The Hounding of Pyotr Silaev

August 31, 2012

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Deforestation in the Khimki Forest

While the Julian Assange case attracts international attention, and we wait to find out whether he will be extradited to Sweden, how long he will remain in London, or whether he will be spirited away to Ecuador, activists around the world are being sought by repressive states for supposed crimes. In our fixation upon celebrity, we tend to miss less notorious, but important, struggles to prevent extradition – often to face certain imprisonment, torture, even death. Of course, we allow failed asylum seekers to be sent back to probable repression, and we have gladly sent possible terrorists to states known to use torture. So it’s not surprising that we turn away when individuals (or “fugitives”) are reined in by the states that they seek to oppose. A long tradition of providing sanctuary for dissidents is being eroded in Britain, as in the US, under the shadow of terror and xenophobia, and our belief in internationalism has long been battered.

Still, there are such fugitives on the run from repressive states, and it helps them if we know a little about their stories. Take Pyotr Silaev, for example. Pyotr fled Russia after taking part in a protest in the city of Khimki against the construction of a road through a local forest. According to RAPSI, the Russian Legal Information Agency, Silaev is accused of taking part in an attack by antifascists/anarchists (the writ is very unclear) during which “90 masked men pelted the Khimki administration building with fire crackers and empty bottles” causing $12,500 worth of damage. Five minutes after beginning their “attack” the protesters left. But, as Khimki has been something of a lightning rod for liberal dissent against the Russian government, Silaev was pursued by the state, fleeing the country and ending up in Spain, where he was recently arrested.

Extradition proceedings are currently underway, and to its credit, the Finnish government are apparently willing to grant Silaev refuge, agreeing that he counts as a political refugee, but he could easily end up back in Russia, where a prison term is almost certain. But ecological activists, human rights defenders, antifascists and anarchists outside Russia could yet rally to protect Pyotr, and to establish a deeper collaboration in order to boost the Defend Khimki campaign in general. The campaign has mustered some international media attention, not least due to the spirited mayoral campaign of protest leader Yefgenia Chirikova, but it seems to have depended more upon a collaboration between liberal activists and grass roots anarchists, willing to countenance direct action. While Chirikova is free to run for mayor, others are being persecuted (some of the “rioters” are already in jail), and the movement is being divided. As ever, the more radical elements are vulnerable to official repression.

Why is this important for comfortable westerners? Apart from the need to defend the human rights of activists like Silaev, the Defend Khimki represents an important effort by ordinary Russians to challenge the corporate-criminal cronyism that runs their nation. The forest road, after all, is being built by the French multi-national Vinci, and will benefit mainly rich Muscovites who pass through the forest to out of town refuges. Resistance to the project is part of the bottom-up generation of an ecological, democratic force which might wrest control of planning, transport and environmental policy from Russia’s hopelessly corrupt elite, and rein in the foreign firms which profit from their fecklessness. It is part of whatever meandering democratisation is happening, in a globally significant country, and one to whose improvement we like to pay lip service, without knowing what to do to help that happen. The British government could offer Silaev protection, but is not interested. It has its own disdain for eco-activists and grassroots democracy.

Perhaps we should protest the Spanish embassy, and demand that Silaev head to Finland? At the least, we should become more aware that dissidents are being hounded across borders. The Assange case has had an unfortunate consequence of trivialising the extradition and asylum process. We seem to have lost sight of the principles behind asylum, and their historical roots, and we forget how crucial the norm of providing refuge is to a functioning sense of humanity. Pyotr Silaev’s case reminds us how important this is, but he is sadly not alone. A campaign is being mounted to prevent the extradition of Roma activist Toma Nikolaev from Britain to Bulgaria, where it is thought that he will face jail and persecution. Ironically, the Belarussian financial investigator Aliaksandr Barankov could soon be sent home, if Ecuador’s courts decide to appease the Eastern European nation’s authorities.

Such cases are common, but rarely noticed beyond the legal profession and government circles. Governments are generally unwilling to stand up to oligarchs and dictators, preferring to see dissidents as a nuisance, a diplomatic blip, or they redefine them as “terrorists”. In so doing, they strengthen the position of undemocratic forces around the world. The rolling back of cosmopolitanism is occurring all the time, unless we decide otherwise, because governments don’t tend to stand up to other governments over the treatment of their citizens, or subjects. Only we can do that, but it’s very hard to feel content about our achievements.

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