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What We Can Learn from the Kremlin’s Prisoners

Below is our exclusive translation of an important opinion article by Sonja Margolina published in the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag. The original article can be found here and on our German blog. What We Can Learn from the Kremlin’s Prisoners By Sonja Margolina Welt am Sonntag, February 2, 2008, page 10 Sonja Margolina asks why there is hardly any protest throughout the West against the scandalous treatment of political opponents in Vladimir Putin’s Russia Vassily Aleksanian had been sitting in a Moscow remand prison for two years, when news of his deadly illness became public. The 36-year-old Harvard graduate was previously a lawyer for the now nationalized oil corporation Yukos. “The examining magistrate for the Procuracy General, Karimov, recommended a deal after my arrest,” Aleksanian told the Supreme Court in January. “He said: The Procuracy General understands that your situation is grave and that you urgently need medical treatment. However, we need your confession, because we otherwise cannot prove the charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. If you provide testimony that fits the investigation, we will set you free.”

That is to say, Aleksanian was arrested and accused of theft and tax evasion solely in order to extort from him a false confession for another trial against his previous boss, the expropriated Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The Kremlin would not like for the fallen oligarch, a political prisoner, to ever be released.Since Aleksanian, who is sick with AIDS and blind, refused to incriminate Khodorkovsky, he was refused medical assistance. His appeal for release from remand was rejected. Out of solidarity with Aleksanian, Khodorkovsky went on hunger strike. In addition, the European Court intervened. One couldn’t let Aleksanian die in prison this way. A few days ago, he was transferred to a civilian clinic, where he now lies chained to the bed.During the Cold War, this example of Stalinist justice would have led to protest around the world. Today, this kind of blaring violation of the human right to life in a county that voluntarily committed itself to the Charter of Human Rights is not worth a dull article. Why does something that once made up the core of its political identity now leave the “free world” cold?Perhaps because the epoch of Western dominance and moral superiority is coming to an end. The more aggressively the West tries to champion the spread of its own values, the less its influence, it seems, and the greater the resistance. The rule of law, without which no democracy worthy of the name and no human rights can be ensured, is an achievement of Western civilization. But one cannot simply transplant it. The “strengthening of civil society,” in which we Europeans invest so much hope and financial means, is not bearing fruit.Instead, the West is increasingly confronted with the “transfer of values” from other cultures. The debates over parallel societies, integration, and – to date the high point – the sharia in Great Britain show that people can no longer be so sure of the universality of their values in their own county. Seen this way, “the value-based partnership” with Russia, for which the German political world as well as industry and commerce so long, falls squarely within this trend. One can bend to this trend as if it is historical fate. The moribund Aleksanian, lying in prison, made another choice – that of resistance.Sonja Margolina was born in Moscow and works today as a publicist in Berlin. In 2004, her book “Wodka: Trinken und Macht in Russland” at the publishing house wjs-Verlag.