Lawyer Robert Amsterdam (former counsel to the imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky) has published an excellent piece on the lawlessness in Vladimir Putin's mafia state. Amsterdam's point of departure is the continued imprisonment of the female punk rock band Pussy Riot, with one of its members, Nadia Tolonnikova, probably now sent to some of the worst imaginable conditions in the gulag archipelago:
It is difficult to say whether or not the continued arbitrary punishment of this young 23-year-old mother comes down from the top, or rather is the whim of a cowardly prison administrator, but what is certain is that Russia is a very dangerous place for whistleblowers — a system in which the rights of the individual are totally unprotected from the discretionary power of the state.
Whatever hopes may have remained that Putin would release political prisoners before the Sochi Winter Olympic Games are rapidly fading. Even while the world’s eyes are on Russia, it is evidently not a season of forgiveness judging by the Kremlin’s determination to punish the Greenpeace “Arctic 30” with charges of piracy and now, additionally, hooliganism.
Political trials in Putin’s Russia are driven by diverse motives, but united by the same broken system — which Mikhail Khodorkovsky once described as “the conveyor belt of Russian justice.” (Disclosure: I formerly served as counsel to Mr. Khodorkovsky.)
There are economic motives, from the massive theft of Yukos by Rosneft, down to more petty corruption by low level bureaucrats, such as the fraudulent tax rebate that eventually led to the murder of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. There are geostrategic motives, highlighted by the spectacle being made out of the Greenpeace activists, seen as Russia’s unsubtle message about their expansionist ambitions in the Arctic. And of course, there are political motives, exemplified by the persecution of people like Khodorkovsky, opposition figure Alexei Navalny and the large group of Bolotnaya Square protesters, one of whom has already been subjected to punitive psychiatry for challenging the regime.
When state officials face no consequences for breaking rules, and when there is no predictable process or protections provided within the system, the only organizing principle that remains in the power structure is mutual incrimination. Corruption becomes the grammar of influence, and logic becomes the servant of power instead of reason.
It does not take a great deal of imagination to see how this system works. It is not just one individual who benefits, but a privileged community at the expense of the majority. If Vladimir Putin were to walk away from the presidency before the next election, Russian society would still face tremendous challenges from an entrenched group of clans with overlapping interests who are heavily invested in the country’s lawlessness.
This is perhaps the most important aspect for foreigners to understand about the persecution of the Pussy Riot girls — it does not make sense and the Russian government is even worried about it making sense. The ruling class reaps significant political benefits (at least domestically) by jailing these women and portraying Putin as a guardian of conservative, religious and nationalist values held by a large part of the rural population. It is a calculated and carefully measured sort of chaos that ultimately supports the regime’s aims to maintain the status quo.