A Thorn in Putin's Side Named Oleg Kozlovsky

One of the last vigorous protest organizations in Russia, and by far the most significant among the young people who should be Russia's best hope for a democratic future, is a group called "Oborona" ("Defense"). It engages in a wide variety of public demonstrations, and acts as a counterweight to the increasingly infamous pro-Putin youth cult known as "Nashi" ("us Slavic Russians"), and sometimes coordinates with opposition leader Garry Kasparov's "Other Russia" political party.

A principal figure in the Oborona group is Oleg Kozlovsky, who has an eponymous blog (in Russian) and is pictured above keeping company with two of Vladimir Putin's most draconian-looking neo-Soviet stormtroopers after daring to march in favor of democracy in St. Petersburg this past April.

In July of this year, Kozlovsky began reaching out to the West in order to acquaint us with his group's activities and goals, publishing an essay on the blog of Robert Amsterdam, lawyer for Mikhail Khodorkovsky (who was jailed just as he began making noises about seeking the presidency in 2004, challenging incumbent Putin). He wrote: "In the political street battles that have swept the streets of Russia's cities, black-and-white flags with a menacing stylized fist on them are becoming an ever more frequent sight. These banners are always unfurled at the forefront, always right in the thick of things. These are my brothers-in-arms, the activists of Oborona, who are rushing into the fray, ready to fight to defend their freedom and the truth from a power that is trampling on these ideals."

Over the course of the last two weeks, things have got extremely hot in Kozlovsky's kitchen, proving that his activities have effectively held the Kremlin's feet to the fire of democracy.

In the run-up to the December parliamentary elections, Kozlovsky actively participated in protest marches aimed at the Kremlin's draconian crackdown on opposition candidates. In addition, he planned to actively monitor the polling places for instances of fraud with his team. In a second essay on the Amsterdam blog, Kozlovsky revealed how he and his associates were systematically tailed by the secret police, and apparently had the tires of their vehicle slashed to slow them down.

Then in a third post about Kozlovsky, Amsterdam published an original interview by Grigori Pasko, one of the boldest independent journalists left in Russia. Commenting on recent moves by the Kremlin to restrict the movement of its critics (it recently barred the entry of renowned Moldovan journalist Natalia Morari and barred the exit of Kasparov's wife and daughter), Kozlovsky said: "What we're seeing here is a very vivid manifestation of the paranoia that reigns in the ruling circles. I think that administrative arrests will indeed now enter into mass practice. Until now, they were applied in Russia very rarely, but the bad example of neighboring Belarus is contagious."

This increasingly high profile in the West the Kremlin apparently found intolerable, even though it had prevailed in the elections by a landslide. Its response was swift and brutal: a Russian blog reported that it Shanghaied Kozlovsky into military service (my translation):

Today on the 20th of December at 10 am the Oborona coordinator Oleg Kozlovsky was approached at his home entrance by police officers. Oleg was told that needed to go with them to the Military Affairs Bureau to settle some problems. Oleg was taken to the MAB office for Izmaylovsky District. Oleg is currently considered an officer since he holds an undergraduate degree from Moscow State University [the Russian Harvard]. He is now studying for his graduate degree and his military ID is in process of being updated by the authorities to reflect that; his graduate study exempts him from service. The paperwork procedures can be used as an excuse for persecution and may explain his "problems" with MAB. Once he arrived, Oleg's documents were taken from him and he was forced to undergo an immediate physical, which he passed. The doctor said that he was healthy enough for service, though his father said that Oleg has very serious problem with feet that needs surgery. Staff were overheard stating that the MAB action was at FSB [KGB] instigation. At 2 pm Oleg called his mother. At 3 pm Oleg was taken out of the MAB office through the back door, apparently headed for the enlistment barracks. He sent SMS that read: "They are taking me somewhere." The license of the vehicle he left in was 73277 (a yellow plate). Most likely he was taken not as an officer but as a regular soldier. Lawyers of Moscow Helsinki Group have been informed and declared that MAB's actions were in violation of Oleg's rights as a Russian citizen.

Despite its claims that it has peaceful intentions, such that NATO does not need to add to its membership or install defensive missile systems, Russia still maintains universal military conscription. Given that the average military wage is less than $4 an hour, you can well imagine what sort of conditions conscripted soldiers live under -- to say nothing of the prospect of being sent off to fight in battle-scarred Chechnya -- and these oppressive conditions have led to the horrifying hazing practices known as "dedovshchina."

Celebrating New Year's Eve 2006, for example, a group of Russian recruits grabbed a 19-year-old private named Andrei Sychyov, along with half a dozen other green youngsters, and brutally beat them, then forced them to hold a squatting position for several hours. Radio Liberty reported: "As a result, Sychyov developed gangrenous infection -- but he was only hospitalized on 4 January, when he was already in critical condition and unable to stand." His legs and genitals had to be amputated to save his life. RL added: "Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov at first sought to play down the incident. 'I think nothing serious happened,' he told reporters on 25 January 25, 'otherwise I would have certainly known about it.'" The practice is so pandemic that an %%AMAZON=3898216160 entire book%% was published earlier this year devoted to the subject, edited by scholar Dale Herspring.

It isn't clear whether the Kremlin's plan is to simply try to terrorize and silence Kozlovsky, or whether it intends to brutalize him. What is clear, however, is that immediate and decisive action by Western leaders is called for, a show of force in Kozlovsky's behalf. This action, using military conscription to attack a young activist, is unprecedented and represents a major new escalation of Putin's crackdown on opposition. If allowed to do so unfettered, the Kremlin will certainly use conscription as a means of squashing dissidence again in the future.

Putin has not hesitated to use Russia's tax system, so arcane that nobody can be sure of compliance, against political rivals -- such as Khodorkovsky. And with its new electoral "mandate" in hand, the Kremlin is obviously not feeling very constrained about how it deals with the last vestiges of independent thinking. Time magazine's recent "Person of the Year" award to Putin did no good either: Putin's press secretary responded gleefully that "it's very good news for us, very good news. We treat it as an acknowledgment of the role that was played by President Putin in helping to pull Russia out of the social troubles and economic troubles of the 1990s." And perhaps as carte blanche to crush the remainder of Russian civil society.

In another shockingly heavy-handed move, the Kremlin shut down an organization called "Mothers of Beslan" which had been seeking an investigation of the Kremlin's role in provoking the bloodbath that resulted during the Beslan hostage seizure. And it blocked Kasparov from getting on the ballot to run for president next year.

The worst thing of all may be that recent reporting begins to indicate that the Kremlin isn't even acting on the basis of "national security" when it executes these brutal moves. Britain's Guardian newspaper is now reporting a story that has been circulating in the blogosphere for weeks now, that Putin has been systematically siphoning off state funds into a private accounts abroad -- to the tune of up to $40 billion.

Kremlin Inc., indeed.

Kim Zigfeld is a New York City-based writer who blogs at the Pajamas Media Network blog Publius Pundit and publishes her own Russia specialty blog, La Russophobe. She also writes for Russia! magazine and is researching a book on the rise of dictatorship in Putin's Russia.