Saturday, April 14, 2007 

The slow death of free speech.

It's one of the least edifying rivalries there could be. In the ex-red corner we have Vladimir Putin, the man who may well have launched his brutal war in Chechnya with the help of a false flag terror operation (one of a number of allegations put forward by the assassinated Alexander Litvinenko) and whom since then has been busy reversing the democratic reforms introduced in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, while in the blue corner is Boris Berezovsky, one of the robber-baron oligarchs who made his loot (estimated at £850m) cheap in the 90s and then subsequently fled when turned on by Putin. It's one of those fights where you hope that they both manage to do enough damage to each other to neuter both of their ambitions.

You could call the war of words between the Russian authorities and Berezovsky a phony one, but that would probably be doing a disservice to Berezovsky, for he certainly does deserve asylum, if only because of the obsessional desire for him to be repatriated. He might well be a crook, but it's more than obvious that the Kremlin wants him back, not out of his financial dealings, but because he poses a political threat, much like the other oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, currently languishing in a cell in Siberia. The arrest today of another political figure, former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who leads one of the few Russian opposition political parties still standing up to Putin, is another sign of the widening crackdown on protests of any kind.

The latest outburst from Berezovsky, who told the Grauniad that he is actively organising for a coup against Putin was only to be expected. He has made similar statements in the past, and the murder of Litvinenko will have done nothing to dissuade him that the only solution now is revolution.

What should more concern us here in Britain though is the slow but apparent death of free speech, for Berezovsky is now apparently to be investigated by the police, as well as being condemned for his impertinence by the Foreign Office. There was very little in what Berezovsky said that is objectionable: it's difficult to disagree with his claim that change is impossible through democracy itself, as Putin continues to ban opposition parties and it's widely seen that the last elections in 2004 were far from free and fair. He's also right in saying that few authoritarian regimes are brought down without at least some blood being spilt, even if it's the regime itself that tries to stay power through violence.

These days though, with terror bill after terror bill, and with violence viewed as abhorrent even if it's only ever targeted against a government which cannot be displaced through any other method than armed struggle, government officials inform us it would be "inconceivable" if the police did not investigate them. After all, what if an evil Islamist had called for our current government to be overthrown through violence, Blair and the Queen to be stoned to death or beheaded, with a council of clerics introduced in their place? Such a thing could not go unchallenged by our thought police. Blair himself has of course been investigated previously for supposedly making comments about the "fucking Welsh"; if you can't even say that without fear of having a file drawn up, then Berezovsky is most definitely in trouble.

As ever though, there are humongous double standards here. The very nerve of the Foreign Office, at least partly responsible for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, issuing a statement "deploring any call for the violent overthrow of a sovereign state", is hard to fathom. That wasn't regime change, that was "liberation", which makes all the difference. How many would disagree with someone calling for the overthrow of Robert Mugabe, even by violent means? His thugs are out dispensing their own form of justice to the opposition or anyone who gets in the way, but if you were to do so it would apparently be "inconceivable" if you weren't investigated as a result.

This insanity was warned of last year, as the "glorifying" terrorism part of the larger act was implemented despite substantial Lords and media opposition. As Not Saussure points out, the definition is drawn so widely that you could potentially be caught under it if you called for a country-wide smashing of Starbucks' windows, so Berezovsky would find it incredibly difficult to escape.

While we then witness the death of democracy in Russia, one of the last major remaining opponents to that attack is going to find himself raked over the coals in a still functioning (just) democracy for remarks that few other than an hypocritical Foreign Office find beyond the pale. The real terrorists must be unable to contain their mirth.

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