The authoritarian Russian government may have done too much of a bad thing when it arrested Liberal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and sentenced him to 15 days in jail for "disobeying police orders." The Nemtsov arrest, coming shortly after the trumped up charges and kangaroo court proceedings against former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now rubbed against an already raw nerve in the West, prompting the Economist to call for a serious response and even ejecting Russia from the G8.
If Putin and company could discount domestic and Western protest over the Khodorkovsky Case, given the public loathing for the oligarchs and their get obscenely rich quick schemes, Nemtsov is a different breed. A very young doctor of physics, he was catapulted into post-Soviet reform politics and twice reached the post of Deputy Prime Minister during the Yeltsin years. He didn't reach the top rung, but left with reputation intact.
Lately Nemtsov has been part of the opposition and has dutifully demonstrated every 31st of the month while adhering to the terms imposed by the police. The last day of the month is chosen to remind people of article 31 of the Russian Constitution that guarantees the right to free assembly. Lately, freedom of assembly is not doing that well in Russia. The opposition to Putin is down to its last legal loophole. Lone demonstrators holding a placard do not have to secure a permit. Putin supporters cannot even countenance the solitary demonstrators, and have adopted the tactic of sending one of their own to stand next to the protester thus transforming his quixotic gesture into an illegal demonstration.
Nemtsov was last arrested on August 22 when he carried a giant Russian flag in the capital to celebrate Flag Day. This was the day in 1991 that former Russian President Boris Yeltsin claimed his moment of glory by defying a hard-line Communist coup that sought to reverse the policy of Mikhail Gorbachev and backfired into triggering the collapse of the Soviet Union, the demise of the hammer and sickle and the revival of the old Russian flag. It has been part of Putin's policy to discredit everything that occurred in the 1990s and claim that historic progress began with his election in the year 2000.
The Obama Administration, that has been careful not to offend the Russians whose support it needs in Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea, was compelled to issue a mild complaint. The White House voiced its "surprise" over the arrests since demonstrations up to now had been allowed. Obama, the statement went on, had met with Nemtsov in Moscow in July 2009 and admired "his work in provoked promoting democratic developments in Russia." Such admiration will not shield Nemtsov from Putin.
US Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain felt less constrained"We are deeply disappointed by the arrest of former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and other members of the opposition, and by the unjust prison sentences they have received…The treatment of Mr. Nemtsov and other members of the opposition should provide a stark warning to the rest of the world about the disregard for rule of law that has come to characterize contemporary Russia."
The two senators' criticism produced instant response from Putin's supporters. members of the ruling United Russia Party. Mikhail Margelov, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in Russia's upper house, the Federation Council, claimed that the senator's remarks were jeopardizing the "restart" in US-Russian relations that had found expression in the START Treaty recently passed by the U.S. Senate. Obama, noted Margelov, had promised not to repeat the mistakes of the Bush Administration by interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries and attempting to impose democracy.