- Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
WASHINGTON – Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza told Congress last week that there is no equivalence between the US’ political system and Putin’s Russia, as President Donald Trump implied in a recent interview with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.
In the February interview, Trump acknowledged O’Reilly’s premise that Putin is a “killer,” but said “we have a lot of killers” in the US, too.
“You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump asked.
Kara-Murza, who was testifying before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, said “that kind of false equivalence is one of the Kremlin’s oldest propaganda tools.”
Indeed, Putin’s near-default response to criticism of how he runs Russia is whataboutism – a technique used by Soviet propagandists to deflect criticism from the West.
“Any criticism of the Soviet Union (Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, imprisonment of dissidents, censorship) was met with a “What about…” (apartheid South Africa, jailed trade-unionists, the Contras in Nicaragua, and so forth),” The Economist noted in 2008.
“In the case of Soviet propagandists, it gave rise to subversive jokes,” The Economist continued. “For example: A caller to a radio program asks, ‘What is the average wage of an American manual worker?’ A long pause ensues. Then the answer comes: ‘U nich negrov linchuyut’ (‘Over there they lynch Negroes’)-a phrase that, by the time of the Soviet collapse, had become a synecdoche for Soviet propaganda as a whole.”
‘We have never seen corruption on this scale’
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who chairs the subcommittee, and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy announced during the hearing that they are trying to push a “counter-Russia account” through the Senate that will help fund frontline states and organizations that oppose President Vladimir Putin’s agenda.
“It is in the American taxpayers’ interest that we push back against Putin’s efforts to dismantle democracies around the world,” Graham said.
“Hopefully this counter-Russia account will empower people to push back more effectively,” Graham added, “and hopefully the Senate as a whole passes new sanctions on Russia for interfering in our election.”
Among those who testified at the hearing in favor of more support for anti-Putin activists was Kara-Murza, who said he has been poisoned twice since 2015 for opposing the Kremlin.
“Twice in the past two years – in May 2015 and in February 2017, both times in Moscow – I experienced a sudden onset of symptoms consistent with poisoning that led to multiple organ failure and left me in a coma and on life-support,” said Kara-Murza, who was a close friend of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov before Nemtsov was assassinated outside of the Kremlin in the spring of 2015.
“The official diagnosis was ‘toxic action by an undefined substance,'” Kara-Murza said. “Both times doctors assessed my chances of survival at about 5%, so I am very fortunate – and very grateful – to be here today.”
- Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Kara-Murza’s testimony came three days after Russia saw its biggest anti-corruption protests since 2011. More than 1,500 protesters were detained in the demonstrations, which were largely peaceful, including the high-profile opposition figure Alexey Navalny.
Kara-Murza said he was surprised at the turnout, especially given the recent spate of mysterious deaths that have been linked back to the Kremlin.
“It seems that Russians’ self-awareness as citizens is becoming stronger than their fear,” Kara-Murza said. “We have never seen corruption [in Russia] on this scale.”
When Graham asked what kind of signal it would send if the US decided to cut the funds it has made available to dissident organizations and frontline states to combat Putin’s influence, Kara-Murza replied that it would signal to the Russian leader that he should “carry on.”
“For too long the leaders of Western democracies have just been ignoring Putin’s actions and moving on,” Kara-Murza said. “US administrations of different parties have tried a friendly approach with Putin. But for him, accommodation and compromise is a sign of weakness.”
“We’ve been saying for years that it’s only a matter of time before Putin’s domestic oppression turns into external aggression,” he added. “He interfered in Ukraine’s 2004 elections, and then went for the gold last year with the US elections.”
Kara-Murza cautioned, however, that it is not American muscle that Russians want – it is a promise that the US will “call things what they are, and stay true to the values and principles on which this country was founded.”
“It is not the job of Mr. Trump or Ms. Merkel or anyone else to effect political change in Russia, and we never would ask them to,” Kara-Murza said, referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “The only thing we ask for from our friends in the international community is that you are honest and open about whats happening in Russia.”