The vote on Russia’s new constitution and Russian freedom

By Jonathan Power, an international correspondent

One of the founders of Russia’s Pussy Riot rock band, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, was interviewed on the BBC last weekend. When the group played inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour she was jailed for two years for “religious hatred”. She doesn’t seem bitter, but she seems damning. She thinks that last week’s referendum on a new constitution was only held to cement Putin in power for two more decades. She barely discussed 200 other items in the constitutional package. She does not like the present order despite many older people having voted “yes” because of the provision that would index pensions. No wonder, even other opponents of Putin find her a bit hard to take.

The band may not have millions of followers, but she rightly drew attention to the 34% of the people of Moscow who voted against the new constitution. In St. Petersburg, the vote against was 22%. (The national turnout was 68%, so one can assume that a third of the voters are not excited about their government).

Yes, Russia does have a degree of free speech. The Moscow and St Petersburg votes were significant because together they possess around one third of European Russia’s population. Without available statistics, I am guessing that the two cities contain 70% of Russia’s intelligentsia who most likely voted against the new constitution.

Putin’s strength lies in the working class and lower middle class of the cities, the inhabitants of small town and villages, those who live off state budget funds and those who live east of the Urals.

Russia’s freedoms are circumscribed, but less so than the Western media project. You can find plenty of books by critics and dissidents in bookstores. You can read a couple of Moscow-based newspapers that are relatively free as does the nationally broadcasted radio station, Echo, despite being owned partly by Gazprom which in turn is partially state-owned. Large metropolitan and provincial magazines and a TV station are not unduely influenced by owners with close links to the Kremlin. Russia Today, generally regarded in the West as a propaganda broadcaster, is a serious and reasonably objective station, albeit with a Russian accent.

Western Media: the BBC, CNN and countless other TV and radio stations, are easily accessible in Russia with free internet and no penalty for reading the New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, or posting critiques there. Facebook and its Russian equivalent are rarely censored, except for one of the outspoken newspapers, Vedomosti, which is going through a difficult period after its purchase by a pro-Kremlin businessman.

Demonstrations are permitted although those that are highly political can be stopped and its leaders arrested and jailed for a night to a week and seldomly for two years as was the case with the Pussy Riot band.

Though liberty in Russia is not up to Western standards, the Putin regime is not a dictatorship as painted by the West, but a “soft authoritarian”.

In comparison, the West is not as democratic or free as the world is made to believe. Major news media such as the BBC, France TV and others are controlled by the state, and by big time capitalists such as Rupert Murdoch and Jeff Bezos. Jewish owners are unapologetically pro-Israeli and anti-Islamic. Facebook, the most powerful of online fora, refuses to censor the often-blatant lies told by politicians-mainly Republicans- even though much of the mainstream media would at the very least question them. An off-piste writer or broadcaster finds it extremely difficult to get articles into print or broadcasts on the air.

President Donald Trump is outrageously and continuously bending democratic political rules and indications are that he will do more so when the November election campaign intensifies. He is a bigger liar than even the UK’s Boris Johnson or Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Margaret Thatcher smashed the British unions with unsavory methods. Not long-ago, German teachers found it more difficult to get positions if they had strong left-wing views.

In Northern Ireland, until relatively recently, Catholics were a down-trodden second-class citizens and for a century up to 1968 nobody on the mainland cared one bit. The British army could be brutal and get away with it. In France and the US, the police can often be more brutal than their Russian counterparts. Immigrants are discriminated against. Today, black Americans and other minorities do not have the same economic and educational opportunities and respect that white people take for granted, despite a black man, Barack Obama, having been elected president. Martin Luther King campaigned successfully for civil rights but was immediately gunned down when he began to demand for educational and economic equity. The US has not paid reparations to the descendants of the enslaved people nor has it compensated Native Americans for the land it stole and occupied, and the treaties it broke.

The US still has capital punishment which Russia no longer have. In the US where racial divisions are still severe, the corona virus has wreaked havoc in black communities in a way it hasn’t, in white communities. Russia does not have comparable racial division.

Russian military intervention in Syria cannot compare in size, destructive impact, and deaths of civilians with the American, British, and French interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

In Eastern European countries, there are worrying indications that democracy is being undermined despite being members of the EU from which they received a large amount of largesse. In Poland, the judiciary’s freedom is being circumscribed. In Hungary opposition parties and press are under severe pressure from a prime minister who is pushing his country towards dictatorship.

Westerners, when it comes to viewing Russia, are ill-informed, prejudiced and often seized with hypocrisy. It is long overdue for the West to show the hand of friendship to Russia, just as it did immediately after the Cold War before NATO was expanded. The West may be surprised how quickly Russians would reciprocate.