Standing Up to Putin

Last week a young man stood up in a crowd during a speech by Russian "President" Dmitri Medvedev and shouted: "Why are you listening to him? He's violated the rights and freedoms of people and citizens!" Reuters and the Associated Press both picked up the story of how the brave young man brought Medvedev's speech to a standstill before being whisked away by the Kremlin's security thugs. YouTube has the video.

This was Roman Dobrokhotov, the rakishly handsome journalist, blogger, Moscow State Institute of International Relations student, and leader of the "We" movement. He was written up by the Other Russia opposition movement this past October after he blogged about being "approached and offered money in exchange for damaging information against well known public figures." He posted transcripts and recordings (Russian link) of the conversations. Dobrokhotov was also a prominent member of the brief presidential campaign of Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky. In 2005, Dobrokhotov formed a group called "Walking without Putin" as a counterpoint to a group of Putin sycophants with a similar name.

By telephone from the police station after his arrest, Dobrokhotov stated: "When Medvedev started to speak about how great our constitution was I couldn't take it any longer. He is talking complete rubbish."

Opposition to the Putin regime begins to seem increasingly credible. The plunging ruble, FOREX reserves, and stock market washed away Putin's patina of invincibility. Last week my blog La Russophobe ran down a litany of setbacks the Kremlin has faced in recent days in its march towards the total elimination of dissent, and now Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov have created a "Solidarity" movement and openly proclaimed they intend to "dismantle Putin." It can't have escaped their notice that the Kremlin recently moved to abolish jury trials for those accused of sedition. Neither Kasparov nor Nemtsov have shown the inclination, much less the ability, to directly challenge Putin in any practical way, but the bluntness of their rhetoric shows they sense Putin's vulnerability.

The Kremlin is unlikely to take this confrontation lying down. How long before Mr. Dobrokhotov is found eligible for military service and spirited off in the night to unknown locations, as was fellow GenX opposition leader Oleg Kozlovsky, about whom I've previously written for Pajamas Media? Will he be as lucky as that? Many other Russian journalists have not been.  How long before he, or even Kasparov or Nemtsov for that matter, meet with foul play in the entryway of their apartment buildings?

And more importantly, how long before our so-called "leaders" in the West begin to speak out on behalf of real Russian heroes like Dobrokhotov and Kozlovsky, who remain largely unknown and unrecognized in the West? How long before they realize that the current generation of opposition leaders in Russia are largely a spent force, and that the West must begin to nurture a new generation before it is simply wiped out in the next wave of Stalinesque purges? If other young Russians don't see any recognition for the few valiant leaders who now dare to stick their necks out, why should others come forward?

A window is open now in Russia. The economy has made the regime vulnerable, and it has not yet completed its transition to a formalized "presidency for life" vested in Vladimir Putin. Concerted pressure by the West could carve out a protected sphere of civil society in Russia within which leaders like Kozlovsky and Dobrokhotov could grow and develop a formidable pro-democracy movement that could rewrite Russia's future.

Barack Obama ought to stand at the forefront of such efforts. He's recently issued some very encouragingly tough rhetoric on Russian aggression in Georgia, but he's been woefully silent on the neo-Sovietization of civil society within Russia. His expressed ideals ought to compel him to speak out as Ronald Reagan did, demanding that Vladimir Putin tear down the new iron curtain before Russia turns into an irreparable nightmare. But he hasn't come close to doing that yet.

There is some reason for hope. In October, Human Rights First gave Oleg Kozlovsky its annual Human Rights Award, and Sigourney Weaver handed it to him in a glitzy New York ceremony. He's had an op-ed column in the Washington Post in which he accused the Kremlin of promoting "gulag stability," and since the wave of Western recognition for his efforts, he has experienced much less harassment from the Kremlin.

But this is not the same as recognition from the formal corridors of power in Washington and other Western capitals, and the Kremlin clearly has not yet seen the light. When Kasparov's followers sought to peacefully march through the streets of Moscow and St. Petersurg over the weekend in support of Solidarity, they were crushed by Putin's goons and nearly 100 were arrested. If Obama really means it when he talks about change we can believe in, one of the best places to prove it would be neo-Soviet Russia. He might start with a phone call to a young man named Roman Dobrokhotov.