James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Pussy Riot, the WTO, and a Clash of Civilizations

by Guest Blogger for James M. Lindsay
August 23, 2012

Pussy Riot supporters demonstrate in front of the Russian consulate in New York. (Lucas Jackson/courtesy Reuters) Pussy Riot supporters demonstrate in front of the Russian consulate in New York. (Lucas Jackson/courtesy Reuters)

The tension between an inward- and outward-looking Russia has been on sharp display this week. On the same day that Moscow slammed Western governments for criticizing the prison sentences given to the members of the oppositionist punk band, Pussy Riot, Russia formally became the 156th member of the World Trade Organization. My colleague Anya Schmemann says the Obama administration is right to criticize the prison sentence and to press Congress to approve permanent normal trade relations with Russia.

The plight of three members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot has received widespread international attention. The young women were given two-year jail terms last week for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after they performed a profane anti-Putin “punk prayer” in front of the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral several months ago.

Many supporters, including musicians such as Madonna and Paul McCartney, have joined demonstrations and appealed for their release. The Obama administration and other Western governments have called the sentences disproportionate.

The Russian government, however, has denounced the criticism as politically motivated. A Russian spokesman said in a statement, “The case has served only as an occasion for the latest wave of rushed, biased, and politically charged evaluations.” In a show of contempt, a Russian embassy official in Washington, DC, dumped 70,000 petitions gathered by Amnesty International on the curb.

“It seems that what is important to certain human rights structures and media outlets is not so much the fate of these young women as the opportunity to create yet another scandal on anti-Russian grounds,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.

Ironically, the Russian government is itself responsible for turning the group into an international cause célèbre. Scarcely known before their blasphemy trial, the band members (two of whom have young children) are now garnering sympathy at home as well as abroad.

Of course, many Russians fault the group for offending Russian Orthodox Christians and recent polls have shown widespread disapproval of the band’s actions. But the overreaction of the Russian state to the small provocation is overly harsh and the mounting international attention and criticism has worried the regime.

Thus the Russian government’s resorting to claims of demonization and victimization by the West. “This situation, without a doubt, has elements of a clash of civilizations,” Lukashevich said in his statement.

A clash of civilizations?  More likely a clash of old vs. new, tradition vs. modernity, intelligentsia vs. the masses, and oppression vs. freedom in Russia itself.

Indeed, on the same day the Russian government was condemning the West, Russia formally joined the WTO after years of negotiations. This development, resisted by Russia for decades, means that Russia will be more closely integrated into the international economy.

It may seem paradoxical, in light of the Putin regime’s authoritarian tendencies, but such inclusion is to be welcomed.  The Obama administration was right to criticize the disproportionate punishment of Pussy Riot, and it also should press for Congress to approve permanent normal trade relations with Russia and repeal the dated Jackson-Vanik law (which restricts imports and exports).  Now that Russia is in the WTO, normalized relations would allow increased U.S. exports and better access to Russian markets.

Importantly, increased trade and investment would also permit more influence and leverage over Russia.  Closer links to the West would also be beneficial for the Russian people, opening the Russian economy and encouraging change.

As Secretary Clinton noted in an op-ed, “By extending those trading relations, we can create new markets for our people and support the political and economic changes that Russia’s people are demanding. These reforms will ultimately make Russia a more just and open society as well as a better partner over the long term for the U.S.”

Engagement with Russia, and criticism when merited—especially regarding human rights and freedom of expression—can and should go hand in hand. If Russia drifts farther away from the West, then the clash of civilizations that the Russian foreign ministry darkly alluded to may become reality.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Support to the people

    I just love how Russia cares about Western opinions more than the opinions of it’s uprising citizen’s. Taking away someone’s right to protest is just flat out wrong and 100% against freedom. Putin is evil and a joke.

  • Posted by Charles Edward Frith (@charlesfrith)

    Surely the clash of civilisations is about freedom for Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. Is the mirror so uncomfortable we’ve taken to backing anarchists abroad? What about Nabeel Rajab of Bahrain. Jailed the same week as Pussy Riot for a human rights tweet? Double standards at the CFR are normal but not with your readers.

  • Posted by Gregory

    Pussy Riot takes their name from a storm or riot of live cats thrown at poorly paid fast food workers in a voina action. That’s art telling the poor not to be wage slaves. Why President Obama issued a statement of support is quite puzzling.

  • Posted by George Eccles

    Of course two years in a penal colony is somewhat excessive for Pussy Riot, but surely outpourings of grief and disapproval at the verdict by the media and celebrities who had never heard of them before the group’s performance in Christ the Saviour Cathedral is equally excessive. After all, what did the group do? Running up to the front of the church wearing their trademark balaclavas, the three girls shouted “Mother of God, drive out Putin!” in front of the altar. Not a very clever thing to do in today’s Russia – not a very clever thing to do anywhere, some would say. You would have to live on Mars not to know that offending Putin in this public way would lead to reprisals, and choosing to do it in this Cathedral managed to upset a lot of people who might otherwise have been on their side. Quite frankly, as author of The Oligarch: A Thriller, my view is that they have only themselves to blame.

  • Posted by Nathan Allen

    Mr. Lindsay,

    Are you aware of the historical significance of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior? Bottom line, the Communists destroyed it- along with so many other churches and monasteries, not to mention the millions of Christians they killed- to send the message that they “overthrew” Christ and replaced him with Communism. That should offer some insight into why the punk band’s blasphemous act is all the more horrendous in addition to what it constitutes first of all- a grave offense against Almighty God. The reflexive reaction of “the West” to this event is simply not informed by the historical context. Justice seems to demand an update to your article that contains the whole story, not just a one-sided ignorance.
    Thank you for your time.
    Nathan

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