Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Wall Street Journal Europe
December 28, 2001
Putin and Pasko

Conveniently for anyone who prefers the year in a snapshot, two sides of modern Russia were patently on display last week. Let's start with the more or less positive face of the Russian Janus.

One might say that President Vladimir Putin's televised phone-in with ordinary Russians was perhaps the most significant display of populism since Boris Yeltsin climbed atop a tank just over a decade ago. Unlike Mr. Yeltsin's spontaneous and courageous stand against Communist forces, Mr. Putin's performance was carefully scripted and posed little risk to the president. He sat snugly in front of the cameras, computer prompts at the ready, while questioners braved temperatures of minus 20 Celsius and waited in long queues. There was only a meager question on Chechnya, a subject that makes Mr. Putin visibly bristle.

Still, Mr. Putin didn't have to do it. Here was the man who blundered his way through the Kursk debacle declaring his responsibility for anything that happened in even the furthest provinces of Russia. The phone-in was a tacit acknowledgement of the President's accountability to the electorate and the awareness that there is such a thing as public opinion.

It is that impression of democracy at work -- of a responsible leader answerable to the public, promising reform, law and order -- that makes the other event of last week so jarring, if not unexpected. On Tuesday, military journalist Grigory Pasko was sentenced to four years in prison for illegally attending a meeting of top military brass and possessing notes he made there. The court said he intended to pass on the information to Japanese media.

Mr. Pasko's long-running case is a cause celebre among human-rights organizations. Yelena Bonner, the widow of Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov, and Alexander Nikitin, an environmentalist who was acquitted of treason for his efforts in exposing dangerous nuclear-waste disposal, were among those who signed a letter by the Moscow Helsinki group. It said of the Pasko trial that, "Today an illusion collapsed, showing the true price of freedom in Russia." For those not familiar with this saga, a few details are in order.

Mr. Pasko, who holds the rank of captain in the Russian navy, spent 14 years working for a military newspaper covering the Pacific Fleet. Mr. Pasko's articles on the dumping by Russian ships of radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan drew the attention of Japanese television station NHK. Mr. Pasko claims NHK paid him a few hundred dollars for permission to cite his articles in NHK broadcasts and for appearing as a commentator in one broadcast -- none of which is illegal.

FSB secret police clearly had had enough of Mr. Pasko's whistle-blowing, however. He was arrested by FSB officers in 1997 and charged with 10 counts of espionage involving alleged attempts to transfer "state secrets" to Japanese journalists. When he was acquitted of the charges at a first trial, the FSB persuaded a higher court to launch a new trial. He has spent 20 months in prison during a number of trials and appeals.

Human-rights organizations and others tracking the latest five-month closed door trial in Vladivostok claim that the prosecutor's evidence has been so flimsy, and the process so riddled with violations of Russia's legal code, as to make the entire trial a sham. Indeed, prosecutors and the court dropped or dismissed all but one of the charges against him by the time his sentence was read at a Vladivostok military court on Tuesday. Mr. Pasko's lawyer said in the end he was convicted only of "intending to transfer" documents to a Japanese journalist.

The conviction is still a victory for the FSB, the organization in which Mr. Putin spent his career, and that can only have the desired effect of chilling journalism that shines an unwelcome light on the failings of the Russian state or any of its arms. Mr. Pasko has appealed the sentence, but has acknowledged he is unlikely to get satisfaction in a Russian court given the energy the FSB has invested in this case.

In the FSB's zero-sum world, criticism of Russia is tantamount to betrayal. This thinking is so Soviet as to strike a Western observer as utterly absurd. The right to dissent is the sine qua non of democracy. "This criminal case was born of a dislike for the truth," Mr. Pasko has said. The truth has indeed had a bad year in Russia, with the disembowelment of Russia's only two major independent television stations, NTV and TV-6.

All of this casts a pall on the otherwise commendable economic reforms undertaken by the Putin administration, and the encouraging pledges for institutional reform. The abuses cannot be ignored by the West as simply internal matters of no concern to the outside world. The freedom of expression, and due process of law are goods in themselves. Better observance would make Russia a more reliable partner for the West and a more attractive target for investment. Indeed, the vulnerability of Russia's judicial system to manipulation is part of the reason foreign investors have remained wary of Russia.

Last week's phone-in was brilliant stuff. It left the impression of evolved, democratic government at the service of the Russian people; of the President, accountable, at its head. No one should say this isn't progress. But as Mr. Pasko knows too well, Mr. Putin's Russia has another face, wholly inconsistent with real democracy. At some point, Mr. Putin will have to choose between a state that exists to serve its citizens; and one that pursues its own ends foremost. His FSB has clearly made its choice.

Back to the Top    Next Article