Putin and the Punks : Can Europe help Pussy Riot ?

On August 17th, three members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot were convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ after performing an anti-Putin ‘punk prayer’ in Moscow’s Orthodox cathedral earlier this year. The two year prison sentences handed down to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich will not have come as a great surprise in a country with a conviction rate of 99%. However, several prominent musicians, activists and politicians have voiced their concerns about the case, including the EU foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, who condemned the “disproportionate” sentences given to the women and the human rights organisation, Amnesty International, who described the trial as “politically motivated”. [1]

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Protests against the imprisonment of Pussy Riot members have taken place across the globe.

Image credit : Putin on the parade by Stuart Grout on flickr, licensed under CC-BY

It is likely that much of the unprecedented media attention devoted to this particular case derives more from the presence of electric guitars and colourful balaclavas in Pussy Riot’s 45-second protest than the reasons behind the act itself. Nevertheless, this highly mediatised case has once again put the spotlight on the continuing restrictions against freedom of speech and expression in Russia. It should not be forgotten that the Pussy Riot trial is just one example of the persecution facing activists and dissidents who oppose Putin’s authoritarian government. Hundreds of protesters, including prominent opposition figures, have been arrested following widespread demonstrations both before and after the presidential election in March 2012, which saw Vladimir Putin return to the post after a four year stint as Prime Minister. Overall, the political climate in Russia remains highly volatile.

What can Europe do ? From a political perspective, not very much. Unlike other neighbouring countries, Russia has no interest in joining the European Union, meaning that the EU is unable to exercise any real influence or offer any incentives to Russia in terms of improving its human rights record or moving towards closer integration with the West. Moreover, European countries are often wary of raising sensitive political concerns with Russia regarding human rights issues. As well as trying not to unsettle close bilateral relations based on lucrative trade and business deals, several of them are partially or wholly dependent on Russia for their energy needs. Russia’s decision to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine and Moldova in 2006 and oil supplies to Belarus in 2007 following disputes over pricing served as a harsh reminder of Europe’s vulnerability in the shadow of Russian dominance in the energy market.

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Both Russia’s dominance of the energy market and other trade agreements mean that Europe is unwilling to confront Putin over human rights issues.

Image credit : Russia : Fire in Michurinskoye by Andreas Helke on flickr, licensed under CC-BY

On the other hand, the European Court of Human Rights based in Strasbourg has been vital for Russians seeking redress over persecution from the government. Despite being a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, Russia has been repeatedly found to have breached its terms, accounting for 121 judgments finding at least one violation out of 987 in 2011. [2] In practice, however, these rulings have had a relatively limited effect. In 2010, for example, Russia was found to have breached the Convention after Moscow’s top court banned gay pride marches in the city in 2006, 2007 and 2008. However, last month, the decision was taken by Moscow’s authorities to uphold the ban for another century, suggesting that the Court ruling has failed to put any significant pressure on Russia to improve its human rights record and implement its recommendations on judicial reforms. [3]

If the jailed members of Pussy Riot do not win their appeal against their sentences at the Supreme Court, they may also consider taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights. However, given Russia’s lack of response to previous judgments passed by the Court, it is unlikely to provoke any major internal changes even if a decision is made in their favour. Instead, the crackdown on political opposition will probably continue.

[1] EurActiv.com ‘World condemns Putin following punk group sentencing’ http://www.euractiv.com/europes-eas...

[2] The ECHR in Facts and Figures 2011 http://www.echr.coe.int/NR/rdonlyre...

[3] BBC News ‘Gay parades banned in Moscow for 100 years’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-eur...

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Clare Rowland

Clare completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Sheffield in 2012 graduating in French and Politics with First Class Honours. Spending a year abroad in Paris as an exchange student at Sciences Po inspired her passion for European (...)
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