MOSCOW – The international explosion over WikiLeaks, and the fate of its founder Julian Assange, is no ordinary controversy. It is already reshaping peoples’ minds in some unexpected, and hopeful, ways.
This began to dawn on me in mid-December, when I was invited to discuss WikiLeaks on the state-controlled Russian News Service’s popular “Foreigners” program, in which a selected foreign journalist, diplomat or businessman is grilled about his opinions. The show’s host, Natasha Minayeva, obviously expected me to defend Western officialdom’s hounding of Assange, who was at that point in a British jail awaiting extradition to Sweden.
She seemed pleasantly surprised when I did not. She even failed to argue when I compared the persecution of Assange by Western governments and corporations to the Kremlin’s pursuit of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky using similar methods – preserving the outward appearance of legality while essentially making a mockery of due process.
Few of the WikiLeaks disclosures so far released pertaining to Russia are likely to have lasting impact. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin must have enjoyed reading a U.S. diplomat’s description of him as an “alpha dog.” His rival in Moscow’s coming political struggle, President Dmitry Medvedev, probably squirmed a bit to learn that he “plays Robin to Putin’s Batman.” And the Kremlin seems to have gotten over the revelation that NATO is still secretly drawing up plans to defend Western Europe from “Russian aggression.”
But there are deeper currents at work. Americans have long been accustomed to the moral high ground in debates with Russians. After all, it’s easy to condemn bureaucratic arrogance, corruption and censorship for what they are when they’re happening in Moscow.
Russians are used to the torrent of accusations. In my quarter century as a Moscow-based correspondent, I’ve always been deeply impressed by the number of Russians prepared to acknowledge that there’s a lot of truth in what we write about their autocratic and often lawless political culture.
So the WikiLeaks affair is a teachable moment with potentially momentous implications. Even if the U.S. government should find the wisdom to drop its clumsy effort to silence Assange and shut down WikiLeaks, the episode has already caused many Russians to stake out new positions of high principle. Putin just couldn’t resist dishing out a bit of payback when he slammed the West over its treatment of Assange: “If there is democracy, it must be a full one,” he said in December. “Why did they jail Mr. Assange? Is that democracy?”
Putin may soon get a chance to test his principles. Russia’s best-known opposition weekly, Novaya Gazeta, announced in late December that it is partnering with WikiLeaks and will soon begin releasing a fresh trove of leaked documents. “We’re mainly interested in materials about Russia, especially about corruption and impropriety in official circles,” says Nadezhda Prusenkova, a spokesperson for the newspaper.
It’s going to be interesting. “We’re seeing a lot of outrage among the Russian public over the way Assange is being unfairly persecuted,” says Masha Lipman, editor of the journal Pro et Contra. “[S]ome of it is motivated by anti-Americanism. But on the bright side, it’s focusing peoples’ minds in a good way.”