Thin Ice

A brief history of Russia's all-out siege on Sochi's critics.

Many of the controversies surrounding Russia's hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi have been roundly covered by the foreign press and on social media: from the estimated $51 billion Russia spent to host the games, to journalists finding themselves in unfinished hotels (or without hotel rooms at all), to warm temperatures compromising snow quality and competitors' performances. Many of these issues have often been framed with humor and wonder -- and with plenty of "Oh well, it's Russia" commentary.  

But there are concerns that shouldn't be laughed off or taken in stride, namely the campaign of intimidation and harassment against Russians who have criticized the government's preparations for the Olympics or other policies and decisions linked to the games. On Feb. 18, the detention in Sochi of two members of the punk group Pussy Riot -- together with several activists and journalists -- grabbed global headlines, thanks to the women's previous, high-profile conviction and amnesty. But this is just one incident in a multiyear campaign targeting activists and critics of the games. The entire list of people under fire, starting way back in 2008 -- when few outside of Russia even knew where Sochi was -- has become too long to feature in one article. But the details of even a handful of cases cast a disturbing shadow over the Olympic glow.

In one of the most vindictive, politically motivated cases, on Feb. 12, a court about 100 miles from Sochi sentenced environmental activist Evgeny Vitishko, a geologist, to three years in a penal colony. Vitishko's story dates back to June 2012, when he was convicted on wildly disproportionate criminal charges for allegedly spray-painting a construction fence around a dacha, or summer home, in the Sochi area. The dacha supposedly belonged to the regional governor -- built illegally, according to environmental activists, in a national park. Vitishko, a father of three, was given a suspended sentence with probation.

Undeterred, Vitishko, together with colleagues from the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC), a prominent NGO, continued to document and publicize what they allege are serious, negative environmental impacts of the government's preparations for the Olympics. Late last year, local authorities claimed that Vitishko had violated the conditions of his parole and called for him to serve time.

Just days before the Feb. 7 opening ceremonies, Vitishko informed his parole officer of his   intention to visit Sochi. Local authorities quickly detained him on bogus charges of "swearing in public" and conveniently locked him up for 15 days of administrative detention. So not only did they silence Vitishko for the duration of the Olympics, they also ensured that he couldn't fully defend himself at the hearing where a court determined he should be sent to a penal colony. Vitishko was only able to appear via a shoddy video link, barely audible in the courtroom.

More than a few of Vitishko's EWNC colleagues have also been targets of harassment. In March 2013, authorities descended upon EWNC's headquarters during the Russian government's nationwide NGO inspection campaign, aimed at identifying "foreign agents." Officials were particularly interested in the EWNC's activities related to the Olympics and urged the group not to publish a report on the topic in order "not to harm the country." When the group's leadership refused, inspectors proceeded to examine the group's computers for unlicensed software and to probe its email accounts. They threatened the EWNC with fines if it did not comply. The organization has since had its bank accounts frozen.

Last May, investigative teams arrived simultaneously at the apartment and the dacha of Vladimir Kimaev, an activist with both EWNC and an opposition political party. They claimed they were searching for weapons and explosive materials in a criminal case to which Kimaev had no affiliation whatsoever. Later, in October, EWNC chair Andrei Rudomakha was detained on charges that he had committed libel in criticizing the government's moves against environmental activists like himself. The investigation was used as a pretext to restrict Rudomakha's travel. More recently, Igor Kharchenko, another EWNC activist, was detained in early February for reasons that are still murky. Kharchenko's car was vandalized, and when the police responded to the scene, they seized Kharchenko roughly and sentenced him to five days of administrative detention for supposedly refusing to follow police orders. During the closed court hearing in the case, a judge denied Kharchenko's requests for his own lawyer to be present and to show video footage of the police detaining him.

Numerous other EWNC activists have also been detained in recent months, with an array of justifications from the government: for holding one-person pickets (which do not require official permission under Russian law); for attempting to visit the same dacha at the center of Vitishko's case (activists were stopped before crossing into private property or over no-trespassing designations); or in conjunction with spurious legal cases.

Plenty of other Sochi critics have also been besieged by authorities. One environmental activist, who refused to be named due to safety concerns, has been receiving regular calls for the last year from a security service "minder," who often checks in after the activist's meetings with foreign journalists and issues "friendly" warnings not to speak too critically about Sochi preparations -- Russia's image is at stake, after all. More broadly, a wave of police activity began in late 2013, just as the world was starting to discuss the who's who of Olympic medal contenders; it continues today.

On Dec. 25, for instance, Sochi police and security officials called in environmental activist Olga Noskovets and questioned her about her plans for activities "during the Olympics," claiming they were checking all "people under suspicion for tendencies toward extremist activities." Police released her after she agreed to not undertake any "illegal activities" during the games. That same day, police visited the home of Alexander Popkov, a human rights lawyer who has represented numerous journalists, activists, and others in Sochi. Not finding Popkov at home, a police official called him on the phone and invited him to the police station to "calmly have a discussion about the Olympics." Popkov declined, requesting an official summons -- but it never came, likely because authorities had no legal reason to issue one.

Just a few days prior, three police officers went looking for Natalia Kalinovskaya, an activist, at her parents' house. They entered without a warrant and told Kalinovskaya, an early and passionate critic of the government's evictions of Sochi residents and its overtaking of public spaces to make way for Olympic developments, that they wanted to speak to her because she was on a list of "organizers of meetings and civic disturbances." Kalinovskaya refused to go to the police station without an official summons. Police left her alone only after she told them she was planning to leave Sochi for the period of the Olympic Games.  

A few weeks later, on Feb. 7, police in Nalchik, the capital of the Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, detained almost 27 Circassian minority-rights activists and gave six of them administrative jail terms for holding a protest ahead of the Olympic opening ceremonies that night. (Many Circassian people and other ethnic minorities claim Sochi is part of their historical homeland from which they were expelled during tsarist Russia's conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century.) Some of those detained alleged that police used force and threats; three men were reportedly made to sit for 30 minutes with plastic bags over their heads that left just enough of an opening for them to take shallow breaths.

This wasn't the first targeting of Circassian activists: Just two months ago, on Dec. 13 and 14, authorities detained and questioned at least eight activists, partly about their open criticism of the Sochi Olympics. All were released without charge, but the authorities searched several of their homes and confiscated computers, telephones, and publications.

Some journalists, including foreign ones, have faced similar treatment for trying to shine a spotlight on the underbelly of the Sochi Games. A crew for Norway's TV2, an Olympic broadcaster, was subjected to surveillance, repeated detentions, and threats of criminal charges and imprisonment over the course of three days in early November, as they sought to report on Circassian criticism of Sochi and other concerns pertaining to the games. A month later, security services confronted a crew for the BBC's Panorama program as it attempted to document Olympics-related damage to a mountain village en route to some of Sochi's venues. Local Sochi journalists have fared no better, some facing trumped-up charges designed to intimidate and silence, others learning the hard way about "taboo" subjects, including public protests, environmental concerns, and corruption.

Through it all, International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials, most recently in a statement on the sentencing of Vitishko, have maintained that these and other cases have nothing to do with the Olympics. As with most human rights concerns related to the games, the IOC has taken the Russian government's explanations and justifications at face value and failed to give equal weight to civil-society concerns. In fact, when the government announced that it would handle public criticism in Sochi during the games by setting up a so-called protest zone in a small village approximately 15 kilometers from the Olympic Park -- which would require permission from three government agencies, including the Federal Security Service, to use -- the IOC breezily praised the move. It claimed that the protest zone would allow people in Russia "to express themselves freely."

Yet on Feb. 17, activist David Khakim was detained for holding a poster in support of Evgeny Vitishko in Sochi's city center, not in the protest zone. He was sentenced to 30 hours of compulsory labor, a Russian version of community service. 

If the IOC can blithely compliment the Russian authorities' supposed efforts to protect free speech, then the IOC clearly hasn't been paying attention to what's been happening in Sochi for the past several years.

As these Olympics enter their home stretch, we can surely allow ourselves to celebrate the thrilling athletic achievements, triumphs, and defeats that go with any successful games. But we should also not forget the price paid by those who've worked tirelessly to hold the Russian government accountable for the corruption, human rights abuses, environmental damage, and other problems associated with the world's greatest sporting event.  


Democracy Lab

The Thai Malaise

The current political standoff in Thailand is a symptom of deeper problems that can't be solved by watering down democratic process.

On Feb. 2, the day of Thailand's general election, untouched ballot boxes were laid out like rows of gravestones in Bangkok's Rajathewi district office, while more than 100 self-proclaimed pro-democracy protestors, many of them middle-aged women from southern provinces hundreds of miles away, blew whistles and cheered. They were celebrating their success in preventing the voting from taking place. Shortly after 8:30 a.m., they rose up en masse and left the government compound, padlocking the gates on their way out. Outside they held a party on the main street, which they had closed for the occasion. The Royal Thai Police were nowhere to be seen, and a small group of soldiers stood passively by, snapping the padlocking ritual on their iPhones.

Back in November, the opposition Democrat Party demanded the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections, but once Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra -- who still had 18 months of her term left -- called a snap election for Feb. 2, it soon became clear that the Democrats were refusing to play ball.

The Democrats, Thailand's oldest political party, have transformed themselves into the kind of protest movement their leaders had always professed to despise. Not only did the party boycott the election, but it also backed moves to disrupt the polls by the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) (an anti-government protest movement led by former Democrat Secretary-General and Deputy Premier Suthep Thueksuban), which announced plans to shut down Bangkok from Jan. 13 on, blocking key intersections across the city. Protesters continue to hold the city hostage. Most recently, on the morning on Feb. 18, three protesters were shot and 64 injured as police attempted to break up the demonstration.

After preventing advance polling across much of Bangkok and the south on Jan. 26 -- during which one protest leader was shot dead -- protestors followed a prominent Buddhist monk into a violent altercation with pro-government groups in the Bangkok district of Lak Si on Feb. 1. Soon after the election, the Democrats announced that they were bringing legal action against the Yingluck government for pressing ahead with an "illegitimate" election. For the Democrats, any election won by parties linked to the demonized former premier Thaksin Shinawatra was inherently illegitimate, however convincing the margin of victory.

Meanwhile, media outlets sympathetic to the opposition, including the respected Bangkok Post, ran articles suggesting, without any apparent irony, that the relatively low turnout and the high number of "no" votes (in Thai elections, voters can tick a box saying they reject all the candidates on the ballot) proved that the ruling party had performed poorly. The opposition's approach was: "Let's do everything we can to sabotage the election, including using violence, and then blame the ruling party for making a hash of it."

Voter turnout for the Feb. 2 general election was just under 48 percent overall (compared to 75 percent in the 2011 election), not bad considering that voting was virtually impossible in several southern provinces where the opposition was able to shut down the electoral process. The controversial military-backed referendum to approve the 2007 constitution secured a comparable turnout of just under 57 percent. Overall, nearly 75 percent of those who voted in 2014 supported the government. Split ballots and "no" votes were up compared to the most recent elections.

As Thailand's leading political blogger, Bangkok Pundit, noted, a more useful comparison might be to the 2006 snap election called under similar circumstances by Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, during his time as prime minister. Democrats boycotted the 2006 poll as well, but actively campaigned for a "no" vote. As a result, nearly a third voted "no" -- compared to the mere 17 percent that did in 2014. There is no solid basis for assuming that most of those who failed to vote, or who cast "no" votes, in a boycotted and violently disrupted general election, were people who would otherwise have voted for the Democrat Party -- though some were certainly disappointed by lackluster local members of parliament from the ruling party.

What the Feb. 2 elections most clearly illustrate is the growing political chasm that separates greater Bangkok and the country's south from its less affluent but more populous regions in the north and northeast. The latter have long been strongholds of support for Yingluck and Thaksin, who was elected largely because of his appeals to urbanized villagers, Thais with rural origins who dream of making it to middle-class standards of living. Because of Thailand's hidden "caste system" -- which is linked to popular Buddhist notions that the poor deserve their lower status because of accumulated demerits from previous lives -- Bangkokians typically have a profoundly paternalistic view of the masses. Thaksin's populist, can-do message, the stuff of self-help books, resonated deeply with many voters in the north and northeast. The leaders of the current anti-government protests -- many of whom come from Bangkok -- constantly deride these voters as ignorant and susceptible to electoral manipulation and vote-buying. Worse still, these anti-government protesters accuse pro-Thaksin voters of disloyalty to the Thai nation and the monarchy. On Jan. 26, I heard one rally speaker declare that those who had taken part in advance voting did not really love Thailand, and were probably in fact Cambodians casting fake ballots.

How did Thailand reach this sorry state of affairs? Pro-Thaksin parties have won six successive general elections since 2001, while the opposition Democrats have failed to win a convincing election victory in almost 30 years. The conservative establishment, comprising the Democrats, the military, the network monarchy, and the judiciary, have made numerous failed attempts to drive a stake through the heart of this controversial politician: a military coup, election annulment, party dissolution (twice), and criminal conviction on corruption-related charges. Because he faces a two-year jail term, Thaksin has not set foot in Thailand for nearly six years, yet he remains the single most important non-royal Thai by far. If you just listen to the vitriolic, nauseating rhetoric at the nightly anti-government rallies at multiple locations around Bangkok, you would think Thaksin and his sister were the country's biggest political problems. In fact, Thailand faces two huge parallel challenges, neither of which is of Thaksin's making:

The first challenge is national anxiety about the country's future. Rama 9, King Bhumibol, the world's longest serving monarch, is now 86 years old. Who will succeed him, and what will happen as a result, is the focus of endless gossip among Thais. A lot of the protestors' anti-Thaksin sentiment reflects their view that the influential former premier must not have any hand in managing the delicate succession process.

The second challenge, seen in attempts to disrupt voting in Bangkok and elsewhere, concerns the logic of electoral politics. Now that voters in the north and northeast have been mobilized to vote as a bloc, the Bangkok middle classes and their southern allies face the real prospect that they will never again choose a government to their liking. Thailand has moved into a phase of majoritarianism, in which pro-Thaksin governments will be able to run the country with virtual impunity for the foreseeable future. Affluent Bangkokians have finally grasped the logic of electoral democracy: they are permanently outnumbered by the rural masses.

The PDRC is right about one thing: reform is urgently needed in Thailand to reduce political partisanship and break the constant cycle of mass protests. But any reform process that moves away from popular voting -- towards some Hong Kong-style electoral system based on occupational groups, for example, as is apparently implied by the PDRC's loose talk of a "people's assembly" -- will only exacerbate the country's class tensions. Reform means dismantling the informal caste system, reducing psychological dependence on the monarchy, and growing an appreciation for the capacity of the rural population to contribute to their democracy. The latest general election, though a partial boost for the Yingluck administration, has also failed to deflate the protests. Thailand already has liberty in abundance, and a fair bit of fraternity. Creating more equality is the next step.

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