The old Latin saying qui tacet, consentit (silence implies consent) was first brought back into the contemporary Russia debate by blogger Vilhelm Konnander following the assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. However, today it is more resonant and telling than ever, as we watch country after country turn their backs in willful silence on the fate of the dying Russian prisoner Vasily Alexanyan (also spelled Alexanian, Aleksanyan, and Aleksanian). (Read my blog here, here, here, here, here, and here).
Why on earth won’t anybody say anything about this poor, unfortunate victim of Kremlin injustice? This is the question often put to me in recent emails and comments. Of course I have my theories which I shall outline below, but I certainly do share their outrage and disbelief.
Consider the facts: He’s been unlawfully held in pre-trial detention for two years without conviction, denied urgent medical care to treat his condition (which the prosecutor illegally disclosed to the media as HIV), and he has been offered relief and medical care only in exchange for invented false testimony against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other Yukos prisoners. Not to mention that the Russian Federation has ignored three separate orders from the European Court of Human Rights regarding his medical care.The man is on the brink of death, yet apart from a barely publicized Amnesty International note back on Jan. 18, almost no one in Europe or North America has said any thing in his defense. Why not?
One has to recognize the success of the Russian strategy to stifle criticism on this case and others. First, we can see that the prosecutors and judges are following instructions to urgently rush forward with a trial and decision in record time, which somehow justifies their torture and slow manslaughter of Alexanyan and further taints Khodorkovsky – given that the dying prisoner refused to give up false testimony to save his own life. Encouraged by past examples, the prosecutors believe that if they obtain a rubber stamp conviction of some sort or the other, that this thin, counterfeit legality will be enough for Brussels to sleep well at night.
Don’t believe it for a second. The latest news: Alexanyan has been diagnosed with terminal lymphoma cancer, while at the same moment a Russian judge has refused his transfer to another facility because “the defense had failed to provide evidence that Aleksanian is suffering from any lethal diseases.” Never mind that his lawyers were denied the opportunity to submit this evidence. Welcome to the new show trial.In explaining the silence, we have to consider the emerging trend of Moscow throwing more and more money than ever into PR representation in foreign capitals (someone should tell them that an actual policy change would be much cheaper). I know for a fact from discreet conversations with London and Washington journalists and editors that they are under tighter scrutiny from Kremlin-hired representatives who pressure media owners and advertisers over “balance” in the coverage of Russia affairs. We’ve also seen the Kremlin’s addiction to buying fake news – the most recent was their humorous second full take-out section published in the Washington Post this week.
But of course, far more powerful than any hired agency are the unpaid lobbyists that are acting aggressively to promote Russia’s interests in foreign capitals: large energy corporations who are negotiating or have recently closed a deal with Gazprom or the Russian Federation. Simply take a look at Petro-Canada, which I have been speaking about recently during my visit to Calgary and Toronto – it’s practically transparent to see how the Russians extract the greatest advantage by keeping the Canadians on the precipice of an energy deal for as long as possible. Can you imagine the kind of corporate pressure that must be placed on government officials not to say anything unsavory to Moscow right now? I imagine it must feel like Italy under Prodi and Eni, the Social Democrats under E.on, the Sakozy-Total tango, and the Dutch under Gasunie, the latest to join up with the Nord Stream pipeline.
Major energy deals with Gazprom and Rosneft have proven to be extremely effective ways to impose an almost criminal silence on human rights issues.
However a recent commenter raises a good point – why would international NGOs and rights groups so removed from these business-geopolitical concerns also maintain silence over the murder-in-progress of Vasily Alexanyan? That’s a tough answer. Firstly, over the past number of years, we have observed an enormous prejudice and skepticism toward the Yukos prisoners and human rights abuses, which somehow rationalized that because some of these men were successful business leaders, than it wasn’t possible that they became legitimate victims of human rights abuses. It didn’t fit the preferred model.However that has definitely changed over the years. One of our top human rights lawyers on the case, Karinna Moskalenko, also in the past held her own doubts over whether this was a political prisoner case or not, until she was subjected to endless harassment of her legal team for getting involved, and came to know the extreme persecution of the authorities in this case that are now so familiar and widely known. Now she is easily one of the most outspoken critics of abuses of authority by the Russian government in the the Khodorkovsky/Yukos case – demanding that the international human rights NGOs should be all over it.
Another effective way that the Kremlin has fended off any criticisms of human rights from organizations is the classic “double standards” narrative. This contagious line of messages says “how can one put up with the arrogance of an American civil society group criticizing Russia for its treatment of prisoners when the Republican presidential candidates are eagerly arguing over who is more in favor waterboarding and doubling the size of Guantanamo?” These “double standard” myths are the critical engines of a reckless and ill-considered moral relativism – because the United States and Europe have very real problems of their own to tackle, then nothing that the Russian government does is bad, goes the logic.One rights group just recently zeroed in on this precise rhetorical hurdle, and decided that rather than criticizing the offending government, they would target the hypocrisy of those who support and legitimize these abusive states.
Only when it is made clear that the complicity in these crimes is shared among all those who refuse to condemn them will we ever make progress. Human Rights Watch, which hasn’t yet made a statement about Vasily Alexanyan (we all hope they will do soon), deserves a great amount of credit for coming up with a new approach to rights defense in the massive gray area of today’s international arena.In conclusion, if qui tacet consentit indeed holds true, than there are very few out there who will be able to claim innocence. It’s time to speak up people, for the sake of human dignity.