A Russian Guide For Surviving U.S. Midterm Elections

A view from Russia on the topic of Russian-American relations: time to keep a low profile.

Russo-American relations put to the test by mid-term elections
Russo-American relations put to the test by mid-term elections
Igor Zevelev

MOSCOW — The already shaken Russian-American relations are about to face new turmoil as Nov. 6 midterm elections to the U.S. Congress loom.

During Donald Trump's presidency, the legislative branch has taken the lead in defining American policy towards Russia. With Congress assuming many of the powers traditionally belonging to the executive branch, normalization of relations between the two countries has been hindered. Sanctions are fixed by laws. They represent an instrument of pressure not so much on Russia as on Trump.

The topic of the Russian interference is one of the main ones in the current election season, including inside the Republican Party. At the beginning of August, exactly one year after the entrance into force of the "Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act," senators from both parties submitted a new 2018 bill: "Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act."

The core of this initiative is the restriction of financial operations with the Russian sovereign debt. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a co-sponsor of the bill, says the intention is to "impose crushing sanctions and other measures against Putin's Russia until he ceases and desists meddling in the U.S. electoral process, halts cyber-attacks on U.S. infrastructure, removes Russia from Ukraine, and ceases efforts to create chaos in Syria."

Today there are almost no influential figures in Congress who consistently promote the dialogue between the two countries. Seven Senate and House members from the Republican Party who visited Russia in July were severely criticized by their colleagues from Capitol Hill. Only Republican senator Rand Paul and the eccentric Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher openly support dialogue with Russia.

A united symbol of evil.

It should not be expected that the new House of Representatives and the renewed Senate will assume a radically different stance towards Russia. There are no pro-Russian groups of voters in the United States today. At best, it could be said that there is a segment who are not concerned about the policy towards Russia. Mobilized diasporas from Central and Eastern Europe used to stand out among the supporters of a hard line. Today these populations are much more numerous in the anti-Trump camp, for whom the current American president and the Kremlin have merged into a united symbol of absolute evil.

The Republicans' holding on to majorities in both chambers of Congress would be a bit more preferable for Russia. In this case the initiatives of the executive authority related to Russia wouldn't be blocked automatically. But in any case, Moscow should not be placing political bets. Any attempts of lobbying activities aimed at interacting with American legislators would be suicidal nowadays, although many other countries actively and openly work in this very way.

On the whole, the next three months before the November elections will be a tough time for Russo-American relations. Next year, when elections have already been over and the special prosecutor Robert Mueller has finished his work, it will be possible to return to the issue of normalization. Until then it is necessary to push the pause button on bilateral relations.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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