Friday, August 09, 2013

Russia: The Rest of the Story Behind the Anti-Gay Laws

In the early 1930's, Germany's economy was a disaster with soaring inflation and economic instability.  Circumstances that helped set the stage for Hitler's rise to power and the scapegoating of the Jews to distract public attention from the failings of the government.  In today's Russia we see a similar picture: government corruption (Putin and his cronies are thought to be looting the country), a flagging economy, decreases in life expectancy and birthrate.  Someone needs to be blamed and something is needed to distract the attention of the public that ultimately it is Putin and his government who are to blame.  Hence, just as Germany enacted the Nuremberg Laws,  we have seen Russia enacting anti-gay laws to target a minority for the foes of Russian society.  A piece in the New York Times looks at the perils of being a business owner in Putin's Russia (where opposition to Putin's regime can lead to charges of "economic crimes") and some of Putin's efforts to save his own ass and retain power.  Here are excerpts:

A business owner in Russia has a better chance of ending up in the penal colony system once known as the gulag than a common burglar does.  

More than 110,000 people are serving time for what Russia calls “economic crimes,” out of a population of about three million self-employed people and owners of small and medium-size businesses. An additional 2,500 are in jails awaiting trial for this class of crimes that includes fraud, but can also include embezzlement, counterfeiting and tax evasion.

But with the Russian economy languishing, President Vladimir V. Putin has devised a plan for turning things around: offer amnesty to some of the imprisoned business people. 

The amnesty is needed, he said, because the government had “overreacted” to the threat of organized crime and the inequities of privatization and over-prosecuted entrepreneurs during Mr. Putin’s first 12 years in power as president and prime minister. 

Russia’s economy does need help. In the first quarter, growth fell to a rate of 1.6 percent because oil prices are level. And in that economic climate, few Russians seem willing to risk opening a new business that might create jobs and tax revenue for the government. 

In 2010, the police investigated a total of 276,435 “economic crimes,” according to the Russian prosecutor general’s office, whose statistics show burglary and robbery are prosecuted less than economic crimes. 

So many Russian business owners are doing time that support groups have sprung up in Moscow for their families known as “The 159 Society.” It takes its name from the article on fraud in the criminal code. Rus Sidyashchaya, or Russia Behind Bars, organizes weekly dinners for the wives of imprisoned businessmen. 

Russia’s infamous penal colonies, rural camps swirled in barbed wire, appear today much as they did when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote “The Gulag Archipelago” in the 1960s. But at least one of every 10 prisoners today is a white-collar convict.

One of those Mr. Titov championed was Ruslan V. Tyelkov, whose short arc from businessman to inmate illustrates both the entrepreneurial spirit that still simmers in Russia and the risks.  . . . In 2010, Mr. Tyelkov spent the equivalent of $31,000 for 25,000 yards of Chinese-made leopard-print fabric suitable for chairs and sofas. “It’s very popular here, not only for furniture but cloths, wallpaper, sheets, shoes, bags, everything.” 

With no warning, the police arrived at his warehouses and removed every roll on six flatbed trucks, handing it over to a competitor, ostensibly for storage, though it was later sold. Then they arrested Mr. Tyelkov, who spent a year in pretrial detention. 

The crime? The police said they suspected copyright infringement of the leopard design. “It was funny at first,” recalled Mr. Tyelkov of his initial meeting with the police. “I asked, ‘Who owns the copyright, a leopard?’ ”  Mr. Titov’s later investigation confirmed the police had colluded with a competitor to seize the merchandise under the pretext of a criminal case, so it could be sold for a profit. 

In Russia, the police benefit from arrests. They profit by soliciting a bribe from a rival to remove competition, by taking money from the family for release, or by selling seized goods. Promotion depends on an informal quota of arrests. Police officers who seize businesses became common enough to have earned the nickname “werewolves in epaulets.”  

Yes, it sounds like what Hitler and his SA did in the 1930's.  Businesses could be destroyed and fortunes lost based on the whims of Nazi officials and cronies.   Putin and his regime govern in a similar mode and if Putin was serious about improving Russia, he'd be dealing with the widespread corruption.  Instead he's persecuting gays.  It speaks volumes about the man and none of it is good.  As for the rest of the world, we don't seem to ever learn from history.

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