Why Russia watchers should listen to Glenn Greenwald

Elites throughout the former Soviet Union are cracking down on dissent. But before Russia watchers start criticising the region’s repressive governments, they should first engage with the criticism, which has long been levelled at them.

Philip Evans
2 April 2015

From Minsk to Astana, elites throughout the former Soviet Union are clamping down on dissent as they respond to a host of perceived crises (East Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, Islamic State). And with human rights abuses increasing fast, governments across the region, perhaps now more than ever, are legitimate targets of criticism.

But before charging down this road, Russia watchers in the West might do well to pause, take stock, and (re)engage with the criticism, which has been levelled at Western human rights activists in the past. Doing so would not only help stave off such criticism in the future, it might actually help improve the work they produce today.

The criticism

The criticism traditionally aimed at Western human rights activists can be roughly narrowed down to two main points.

Firstly, they fail to scrutinise their own governments with the same ferocity as they do those of others. If you are going to criticise a foreign government, then you are morally obliged to be just as scrupulous – if not more – with your own. It’s easy, Glenn Greenwald and others are keen to remind us, to point to the faults of foreign states. But this criticism counts for very little – particularly in the countries being criticised – if you conspicuously skirt over the failings of your own.

Secondly, by predominantly highlighting the abuses of non-Western governments and the ‘unacceptable’ norms of non-Western societies, Western human rights activists prop up that pervasive narrative which divides the world up into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ countries and ‘progressive’ and ‘primitive’ governments. A narrative which has long been used in the service of empire to dehumanise and subjugate the ‘other’.

As far as Glenn Greenwald and Noam Chomsky are concerned, Western rights activists should start paying a little closer attention to what’s going on at home as well as abroad. And if it means avoiding such criticism in the future, why wouldn’t they heed this advice?

But there is arguably a second reason why Western Russia watchers should listen to Greenwald – doing so could help improve the work they produce by giving it some much needed context.

If you are going to criticise a foreign government, then you are morally obliged to be just as scrupulous with your own.

Establishing context

In all serious analysis, context is king. But it is context that has arguably been missing for so long from so much of the Western criticism aimed at countries like Russia, particularly when it comes to the controversial subject of human rights. While Russia watchers in the West have skilfully provided detailed accounts of the rights abuses taking place throughout the former Soviet Union, they have often failed to place these local situations in their wider global context. This has hampered our understanding of the rights issues at play throughout the region.

Take, for example, the issue of protester’s rights. For a long time, Russia watchers and human rights critics more generally have expressed concern over the treatment of activists and protesters throughout the former Soviet Union. From the jailing of rights activists taking part in ‘unsanctioned’ rallies in Azerbaijan, to the beating of peaceful protesters in Armenia, to the recent arrest of anti-war protesters in Moscow, there are plenty of examples to show that the rights to freedom of assembly and expression are severely restricted throughout the region.

Missing from the vast majority of work on this issue, however, is an appreciation of the wider context within which these abuses are taking place. Looking wider afield, you can see that the same disturbing processes taking place in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia are underway across the globe, including in the ‘liberal’ West.

Take Europe, for example, where anti-austerity demonstrations are now a semi-regular feature. Scenes of what many would describe as ‘excessive’ police force against protesters have become increasingly common. Indeed, in 2012, Amnesty International felt it necessary to remind EU countries not to beat protesters as increasing numbers were being kicked, shot at and wounded with rubber bullets, sprayed with tear gas, and denied medical assistance by police.

These violent acts have often provided justification for repressive governments throughout the former Soviet Union to continue with their own abuses. In fact, just last week Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev highlighted the brutality against European protesters as a way of deflecting from the criticism he has been receiving for his human rights record in the run up to the European Games. So while Russia watchers have been ignoring context, elites in the region have not.

While Russia watchers have been ignoring context, elites in the region have not.

But excessive police force is just part of the picture. Increasingly, citizens throughout the world are having their rights to express legitimate grievances constrained by a global political and economic elite. States from Egypt to Ukraine, as well as institutions such as universities in the UK, for example, are banning demonstrations outright. In places such as Canada, the UK, and Australia, where protest is still technically legal, security services are employing controversial measures – including spying and broad anti-terrorism laws – to monitor, dissuade, and minimise the effect of protest.

And in states throughout the world, public spaces where protest can take place are rapidly decreasing as they fall ever more into private hands. In the UK, for instance, traditionally public spaces such as city squares and thoroughfares are being sold off to corporations whose patience for social activism is minimal to say the least.

What these examples demonstrate is a world-wide pattern whereby legitimate protest is increasingly being criminalised and neutered. Within this context, the Russian responses to those protesting Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and the state’s general arbitrary banning of demonstrations represent a continuation of a global trend rather than a shocking departure from international norms. Though one wouldn’t think this from the vast majority of commentary out there.

Similar observations can be made about other rights issues affecting the former Soviet Union. For example, while Russia watchers in the West have rightly criticised the cynical and often violent crackdown on independent media by almost all the post-Soviet governments (a crackdown which is intensifying right now), they have largely chosen not to link these developments with those which can be witnessed elsewhere. And not just in ‘non-liberal’ countries like Egypt or Cambodia. But here in the West too, where journalism is increasingly being conflated with terrorism, where journalists largely work under the assumption that they are being monitored by state security services, and where a ‘toxic’ combination of a media market in which the majority of newspapers and television news channels are owned by a few men with wide-ranging business interests, coupled with the vast buying power of advertisers has created a situation where big business is able to set the news agenda.

As with protest, there is clearly a wider global crackdown taking place against a free and independent media. Here again, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia are merely a small part of what is a much bigger picture (and problem). Largely ignored by Western Russia watchers, this is what context shows us.

Using context

None of this is to minimise the threats which activists and journalists face throughout the former Soviet Union or to crassly and naively suggest that everything is the same the world over. There is a genuine difference between being denied the opportunity to protest in a shopping centre (or even having one’s communications monitored) and being repeatedly tortured while languishing in prison for years. (Though it is important to note that this is not the fate, which awaits all citizens who dare speak out against post-Soviet governments.)

Nor is it to suggest that Russia watchers – or China watchers or Middle East watchers – shouldn’t critique the abuses taking place within their countries and regions of speciality; they should. But they should do so with a conscious appreciation of the wider global context within which these abuses are taking place. This is particularly pertinent to the Russia watcher today, given all that is going on in the region.

This is about more than just improving the work of the regional specialists.

But this is about more than just improving the work of the regional specialists. Context is important also because it is potentially the key to galvanising global constituencies around seemingly distant ‘local’ issues, thus improving the chances for genuine change in countries like Russia.

In order to encourage meaningful engagement with issues (which involves more than posting a few well-intentioned tweets), people have to feel like they have agency and an ability to instigate change. The lack of any such feeling goes some way to explaining why British publics have largely failed to engage with and act upon the issue of domestic spying. But before people can feel like they have real agency vis-à-vis an issue, they have to first see how that issue relates to them.

People in Sheffield and St Louis have to see what media freedoms in Siberia have to do with them. Providing the context discussed above and showing people the world over that the struggles of Russians or Uzbeks to secure rights to assembly and a free press are part of a wider global fight for citizens to achieve and/or maintain these rights, is one way in which this could possibly be achieved.


Over the years, the Russia watcher has undeniably improved our knowledge of a vast region that, for many, remains, to quote the old cliché, ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.’ But everyone can do with some outside advice from time to time. And if it can help improve their work and help engage more people with important ‘local’ rights issues, why wouldn’t Western Russia watchers listen to Greenwald, and finally start paying a little more attention to context?


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