reflected a desire to support an independent civil society as an essential element of democratization. Yet it spread further when development agencies -- including those, like the World Bank, that do not explicitly support democracy -- concluded that they could advance socioeconomic goals (such as improved public services) by empowering citizens to demand better governance. 

In short, aid significantly departed from a near-exclusive focus on socioeconomic objectives and governmental partners. Recipient governments were uneasy with this change, skeptical of donors' intentions and upset with external criticism of their own political practices. Yet few governments pushed back at first. This was due to the apparent triumph of the Western political model and the lack of legitimate alternatives in the early post-Cold War period, the unusually low degree of overall geostrategic tension in that era, and the simple fact that many aid-receiving governments didn't take these new aid approaches very seriously, seeing nongovernmental groups as fairly marginal actors. 

This relatively benign environment has changed. Many countries that initially appeared to be moving toward democracy have veered instead into semi-authoritarian rule and limited space for civil society organizations, such as Russia and Ethiopia, while some previously democratic countries like Venezuela have become more authoritarian. People in many countries are questioning whether Western-style democracy and governance is really the best path to rapid economic progress, looking instead to Chinese-style authoritarian capitalism or other models. Sovereignty claims are rising, not declining; the product of growing sensitivity over Western political interventionism from Iraq and Afghanistan through to Libya and beyond. And the repeated toppling of governments by citizen mobilization over the past decade -- whether the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia or the more recent Arab revolts -- have vividly highlighted to political leaders the potential power of once seemingly inconsequential civil society actors. 

The recent volley from La Paz is thus not a random skirmish but a harbinger of what will likely be more such conflicts to come. The United States and other donor governments that have adopted more political goals and methods in their aid over the past twenty years now face a fundamental choice: whether to stick to their convictions about the importance of melding the political and economic elements of development or instead retreat to more limited approaches and aspirations. 

While some may be tempted to argue that aid should pull back from politics and focus only on basics such as healthcare or primary education, such an approach is neither feasible nor wise. Almost all major aid organizations, both bilateral and multilateral, have established a range of politically-oriented aid programs and accumulated considerable knowledge about how to make a positive political difference, whether explicitly framed as democratic progress or as more accountable and participatory governance. Donors pursue these objectives not just because they believe that democratic governance is intrinsically a good thing, but also because they consider it central to sustainable socioeconomic progress. 

Building schools and providing textbooks without paying attention to a government's willingness and capacity to manage educational finances cleanly, hold teachers accountable, and ensure equal access to education is not a recipe for success. And providing support to a government without attention to its human rights record or practices of social inclusion is not likely to win durable friends, as the case of Egypt under Mubarak so vividly demonstrates. Although there are of course differences in scope and depth of the political issues that aid now addresses, the core point is that there is no clear division between "political" and "nonpolitical" aid. 

In this context, aid organizations need to confront the practical challenges of becoming politically engaged and politically smart. This does not necessarily mean being more challenging of recipient governments, although it sometimes may. At its core, being politically smart is about taking seriously how all aid programs in a country fit into and affect the broader political environment. It requires investing in political analyses of recipient countries to understand the most promising entry points for developmental change and the likely political risks. It also implies designing programs that fit into local political processes, flexibly adapt to changing political conditions, and make informed decisions about whether and how to challenge local power structures. U.S. and British aid providers have developed interesting initiatives in Nigeria, Burma, the Philippines, and elsewhere to support locally rooted public-private coalitions for change that work in a sustained way in complex political environments to help bring about lasting reforms. 

While these elements of politically smart development may seem like obvious steps, even just basic political understanding is startlingly undervalued within development agencies. Economists and other socioeconomic experts, who still dominate development agencies, tend not to be good at thinking and working politically. They fear that openly addressing politics will contaminate their efforts to present themselves as neutral technicians. And aid organizations, under intense pressure to prove their worth, are setting ever narrower targets, hurrying money out the door, and focusing on easily visible results. In this environment carrying out political analysis can seem like a luxury rather than a necessary prerequisite. 

The shift over the last two decades by the aid community to directly address recipient country politics is rooted in fundamental insights about how development occurs and how aid programs can be effective. Arguably it is the most important advance in the overall aid paradigm in decades. The increasingly prickly international context should motivate aid providers to reaffirm their political convictions and principles, not retreat into the technocratic straitjacket of the past.