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On trial
On trial
Yelena Chernenko

MOSCOW - The three members of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk band accused of hooliganism for anunauthorized performance in a Moscow cathedral, had their last words in court on Wednesday after a weeklong trial. The verdict will be announced on August 17. For those outside Russia, this whole affair has been a litmus test for Russia’s democracy - and nobody seems to be happy with the test results thus far.

According to numbers from the Pew Research Center, in 2012 there was a significant change in the way that the rest of the world sees Russia - a change for the worse. In the U.S., people with a positive view of Russia went from 49% of the population in 2011 to 37% this year. There were similar changes around Europe: in Britain, people with a positive view of Russia dropped by 12 percentage points, to 38%; in Germany those numbers dropped by 14 percentage points to 33%; and down in France 17 percentage points to 36%. These are the lowest numbers in the past four years.

In a July meeting between the Russian President and the country’s diplomatic corps, Vladimir Putin lamented the fact that in his view, Russia’s reputation abroad is “distorted and doesn’t reflect the real situation.” In a closed-door meeting, the president said that improving Russia’s image should be one of the diplomats’ most important goals. But at the same time, many experts think that mission will turn out to be impossible, in light of the West’s reaction to recent events in Russia, notably the prosecution of the young women from Pussy Riot.

The wave a criticism directed at the Russian government has lifted up human rights’ defenders - Amnesty International has called the punk rock group members ‘prisoners of conscience.’ Several well-known western artists have joined the campaign to support Pussy Riot - from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Pet Shop Boys to Sting and Madonna. The affair has already been on the front pages of western newspapers for several weeks. Time Magazine wrote that in Russia “a kangaroo court goes on a witch hunt,” while the Economist baptized the Russian Orthodox Church “a force of conservatism and xenophobia,” in a “symbiotic embrace” with the Kremlin. The Guardian called the Pussy Riot trial a “theatre of the absurd.”

Finally, European and American politicians have joined the campaign. The U.S. State Department has called the affair “politically motivated.” Karel Shvartsenberg, the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced that he “admires” Pussy Riot. Denis MacShane, British MP and former Minister for Europe, has said that photographs of the courtroom remind him of the time of Gulags. Even the leader of the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, which is usually loyal to the Kremlin, has called the Russian government’s behavior “scandalous.”

All the politicians agree: they don’t support Pussy Riot’s actions, but consider that the government’s reaction disproportionate.

Estonian European MP Kristiina Ojuland told Kommersant that her colleagues are preparing a report on the situation in Russia, and that a large part of the report will be dedicated to the status of democracy and human rights. The European Parliament is also working on recommendations for the European Commission on the best policies for the European Union in relation to Russia. “The Pussy Riot affair will be in the report,” Ojuland said. “The European Commission is carefully following the trial, and in general, we tend to think that it is politically motivated.”

“The Pussy Riot prosecution, combined with the prosecution against (pro-democracy activist Alexsei) Navalniand the participants in the protests on May 6, has had an extremely negative, catastrophic effect on Russia’s image in the West,” said German expert on Russian affairs Hans-Henning Schroeder. “This is a sort of test for the Russian government: If the girls are given real prison time, even if it is not long, for many people in the West that will be confirmation of the opinion that Russia turning into a dictatorship.”

On the other hand, Arkady Moshes, expert on Russian-EU relations from the Finish Institute of International Affairs, doubts that a worse image will have serious consequences for Russia’s political and economic relationship with Western partners. “Russia’s image abroad is negative, there are even elements of disgust,” he told Kommersant. “But emotion is one thing, and politics is another.”



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