A call to the West to challenge Russia’s dictatorship

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Recently, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, helped further diminish the reputation of the European Union in the United Kingdom by congratulating Vladimir Putin on winning his election. In a fawning message, Juncker wished the Russian “every success in carrying out your high responsibilities” and argued that “positive relations between the European Union and the Russian Federation are crucial to the security of our continent.” This is undeniably true.

The response, in my eyes, was underwhelming and embarrassing. The size of Russia’s military and its considerable economic influence should not be a factor in deciding whether to criticise them. Putin has been emboldened by the results of the election, where he received over 75% of the votes, even going so far as to say that the Salisbury attack “mobilised the nation and increased turnout”. Juncker has to call out this boasting, by criticising the unfair nature of the elections and attacking Putin for allowing nerve gas to be used on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. To do nothing is to facilitate Putin to carry on as he has done before.

Unfortunately, this pattern was repeated across the Atlantic, where Trump also congratulated Putin. In Germany, Merkel sent “warm congratulations”, using coded language to criticise Russia’s Salisbury attack, focusing on addressing “bilateral and international challenges constructively”, but later strengthening her position to recognise Russia’s involvement in the poisoning. However, she  neglected to speak about the voter fraud or the fact that Alexei Navalny (the leader of the main opposition party) was prevented from running in the election because of a politically motivated corruption conviction. Indeed, according to the Human Rights Watch, the Russian police had carried out “harassment and intimidation against Navalny’s campaign”.Unfortunately, it seems like Germany has a reason not to criticise Russia too heavily: it is a key trading partner and is very reliant on its neighbour for energy. Yet, this should be put aside when a nation holds undemocratic elections with evidence of multiple instances of voter fraud.

Just to list a few examples, according to Golos (an independent monitoring group), voting papers were found in some ballot boxes before the polls even opened, people were bussed in amid suspicion of forced voting and webcams at polling stations were obstructed by balloons and other obstacles. Moreover, in order to achieve a higher voter turnout, which the regime sees as a sign of the legitimacy of the election, in some areas, free food and discounts in local shops were on offer near polling stations, which surely constitutes bribery.

Macron was one of those who offered a more critical response to the Russian election results. Instead of a congratulations, he wished Russia success “with the modernisation of the country on the political, democratic, economic and on social fronts”. Although this is not particularly strongly worded, it remains the clearest condemnation of Russia and its election from Western Europe apart from Theresa May, who referred to “clear ballot rigging”. Admittedly in the Central and Eastern Europe, in Poland and Georgia, there has been strong condemnation, yet this has not been backed by widespread international reproach. Indeed, for every Georgia, there was a Japan, which instead focused attention on Russia’s commitment to a demilitarised North Korea, not mentioning the voting irregularities or the Salisbury attack.

Abe seems to be committed to a hard-line approach regarding Russia, but is unable to see the comparisons between the two rogue states. North Korea’s elections might be an even greater farce than Russia’s but they follow the same trend. By confronting the actions of one country, in terms of human rights abuse and how it is “possibility that North Korea already has the ability to put sarin gas in a warhead and deliver it” (as he told parliament in April 2017), it is hypocritical for him not to attack Russia for actually using chemical weapons.

Expelling Russian diplomats sends out a strong message in regards to the attack in Salisbury, but what democracies have done in terms of this attack on the right to hold free elections has yet to be seen. Although there has been some criticism, it does seem like a missed opportunity for an EU-wide stance. Yet instead of that, Europe is seen to be divided over the election, with some congratulations, some criticisms and even some celebration in Italy with the Five-Star Movement and Northern League, who both make no secret of their support of the Russian government.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated trend. Look for example, to 2000 where a PONARS policy memo states how Putin snubbed a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, investigating him for war crimes in Chechnya, whilst he was embraced by another war criminal, Tony Blair. The memo talks about an inconsistent response from the international community, where the West appear to have bought Russia’s spin that the government in Chechnya “tolerated kidnapping and lawlessness”.

Trump’s behaviour in dealing with Egypt’s autocratic leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to whom he has pledged his full support, inviting him to the White House last April, is nothing but a continuation of this pattern. When the election results came in from Egypt, declaring the unsurprising result that Sisi had won, there was no criticism of the lack of the competition or the history of voter fraud and vote rigging in past elections. Instead, the  the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted, “As Americans we are very impressed by the enthusiasm and patriotism of Egyptian voters.”, legitimising what were clearly sham elections. If the biggest player in world politics won’t shun a clear dictator, how can the world send a unified message of condemnation?

Russia has been deceiving the world for too long and whilst I praise the expelling of Russian diplomats from countries across the globe, more can and should be done in terms of making the nation democratically accountable.

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