Trump & Putin
One of the most important lessons I try to impart on my students is that the in- alienable rights they and most Americans believe are guaranteed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution are only guaranteed by vigilance. This has been proven throughout American history. From the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams to the Sedition Act of 1917, McCarthy Era persecutions, Watergate, Scooter Libby and Valerie Plame, there is a tendency on the part of the party in power to scrutinize their political enemies in the interest of silencing dissent.
At this point we need to step back and consider that democracy is based on a marketplace of ideas. If some ideas are snuffed out or some voices stifled, then democracy ceases to exist. When one party so effectively destroys its opposition, there is no more choice, we become a one party system like the Soviet Union. In the famous Kitchen Debate, then Vice President Richard Nixon challenged Secretary Khrushchev to open the Soviet Union to American ideas. Nixon’s contention was that freedom of choice and conscience would win out if given the opportunity.
It has been evident from a number of statements by Donald Trump that he has an affinity for, if not emulation of Vladimir Putin. He has suggested on multiple occasions that they might become friends.1 As far back as October of 2007 Trump was enamored of Putin’s leadership style. “Look at Putin — what he’s doing with Russia — I mean, you know, what’s going on over there. I mean this guy has done — whether you like him or don’t like him — he’s doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period,” Trump told Larry King on CNN.2
More disturbing than vaguely expressing admiration for a despot, however, has been Trump’s admiration for Putin’s international aggressiveness. “Putin has big plans for Russia. He wants to edge out its neighbors so that Russia can dominate oil supplies to all of Europe,” Trump said. “I respect Putin and Russians but cannot believe our leader (Obama) allows them to get away with so much…Hats off to the Russians.”3 I question, if Trump and Putin are to be friends, how he intends to at the same time be strong, and stop him from getting away with so much? This is a question for another time.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, Trump has defended Putin against allegations the Russian president has ordered the killing of journalists. “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” Trump said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I think our country does plenty of killing also.”4 Even I cannot yet imagine an America in which the President of the United States orders the deaths of American citizens with impunity. However, I think it’s important to recognize that our rights do not disappear all at once, but slowly ebb away like a falling tide. This was and is the case in Russia.
Let’s take a look at the case of Alexei Navalny, a prominent opponent of Putin’s regime, as an example. Navalny is a 40 year old Russian lawyer, activist and sometime political candidate who first made a name by exposing embezzlement and corruption in state run companies at public share holders meetings. 5 Since that time Navalny has
become an outspoken critic of Putin, as well as his United Russia Party and has led several protests in the streets of Moscow, as well as running for mayor of Moscow.
Navalny has also become yet another example of the way in which Putin deals with his political opposition. For the most part Putin has avoided outright restrictions on freedom of speech or the press. There are important exceptions to this, which should be noted, but for now let’s focus on how Putin has utilized the Russian “justice” system to undermine, embarrass and even imprison his opponents.
In 2011 Navalny was charged with advising the head of a timber company in making an unprofitable deal and faced 5 years in prison. He has been investigated for stealing 100 million rubles from a political party, a theft a top party official claims never happened. Navalny and his brother, Oleg, were also charged with embezzling 55 million rubles and Oleg Navalny was sentenced to 5 years for the alleged crime.6 In 2013 Navalny was sentenced to 5 years in prison for misappropriating $500,000 in lumber from a state owned company. This conviction occurred just prior to the Moscow mayoral election in which Navalny was a candidate. In a bizarre twist the prosecutor in the case asked that Navalny be released after his conviction and some have suggested the intervention is a telling indication of the Kremlin’s desire to avoid making a martyr of Navalny.7 In light of the repeated allegations and charges against Navalny, several
prominent international figures have expressed concern. “This outcome, given the procedural shortcomings, raises serious questions as to the state of the rule of law in Russia,” said the EU’s chief of foreign affairs Catherine Ashton.8 The UK’s foreign secretary assessed Navalny’s prosecution as an indictment of any claims to legitimate democracy in Russia. “The decision to sentence him for five years has highlighted once again the concerns felt by many about the selective application of the rule of law in Russia,”9
The pattern of investigations into Navalny and those close to him is the kind of blatant persecution of political opponents that endangers not only the rights of individuals, but democracy itself. In fact, to refer to Russia’s government as democracy would be a farce. Putin’s rule is littered with examples of his political enemies ending up in prison, exiled or even dead.10 All of the murders committed by Putin’s operatives are plausibly denied. The persecution and jailing of political opponents is masked in the legitimacy of investigating criminal activity. Intimidation, imprisonment, and murder, these are the methods in which Vladimir Putin is a master. This is a man our President-elect, and many others on the right, have expressed admiration for. In the past few years we have seen Putin’s government invade a sovereign nation (Ukraine) and begin to place restrictions around the edges of freedom of speech. These laws, as described in the
Washington Post, subject individuals who participate in protests multiple times in a six- month period to fines of up to 1 million rubles and the possibility of 5 years forced labor or imprisonment.11 Perhaps more insidious, Putin signed into law a provision to increase the jail time of those who use media to question his aggressive actions in nations like the Ukraine and semi-autonomous Chechnya.12 In merely attempting to broaden your message you subject yourself to a lengthier jail time.
The concerns raised here are not only relevant to President-elect Trump’s apparent admiration of Mr. Putin. During the campaign Trump repeatedly criticized the independent media and expressed an interest in controlling it. In March of 2016 Trump said he was interested in “opening up libel laws” to make it easier to sue news organizations publishing purposely harmful or false articles.13 If Trump’s intention is to silence those who disagree with them he has a considerable degree of difficulty in this country, given the constitutional protections and previous Supreme Court rulings involving libel.14 However, we have witnessed in this nation’s history, on repeated occasions, the ability of those in power to subvert or skirt the constitution and the laws. On most of these occasions, the media or the opposition have successfully reigned in the power of the executive or the majority.
It remains to be seen whether or not Mr. Trump will follow through in his emulation of Mr. Putin, but it is the duty of all American citizens to remain vigilant and defend the right of their fellow Americans, even those they disagree with, to voice their opinions and as Edward R. Murrow said, “to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”15 As Americans we have a duty to be vigilant in the defense of not only our own individual rights, but those of others as well.
7 https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/russian-activist-freed-one-day- later/2013/07/19/0b452118-f04c-11e2-bed3-b9b6fe264871_story.html
8 http://edition.cnn.com/2013/07/18/world/europe/russia-navalny- case/index.html
9 http://edition.cnn.com/2013/07/18/world/europe/russia-navalny- case/index.html
10 http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/21/world/europe/moscow-kremlin-silence- critics-poison.html?_r=0