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Partners in Crime

Today Robert Amsterdam had the following opinion article published in the Washington Post.  To read more about the Russia-Venezuela relationship, click here, here, and here.  To read more about Eligio Cedeño, click here.

partnersincrime012109.jpgPartners In Crime
Why Lawlessness Works For Chávez and Putin

By Robert R. Amsterdam
Thursday, January 22, 2009; A17

The administrations of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Vladimir Putin in Russia are enjoying a robust, burgeoning friendship. Though they are separated by 6,000 miles, the two leaders’ bond is sealed not only by their similar tastes for repressive authoritarianism, oil expropriations and large arms deals but also by parallel trends of increasing violence and murder on the streets of their cities.

Themost high-profile political murder since the 2006 slaying of AnnaPolitkovskaya took place in Russia on Monday, when 34-year-old humanrights lawyer Stanislav Markelov was shot,point-blank, in the head. The student journalist accompanying him wasalso killed. Three days earlier, radio journalist Orel Zambrano wasassassinated in Venezuela, the second journalist killed there in asmany weeks. Human rights groups have denounced the murders, but fewseem to see that the conditions leading to violent crime in Russia andVenezuela are no accident.

Putin and Chávez preside over apervasive sense of violence and insecurity in their capitals, which hasresulted in parallel, politically motivated attacks against theopposition. In Russia, this trend has been illustrated by the shootingof Politkovskaya and, more recently, the near-fatal beating ofjournalist Mikhail Beketov, among many others. Last month alone inVenezuela, there were 510 violent deaths, leading Foreign Policymagazine to deem Caracas the “murder capital of the world.”

InPutin’s Russia, attacks by self-described nationalists againstforeigners have gained international media attention — helped in partby a video of a gruesome beheading that has been spread on theInternet. In Venezuela, three leaders of opposition student unions havebeen killed in street attacks, including University of Zulia organizerJulio Soto, who was shot 20 times in Maracaibo in October. Bothcountries have experienced rising public demonstrations of discontentduring the economic crisis, and the rallies have been met withheavy-handed repression by police.

Since Putin and Chávez aresaid to rule with “iron fists,” a menacing question arises: Why havethey been unable to stem the tide of crime in their streets? Is it areflection of incompetence, or is there some tacit benefit to keeping asociety imprisoned under a cloak of severe insecurity and moral panic?

Someanswers became clear to me during a recent visit before a congress ofstudent leaders in Caracas. These impressive young men and women, whocooperate across the political spectrum, take on enormous risks inassuming political consciousness. In Bolivarian Venezuela, politicaldiscrimination has been institutionalized by the pervasive use ofblacklists, and those who oppose Chávismo accept a future ofdivisiveness and lost opportunities.

This political landscape iseerily similar to what has happened in Russia under Putin; thecitizenry experiences the same helplessness and fear in the face of aleviathan cloaked in the misappropriated vocabulary of democracy.

Thesimilarities are striking: Whether its banner is “21st CenturySocialism” or “Sovereign Democracy,” neither administration iscomfortable discussing the considerable fortunes that have been amassedby government officials or the impunity of the corrupt. Both in Putin’sRussia and in Chávez’s Venezuela, the state has become the principalinstrument used by predatory business groups, which employ theauthority of the courts, regulatory agencies and police to seizeassets, influence deals and enrich themselves at the people’s expense.This relationship is particularly noxious because it is grounded in theinsecurity of the populace.

While the relationship between Russiaand Venezuela is outwardly manifested by military showmanship, it isactually an alliance of entrepreneurial convenience meant for a smallgroup of beneficiaries. For the heads of state-owned businesses, forexample, things are flourishing. A plethora of military hardware salesagreements have been signed, while Russian national energy firms enjoymultiple exploration licenses in Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt that mostmultinational companies would be denied on principle.

In bothcountries, key members of the opposition are barred from participatingin the regime’s continuous political campaign. The fight to suppressreal opposition is waged through constitutional amendments that createan appearance of competent rule but actually are designed to excludeopposition. What is not accomplished by faux legalism is carried outthrough government-backed neighborhood militias or extreme nationalistyouth groups.

In my discussions with the Venezuelan studentleaders, I was struck by deep parallels with the conditions faced byRussian civil society leaders, such as Oleg Kozlovsky, whose couragehas never faltered in the face of attacks, arrests, threats andharassment from official and unofficial sources. It occurred to me thatthe monstrous violence on the streets of Caracas and Moscow is perhapsuseful to both regimes — and that in their incompetence at deliveringpublic security, they have found a convenience that contributes totheir grip on power.

The first step toward improving thissituation is to drop the pretense that these two governments haveconstructed a vertical structure of power and recognize that they haveinstitutionalized a horizontal structure of incompetence — onecharacterized by violence, insecurity and impunity. It’s time wesummoned the political will to hold such world leaders accountable forthe rights of their own people by all means available, regardless ofhow much oil they export.

Robert R. Amsterdam is aninternational lawyer who represents political prisoners in severalcountries, including Eligio Cedeño in Venezuela and MikhailKhodorkovsky in Russia. He blogs at www.robertamsterdam.com.