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Pussy Riot and the Two Russias August 4, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Civil Liberties, Russia.
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Published on Saturday, August 4, 2012 by The Nation


(Credit: Igor Mukhin)

Pussy Riot is here to stay. International attention has mounted over the months since three members of the punk rock/protest group were imprisoned for a fifty-one-second stunt. All the more so this week, as their trial—on “hooliganism” charges—finally began.

As I’ve described before, members of the group seized the stage of Russia’s iconic Christ the Savior Cathedral just before the country’s March elections, performing (and recording) a musical plea to the Virgin Mary to oust Vladimir Putin. The cadre of Russian artists and activists descended from the performance artists Voina (“War”), who were influenced by the US punk movement Riot grrrl. Its story might have ended there, if not for a truly authoritarian response from the Russian government. Three alleged participants were arrested, threatened with seven years of imprisonment, and placed in a pre-trial detention that’s been extended for months. Now, Pussy Riot is world famous—as is its stunt. The longer they’re in prison, the more attention they get.

It’s been gratifying to see the outpouring of support for these women. It’s come from insiders and outsiders alike, in Russia and abroad. Key Putin backers have broken with him on Pussy Riot. More than 400,000 Russians have signed an online petition protesting their arrest and detention. The Washington Post editorialized in defense of the activists. Punk artists around the world have voiced their solidarity. British writer Stephen Fry has called on his more than 4.6 million Twitter followers “to do everything to help Pussy Riot” and “pressure Putin” in connection with the trial. Amnesty International named Pussy Riot prisoners of conscience; its US activists have planned a guerilla art exhibit and a solidarity concert at the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC.

The crackdown on Pussy Riot is part of a broader attack on dissent in Russia. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the introduction and rapid passage of a quartet of laws that undermine Russia’s democratic ambitions: (Re-)criminalization of “defamation”; a blacklist of “harmful” websites; punitive fines on participants in “unsanctioned” protests; and a mandate that nonprofits declare foreign funding and brand themselves “foreign agents.” Russia, alas, is not the only country cracking down on political freedom. But these broadly worded, swiftly passed laws represent another wave in Russia’s de-democratization, a process started under Boris Yeltsin and continued under Putin.

The righteousness of the Pussy Riot cause is clear-cut: courageous activists up against punitive suppression. As someone who’s worked with the women’s movement in Moscow, and as a longtime student of Russia, it’s horrific to watch the mistreatment of these women, and heartening to see them draw the support they deserve, both outside the country and within it.

But lost in much of the coverage is a sobering reality: there are two Russias. The country’s deep divisions are reflected in the polling on Pussy Riot, with only a 43 percent plurality telling pollsters that a potential two-to-seven-year sentence is disproportionate. Why? There’s more in place here than simple offense at their act.

To many Russians, Russia feels like two different countries: one is urban, hyper-Westernized, aggressively modern, and seems condescending in its attitude to ordinary people; the other is the Russian heartland in the regions and provinces, where people are suffering economically and believe they’re guarding the country’s traditional values and religious convictions. This is the lens through which some Russians view Pussy Riot’s imprisonment: not individual freedom of conscience versus the state but national pride and religious faith versus a well-off, urban elite. Putin has masterfully stoked such resentments, framing the resistance to his authority as an affront to the values of the nation (a segment on state TV last month called protests in defense of Pussy Riot a “vanity fair”). Too many Western journalists ignore or underestimate the effectiveness of that appeal.

Putin’s key partner in this has been the Russian Orthodox Church. In recent years, the church has grown in clout while growing ever closer to the Kremlin. The church’s spokesperson announced that God had personally shared with him, “just like he revealed the gospels to the church,” that He “condemns” what Pussy Riot did. Cynically or in earnest, church leaders are nurturing a patriarchal, paternalistic form of patriotism, and its power and popularity are growing as a result (US readers: this may sound familiar). The prosecution’s indictment against the artists cites “blasphemous acts” and “weighty suffering” of believers—despite Russia’s supposed separation of church the state. That’s a sign of how flimsy the legal case against Pussy Riot is, but also of the church’s role in modern Russia.

In a case replete with ironies, here’s the final one: even as Putin reaps political benefit from the resentments of this other Russia, his economic and social policies are poised to hit its citizens hardest—and his most prominent critics in the opposition are on board as well. Last month ushered in a fairly dramatic increase in utility and transit costs. And austerity, Russia-style, is coming to other sectors as well: neoliberal “reforms” are on the way in education, housing and pensions. These changes will mean socio-economic disaster for already-suffering Russians, many in regions far-flung from Moscow. What is little reported in the West is that Putin’s own critics, those who’ve led many of the street protests in Moscow, also back these measures. These include elite critics like former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Boris Nemtsov and Ksenia Sobchak, once the Paris Hilton of Russia until she became its Pasionaria. Perhaps that should be no surprise: they’re not the ones about to get hurt.

It is heartening to see the broad attention being paid to the three women of the Pussy Riot group. But perhaps it’s time for some reporting on the millions of working or unemployed Russians who will bear the brunt of economic policies hatched by the Putin government and supported by many of its opposition critics. Putin’s repression has sparked vibrant pro–Pussy Riot activism. The efforts on behalf of Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion and Freedom from Fear have been important. But if the opposition really wants to mobilize a mass movement for political, social and economic change, it will have to bring the Two Russias back together. That will mean developing a program that calls for fair elections and combating corruption, while also resisting neoliberal measures that will privatize public education and gut pensions. Simply put, the activism we’ve witnessed in these last months will need to expand to encompass Freedom from Want. The fate of the next Pussy Riot could depend on it.

© 2012 The Nation



Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.



The Battle for Healthcare Begins May 6, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Health.
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by Katrina vanden Heuvel

“If there is no public insurance option…then this is not reform at all.”

That’s what Governor Howard Dean said last night in a conference call with thousands of activists — and he’s absolutely right.

As Dr. Dean noted, the battle for real reform begins Tuesday morning, when Senator Max Baucus chairs a Senate Finance Committee hearing that will look into the public plan option. Activists are writing messages on why such a plan is critical and Senator John Kerry will read some of them into the record at the hearing.

The conference call — organized by MoveOn and Democracy For America— began with a story similar to that of too many citizens across the nation. MoveOn member Lisa Hall said she was in a car accident — hit by a drunk driver — and was laid off in the aftermath when she couldn’t work. She lost her insurance, COBRA ran out, and the bills mounted as no insurance company would cover her due to pre-existing conditions. “Ultimately,” Small said, “[I went into] bankruptcy, like so many others…. The healthcare in this country has to be accessible to everyone. Not just the healthy people or the rich. We’re just working folks, trying to keep our jobs and what we’ve earned.”

Dean said the outcome of this fight will be determined by activists. We know what’s coming — charges of “socialized medicine”, “you won’t be able to choose your doctor”, “a bureaucrat in Washington will make your healthcare decisions,” etc. It will be up to the people to write letters to the editor, call your congressman, talk to neighbors. Myths will need to be debunked, front groups exposed, and money trails followed. Already, special interest groups are making robocalls and devoting millions of dollars to an anti-choice campaign.

“What we want to do is give people a choice,” Dean said. “And stop saying you’ve got to be in the private insurance market or have no insurance whatsoever if you’re under 65.” (People over 65 are already in a single-payer system — Medicare.)

As Dean pointed out, the facts are on our side in this battle. For starters, the proposal of a public plan option allows people to keep their private insurance if they want to and even subsidizes it. It’s also cheaper than private insurance since a greater percentage of premiums goes towards healthcare instead of CEO salaries, shareholder dividends, swank offices, etc. (In Vermont, Governor Dean was able to cut administrative costs by 1/3 when the state ran Medicaid instead of a private company.)

But in Washington — facts be damned — real reform that benefits ordinary citizens doesn’t come without a tough fight. “We’re going to have an all out fight about this… and we’re not going to go down again,” Dean said. “If members of Congress know how strongly people feel about this they’re going to think twice about voting against it.”

Dean said that Senator Baucus is the legislator who most needs convincing since his committee is one of the two in the Senate that will deal with the bill — and he especially needs to hear from people from his home state.

“He is nominally in favor of [the public option] but has also said that he might trade it away,” Dean said. “I don’t think it’s necessary to trade it away — we have a Democratic President, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic House, there’s no reason to trade it away…. I think we’re going to get a good bill out of the House, the problem is in the Senate.”

Indeed, the Senate is a place that resists change and all too often kills needed reform. This time around, we can’t let that happen. Tell your representatives now that it’s time to give people the option of a public plan.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.

Helping Afghan Women and Girls February 4, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Iraq and Afghanistan, War, Women.
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afghan-women-refugeesAfghan women refugees wait for aid from the World Food Program in Kandahar province. (Photo: Allauddin Khan / AP)


02 February 2009

by: Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation

As the coalition I’m working with – Get Afghanistan Right – continues to make the case that the Obama administration would be wise to rethink its plan to escalate militarily in Afghanistan, I’ve tried to engage the arguments made by some feminists and human rights groups who believe that such an escalation is necessary to protect Afghani women and girls. I share their horror when I read stories like this one by New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins describing an acid attack against girls and women – students and their teachers – at the Mirwais School for Girls. But how will escalation or increased US troop presence improve their security or make their lives better?

    I thought it would be important to speak with someone who has experience working on the ground with Afghan women’s organizations. Kavita Ramdas is President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women. For 15 years she has worked with groups like the Afghan Institute for Learning – which serves about 350,000 women and children in their schools, health care centers, and human rights programs.

    This is what Kavita said:

We’re hearing from groups we’ve worked with for over a 15 year period now, on the ground inside Afghanistan and with Afghan women’s groups and Pakistan as well.

    First, I think it’s remarkable that our approach to foreign policy – not just for the last eight years, but with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan in general over the last thirty years – has been almost entirely military focused. There hasn’t been any willingness to take a cold hard look at how effective or ineffective that strategy has been in whether or not it has helped stabilize the country. And there has been much less attention paid to whether this militaristic approach has done anything positive for the women of Afghanistan. It’s doubtful whether America’s foreign policy has ever had the welfare of Afghan women at heart. As many Afghani women have said to us, ‘You know, you didn’t even think about us 25 years ago,’ and then all of a sudden post 9-11, we’re sending troops to Afghanistan and ostensibly we’re very concerned about women. But there’s very little willingness to really look at the implications of a military strategy on women’s security. It is very important to begin with the following question: If the strategies that we used up to this point have not succeeded in ensuring the safety and well being of women and girls, what makes us think that increased militarization with 30,000 additional US troops is somehow going to improve the situation and security of women in Afghanistan?

    The second question is, what has been the role of the existing troops in Afghanistan with regard to the situation and the security of women? In general, what happens when regions become highly militarized, and when there are “peace-keeping forces,” militias, as well as foreign troops – which is NATO and the United States, primarily? In most parts of the world, highly militarized societies in almost every instance lead to bad results for women. The security of women is not improved and in many instances it actually becomes worse.

    What do I mean by that? Take, for example, Afghanistan. In 2003, almost every woman’s group I met with in Afghanistan, which was already a few years after the initial invasion, said that although they were very grateful for the fact that the Taliban was gone, the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan in general and in Kabul in particular had highly increased the incidence of both prostitution as well as trafficking – it’s not one in the same thing. Prostitution in the sense of – being something “voluntary” because very poor women and girls would come down, particularly from the countryside where villages are in a state of absolute dire impoverishment … there’s very little to eat, very little production … I talked to so many women and women’s organizations who’ve said, young girls sleep with a soldier in Kabul for $40, $50, which is more than their mothers could make as a teacher in a full month. That’s the incidence of prostitution as a function of – people call it in the women’s movement “survival sex.” The trading of sex for food on a survival basis.

    Then there is also trafficking which actually also increases because when there are military settlements, camps, barracks … criminal elements start bringing in women – forcibly or coercing them under other guises. Girls – in this case mainly from the Uzbek and Hazara tribes, as well as a number of Chinese girls in Kabul – are actually trafficked in to fill the “needs” of foreign troops. Very few Afghans can afford to actually pay for these kinds of services, so you have a situation where the main customers are the military troops.

    Then you put on top of this the fact that there are all kinds of other armed militias and gangs moving around freely in the countryside because the more foreign troops there are, the more resistance there is going to be from indigenous forces – whether it’s the Taliban, different kinds of mujahideen, different groups of ethnic tribal factions. Throughout history, whenever foreign troops are present, there will be resistance against those foreign troops in one way or another.

    Those militias and militant groups are also armed, roaming and wandering, going randomly into villages, and targeting women as they please by sexually assaulting and raping. As for the incidents that you’ve been hearing about – whether it was the girls who got acid splashed on their faces that you read about in The New York Times – these incidents have been going on for the last four or five years across the country. Girls going to school and teachers have been attacked, and under very various pretexts. Either the Taliban, mujahideen or various factions are attacking them for being “morally loose” or “promiscuous.” These people are armed – and because war tends to infuse large amounts of testosterone into large groups of men, living and wandering around together – this does not create the safest of environments for girls in villages, for schoolteachers, for women of any kind – women working in the fields. And so, what we’ve been hearing reports of are random sexual attacks on women in villages, on girls walking to school, on teachers or other women who are working. So, attacks on women have increased, for all sorts of reasons – the most common one that we hear in the West is “Oh, these Islamic fundamentalists don’t want women to work or study and so they’re attacking them.” But there are plenty of people who don’t really care whether it’s about Islam or not, they’re just interested in showing their power by sexually abusing women.

    One has to be very clear-eyed about why we are sending 30,000 troops. Quite frankly from a US government perspective, it’s because we believe that the “bad guys” – Al Qaeda – are running riot in Afghanistan and somehow that Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the extremists in Pakistan are all one in the same, and they’re all collectively bad guys, so we need to go fight them.

    I wish we could say to President Obama, “Yes Afghanistan needs troops – but it needs troops of doctors, troops of teachers, troops of Peace Corps volunteers, and troops of farmers to go and replant the fruit orchards. For anyone who grew up in India or Pakistan, Afghanistan was the place where you bought the best, incredible dried fruit in the world. Those orchards have been completely devastated. Afghanistan was not a country that just grew poppy for opium sales. It was a country that was forced into selling opium because it had nothing else.

    So, we need a different kind of troop deployment in Afghanistan, we need a massive deployment of humanitarian troops. We need to invest in Afghanistan’s economic infrastructure, in its agriculture. These are villages where people are literally not able to piece together anything that comes close to a subsistence living. Afghanistan is a country in which the maternal mortality rate is the second highest in the world after Sierra Leone. Why are we not sending in teams of doctors and midwives to train local women? We’re not talking about a German Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. Instead, we’re talking about – without a very clearly defined “enemy” – sending in 30,000 troops to look for this shadowy enemy and we’re not even clear about what that enemy represents. Afghanistan has a very long and very proud history of having thrown out every foreign invader that was ever unfortunate enough to try to subdue them. Yet every political leader suffers from this historical amnesia, and seems to lack the willingness to look at the core structures within Afghanistan society. Afghanistan is a very non-centralized nation of very unique and independent small groups and clans that have never had a formally centralized government.

    Returning to this argument that sending in troops is being done because, “we have to save the women,” is exactly what George Bush cynically did in his use of that as a kind of justification. I think the Obama Administration has to be very, very careful not to fall into this trap. Yes, there is an incredible need to make a difference in Afghanistan, but more military presence is not the solution. More presence, yes. More dialogue, yes. More engagement with both Pakistan and Afghan leaders and different factions, yes. More genuine investment in the long-term economic growth and development in Afghanistan, absolutely. But none of that is what is being promised. What is being promised is 30,000 US troops and the accompanying support systems, including the Halliburton companies that will supply, feed and look after them.

    This then creates another effect which is very important to remember. You then have a group of people, who are foreigners, who do not speak or understand your language or your culture, who are allegedly there fighting the bad guys, who are members of your own people. These “outsiders” feel like occupiers – they live in relative comfort with access to food -all the trappings of what looks like a luxurious life. When the vast majority of that population is living on less than $1 a day. This creates a huge amount of resentment. You walk around any of these American camps in Iraq or Afghanistan – huge areas of land which are cordoned off – and there are SUVs and guys full of body armor and machine guns. Inside it’s like a little America with the PX, hamburgers, and TV for the troops to watch whatever they want. Meanwhile, outside, Afghan children on the street are still playing with cluster bombs that were dropped by the American army in 2001 – they risk being blown up, and losing their sight, their limbs, their fingers.

    I think about how this country has been systematically denuded of its core resources – both human capital and natural capital, and it makes me grieve. Kabul used to be a place with incredible trees. Everybody who lives there now will tell you all the trees have gone. What Afghanistan needs is truly a massive Marshall Plan. No one is talking about that. I don’t see anyone holding this government of Hamid Karzai accountable for what is absolutely endemic corruption. You talk to any women’s groups and they will tell you that in order to go to a meeting in any ministry, just to get into the door, you have to pay a bribe. To go to the 1st floor you have to pay a bribe, to get into the room you have to pay a bribe. It is at a level of corruption that is truly extraordinary…. Do we want a situation in which the Afghani people will actually welcome the return of the Taliban because it will finally usher in some kind of law and order?

    We have to be very careful in making these assumptions. Another question I would ask is to what degree has there been any consultation with any aspects or representatives of Afghan civil society, i.e. women’s rights organizations, human rights organizations on the ground in Afghanistan, or with teachers, doctors, professionals about what is needed in Afghanistan today? Or, with others who have any sense of whether the presence of these additional foreign troops will simply serve to isolate someone who is already seen as a puppet of the Americans? Or will it give him any credibility? I doubt it will give him any credibility. And then what?

    What would you say to those who say, “I agree with you that we need humanitarian troops – troops of doctors, troops of midwives, etc. But we can’t do that until there’s more security and the only way to get more security is to send more troops”?

    I actually think that is just a bogus argument. This is not to say that these places aren’t dangerous or difficult – but to Third World ears it sounds like the argument of Westerners who don’t want to put their own lives at risk. When I went to Kabul in 2003, India had sent doctors, nurses, buses – and it was really interesting to see the difference amongst common Afghans, how they saw where US money had gone and where they saw Indian money had gone. Indian development aid was seen in the fleet of over 150 Tata buses – Tata is a company that manufactures buses and cars in India – over 100 buses had been sent over land through Pakistan. Pakistan actually allowed safe passage of those buses. And they were the buses that actually connected cities to each other. And every day Afghans took those buses to go to work, they used them to get around. And they had a sign – [the buses] just said Tata – and everyone knew those buses were from India. Kabul hospital has about 60 or 70 Indian doctors and nurses who were sent by the Indian government and they are assigned over there. Now, is it just that “Third World” peoples’ lives are less important so it doesn’t matter, so we can send them into insecure situations? I bet you if you asked the Cuban government to send doctors to Afghanistan, they would. I’m not sure the American government would like to have them there but I’m sure they would go. I think saying “we have to wait until it’s secure and we can’t send anybody”, it’s a very weak argument. And, of course, you don’t just send anyone, either troops of soldiers or troops of humanitarian workers without asking what local people want and what their priorities are. You sit down, like in 2002 when different groups came together to write a constitution. You see what is and isn’t working in Afghanistan. Bring all the warring factions together – at least ask – which hasn’t even been tried!

    We’re just accepting that the way to get security is with the presence of more guns. If I have more guns than you then that makes me secure. It actually doesn’t. It doesn’t make us more secure. Because as soon as the other person gets more guns he’s going to come and try to take you out any way. We know this from gang warfare. This is how gangs operate in urban centers of the United States. Having more weapons and more troops doesn’t necessarily make you more secure.

    What makes you secure is feeling that you have some legitimacy and some credibility amongst people in the communities where you live. Right now I don’t think the Americans have a shred of that credibility. The US did have that credibility right after the fall of Taliban. Things had gotten so bad that even though people knew that the US came out of selfish reasons post 9-11, they were still willing to give the US the benefit of the doubt. And at that point the US moved on to Iraq – instead of investing in the rebuilding of Afghanistan – which really it owed Afghanistan after the 35 years of misery that it put Afghanistan through by “fighting a proxy war against the Russians via Afghans.” We didn’t commit any troops in that last hot war of the cold war era. No Americans were killed fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. But they certainly seeded a global jihad. US funds and Saudi funds supported a military dictatorship in Pakistan and put people like Osama Bin Laden and others through the ISI training camps, where they learned to fight the “godless communists”. Now they have turned their sights on their erstwhile funders – the US and its allies are now the infidels.

    Although it does not seem like it, I believe that there are real alternative options that could be considered by President Obama and this new administration. Given all the goodwill in the world towards Obama right now, there is a little window of opportunity, in which I believe other nations would give the new administration the benefit of the doubt. If they said, “Let’s sit down with Pakistan and Afghanistan; and Iran has to be part of that conversation too and talk about what we can do to try to improve the situation.

    What are the priorities of the people of Afghanistan? What do they most need at this time?

    I’m quite sure that the people of Afghanistan would not say that what we most need is 30,000 American troops eating food enough to feed each of our families ten times over.

I’m quite sure that the people of Afghanistan would not say that what we most need is 30,000 American troops eating food enough to feed each of our families ten times over.