Tue, May 15, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Authoritarian leaders step in as the West’s money runs out

The global economic meltdown has made the uphill battle for democracy even harder for human rights activists as autocrats benefit from cash-strapped nations

By Nick Cohen  /  The Observer, London

For a moment at the Oslo Freedom Forum, it was possible to believe that Pyotr Verzilov was the coolest guy on the planet. Breathless and unshaven, the young performance artist arrived in Norway from the street protests in Moscow. With the elan of an exultant radical, he explained the personal and political reasons for taking on Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy.

He had been lucky enough to persuade a member of band Pussy Riot to be his wife. The celebrated feminist collective had been outraged when Patriarch Kirill upheld the Russian Orthodox Church’s subservience to whatever autocrat occupied the Kremlin by announcing that Putin’s leadership had been a “miracle of God,” and adding for good measure that the regime’s opponents were a degenerate minority in love with Western culture.

Pussy Riot responded with a “punk prayer” at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The protest was not the offense to delicate religious sensibilities it seemed on the Web, Verzilov said.

The women danced for about a minute in their balaclavas and fluorescent tights before security guards told them to leave. They added the screaming soundtrack to Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, Chase Putin Out later. For this impromptu stunt, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation jailed his wife, and threatened her with a seven-year sentence, even though she was pregnant.

They would not win, said Verzilov with indomitable confidence. As soon as the conference was over, he would return to Russia to take part in a revolution that would free his wife and unborn child. All the other Russians on the stage agreed that regime change was coming — even Garry Kasparov, who is hardly an adolescent hothead.

It was easy to feel that way in Norway. The Oslo Freedom Forum is a Davos for revolutionaries. Activists who have overthrown dictatorships meet activists who want to overthrow dictatorships. Even if they need translators, everyone speaks the same language. They agree on the radical potential of the new technologies.

The magnificent Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy said that when former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s interior ministry police beat and sexually abused her, she knew she had get to her mobile and tweet that she needed help to her 133,000 followers. Help came.

The audience was not surprised. It took for granted the ability of the Web to mobilize support — a power that would have been incredible even five years ago. They agreed on tactics — non-violent civil disobedience. They had a common program: secular democracy, the rule of law and human rights. They agreed that they should look to the West for support. Not necessarily to Western governments, but to the West of the human rights movements, George Soros, activist charities, concerned journalists and academics — Europe and North America’s network of altruists. The camaraderie generated the exultant feeling that a new world was not only possible, but inevitable.

Thor Halvorssen, founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum, exemplifies the best the West can offer, but he is a realist with no time for light-headed optimism. He pointed out statistics from the human rights monitoring group Freedom House. Despite globalization, “Twitter revolutions” and the Arab Spring, the number of people living under oppressive regimes has not shifted in a decade.

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