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The Russians who dare to challenge Putin

By Chicago Tribune (TNS) staff • Mar 30, 2017 at 2:44 PM

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, March 28:

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The other day a man fell out of a fourth-floor Moscow apartment and suffered serious head injuries. The real surprise is not that Nikolai Gorokhov had an accident but that he survived. People who dare to challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin often don’t. Gorokhov’s fall came just a day before he was to appear in court on behalf of the family of Sergei Magnitsky — who died in a Russian prison cell where he languished after, yes, daring to challenge Putin.

Two days after Gorokhov’s hard landing, a former Russian parliamentarian was shot to death in broad daylight in Kiev. It may not surprise you to learn that Denis Voronenkov had defected to Ukraine last year, had criticized Putin’s seizure of Crimea and was planning to testify in a corruption case against a Putin ally. “This was the demonstrative murder of a witness, common for the Kremlin,” charged Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko.

Episodes like these are not rare: The Washington Post has counted 10 Putin critics who met sudden ends, often in mysterious or violent circumstances. The deaths make it appear someone wants to deter people from speaking out against the corruption, repression and brutality of the Russian president. They send the message that no dissenter is safe.

But on Sunday, Putin learned that some people are not easily cowed. In more than 90 cities, marchers turned out to protest corruption, with particular regard to Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. He was the subject of an incriminating video put out by Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader who has said he will run against Putin in 2018. Some protesters chanted “Shame!” and some brandished rubber ducks, a reference to the house for ducks Medvedev reportedly had built in a pond on one of his ill-gotten estates.

A Moscow radio station estimated that more than 60,000 Russians had taken part in the demonstrations. In any case, they were reported to be the biggest unauthorized rallies in five years. Stiff sentences given to many protesters back then had discouraged dissent. But the revelations about Medvedev stirred new outrage that soon erupted into the streets.

This is not the only cause for Putin to worry. Hobbled by international sanctions, the economy is limping. Truckers are also planning a campaign of protests against new highway tolls.

These marches were notable for the large number of young people, who may have yet to absorb the full danger of defying the regime. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, others were beaten and Navalany got a 15-day sentence for supposedly resisting arrest. Worse may be in the offing, given Putin’s brutal tendencies.

The West can’t prevent Putin from dealing harshly with critics, but it can let him know his abuses won’t be ignored or excused. In light of President Donald Trump’s friendly attitude toward the Kremlin, it was a pleasant surprise to hear the U.S. State Department issue a statement condemning the mass arrests.

“Detaining peaceful protesters, human rights observers and journalists is an affront to core democratic values,” said spokesman Mark Toner, who also decried the arrest of Navalny and the raid on his anti-corruption group’s office.

Maybe Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others in the administration are willing to judge Putin on the basis of his vicious record, not on Trump’s foolish hopes. And it may be that the investigations and questions around the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials have left the president little room to cozy up to the Kremlin. Anything he might do to ingratiate himself with Putin would feed suspicions — particularly after the spectacle of Russian demonstrators being hauled off to jail

Amid his growing international isolation and signs of discontent at home, Putin may hope for sympathy or a show of support from the White House. He shouldn’t get it.

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©2017 Chicago Tribune

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