Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Punitive Psychiatry Against Dissidents Returns Under Putin

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 19 -- The forcible incarceration of political dissidents in psychiatric hospitals, one of the most notorious features of the later years of the Soviet Union, has been revived in the Russian Federation of Vladimir Putin, according to Russian human rights activists.
But until very recently, these actions have not sparked the kind of outrage by foreign governments and international psychiatric and human rights organizations that forced the Soviet authorities to release some of the dissidents it had treated in this way. And as a result, Russian officials may now believe they can get away with reviving the practice.
Part of the reason for this difference in reaction, of course, arises from the end of the Cold War, but it also reflects the fact that so far, the victims of such official actions are fewer in number, live far from Western embassies and journalists in Moscow, and espouse views less sympathetic to Western audiences than many of their Soviet-era predecessors did.
And in the words of one Russian human rights activist, Moscow’s failure to denounce the Soviet practice and punish those who engaged in it, something Western governments notably have not insisted upon, plays an additional role, leading some Russian psychiatrists to believe that there is nothing wrong in going along with their political matters.
Now, however, the international organization devoted to combating torture has taken up the case of a young man who has been subjected to forcible psychiatric treatment apparently for no reason other than that he opposes the authoritarian and arbitrary actions of the Putin-installed leadership of the Middle Volga Republic of Mari El.
That groups criticism has prompted more media coverage in Moscow, including an extensive article in this week’s New Times that has been picked up by a variety of media watchdog sites, human rights groups, including ( crime/4400).
That article details the criminal mistreatment of 20-year-old Artem Basyrov, who two years ago was a member of the National Bolshevik Party but more recently has worked with “The Other Russia.” At the end of last month, he was confined in a psychiatric hospital against his will, to prevent him from organizing an anti-government demonstration.
Given the brutality of the Mari El government, one that various European institutions have concluded routinely beats or even kills its opponents, its decision to subject Basyrov to forcible psychiatric treatment is hardly surprising, but because it recalls a phenomenon most had thought had ended along with Soviet power, it is disturbing.
According to Roman Chorniy, the president of the St. Petersburg-based Civil Commission for Human Rights, the authorities apparently now find this practice attractive because it is easy for them to employ -- they only have to get the approval of three often tame psychiatrists and can muddy the waters via planted stories in the media.
And he notes that Basyrov is hardly the only Russian citizen against whom such vicious methods are being used. He points to the case of political activist Larisa Arap in Murmansk in Russia’s Far North and that of Vladislav Nikitenko in Blagoveshchensk near the Chinese border, both far removed from Moscow
Chorniy adds that, in his view, the authorities may ultimately use this technique against Nikolai Andrushenko, a St Petersburg journalist whose activities and whose suffering at the hands of the authorities in other ways have been far better documented and who may thus escape the worse fate of the others.
“When we see this type of situation,” Chorniy told “New Times,” we are compelled to ”think about it as a system” rather than a set of isolated instances, as many in both Russia and the West have been telling themselves. And that, he suggested, means that everyone concerned about human rights needs to reflect on why such crimes have reemerged.
“”All those psychiatrists and their pupils, who were directly involved in practicing punitive psychiatrist” never suffered legally for what they did and never even had to acknowledge in public that such actions were morally wrong. As a result, it is quite likely that many of them still believe such actions are justified.
And thus, Western indifference so far combined with the attitudes of these “survivals of the past” have created a situation where as Chorniy said “we see the revival of punitive psychiatry,” the use of an important branch of the medical profession for goals entirely at odds with the principles of the Hippocratic oath.

Window on Eurasia: Sochi Olympics Already Casting Shadows on the North Caucasus

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 19 -- Even though the Sochi Olympics are still nearly seven years in the future, these international games which many in Russia have celebrated as an indication of the world’s increasing deference to President Vladimir Putin and themselves, are already casting three dark shadows over the North Caucasus.
First of all, they apparently lie behind a new intensification of Moscow’s efforts to suppress groups fighting against the central authorities, a linkage that one Chechen official said this week means that pro-Moscow Chechen forces are now free to cross into the territory of neighboring republics (
Such actions by military units loyal primarily to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and known for their brutal treatment of civilians are likely to exacerbate conflicts in that already unstable region rather than to contribute to their resolution, thereby increasing the size of the problem the Kremlin apparently believes it is reducing in this way.
Second, the upcoming Olympics are already contributing to the destruction of a national park and other fragile areas. Indeed, according to the Rosbalt.South news agency today, many officials and businessmen in their rush to get the area ready for the games are riding roughshod over Russian law, Moscow’s international obligations, and expert opinion.
Many ecologists now say that “the Sochi National Park will not survive the Games,” even though the law requires that anyone building in or near it get the blessing of expert opinion. That is not being done, and the courts are backing the government and business interests (
But it is not just Russian legislation and good sense that is being violated, the ecologists argue. Moscow is violating “the requirements of the International Convention on the Preservation of objects of the World’s Natural and Cultural Inheritance set by UNESCO,” as well as a variety of other accords the Russian government has signed.
And the actions of officials and business interests to build up for the games threatens not only the flora of the region but may lead to the extinction of a variety of animal species found nowhere else in the world. Thus, the triumph of the games will be the destruction of the values such competitions are supposed to stand for.
And third -- and this is almost certain to be the most politically problematic development from Moscow’s point of view -- the development of Sochi is contributing to the unification of Circassian groups within the Russian Federation and of the five to seven million Circassians living in the Middle East, Europe and North America.
Because it was at Sochi that the ancestors of today’s Circassians were deported by the tsar to the Ottoman Empire 150 years ago and because that tragedy not only destroyed their traditional homeland but led to the death of more than a third of them, the Sochi games are leading many Circassians to think anew about themselves and their relations to Moscow.
Given that the Circassians inside Russia -- including the Adygei, Cherkess, Kabardinians, and Shapsugs -- are already unhappy with Moscow’s policies toward them and given that many of the Circassians in Turkey and Jordan occupy high positions in the militaries of those countries, such a political coming together could create problems domestic and international.
If these three trends continue -- and Moscow gives no sign that it is willing or able to reverse its current course -- then the Sochi Olympics almost certainly will be remembered not as a personal triumph for Putin but as one of his greatest and perhaps most irreversible mistakes.