Chávez and Putin: Partners in Crime

By Robert R. Amsterdam
Thursday, January 22, 2009

The administrations of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Vladimir Putin in Russia are enjoying a robust, burgeoning friendship. Though they are separated by 6,000 miles, the two leaders' bond is sealed not only by their similar tastes for repressive authoritarianism, oil expropriations and large arms deals but also by parallel trends of increasing violence and murder on the streets of their cities.

The most high-profile political murder since the 2006 slaying of Anna Politkovskaya took place in Russia on Monday, when 34-year-old human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov was shot, point-blank, in the head. The student journalist accompanying him was also killed. Three days earlier, radio journalist Orel Zambrano was assassinated in Venezuela, the second journalist killed there in as many weeks. Human rights groups have denounced the murders, but few seem to see that the conditions leading to violent crime in Russia and Venezuela are no accident.

Putin and Chávez preside over a pervasive sense of violence and insecurity in their capitals, which has resulted in parallel, politically motivated attacks against the opposition. In Russia, this trend has been illustrated by the shooting of Politkovskaya and, more recently, the near-fatal beating of journalist Mikhail Beketov, among many others. Last month alone in Venezuela, there were 510 violent deaths, leading Foreign Policy magazine to deem Caracas the "murder capital of the world."

In Putin's Russia, attacks by self-described nationalists against foreigners have gained international media attention -- helped in part by a video of a gruesome beheading that has been spread on the Internet. In Venezuela, three leaders of opposition student unions have been killed in street attacks, including University of Zulia organizer Julio Soto, who was shot 20 times in Maracaibo in October. Both countries have experienced rising public demonstrations of discontent during the economic crisis, and the rallies have been met with heavy-handed repression by police.

Since Putin and Chávez are said to rule with "iron fists," a menacing question arises: Why have they been unable to stem the tide of crime in their streets? Is it a reflection of incompetence, or is there some tacit benefit to keeping a society imprisoned under a cloak of severe insecurity and moral panic?

Some answers became clear to me during a recent visit before a congress of student leaders in Caracas. These impressive young men and women, who cooperate across the political spectrum, take on enormous risks in assuming political consciousness. In Bolivarian Venezuela, political discrimination has been institutionalized by the pervasive use of blacklists, and those who oppose Chávismo accept a future of divisiveness and lost opportunities.

This political landscape is eerily similar to what has happened in Russia under Putin; the citizenry experiences the same helplessness and fear in the face of a leviathan cloaked in the misappropriated vocabulary of democracy.

The similarities are striking: Whether its banner is "21st Century Socialism" or "Sovereign Democracy," neither administration is comfortable discussing the considerable fortunes that have been amassed by government officials or the impunity of the corrupt. Both in Putin's Russia and in Chávez's Venezuela, the state has become the principal instrument used by predatory business groups, which employ the authority of the courts, regulatory agencies and police to seize assets, influence deals and enrich themselves at the people's expense. This relationship is particularly noxious because it is grounded in the insecurity of the populace.

While the relationship between Russia and Venezuela is outwardly manifested by military showmanship, it is actually an alliance of entrepreneurial convenience meant for a small group of beneficiaries. For the heads of state-owned businesses, for example, things are flourishing. A plethora of military hardware sales agreements have been signed, while Russian national energy firms enjoy multiple exploration licenses in Venezuela's Orinoco Belt that most multinational companies would be denied on principle.

In both countries, key members of the opposition are barred from participating in the regime's continuous political campaign. The fight to suppress real opposition is waged through constitutional amendments that create an appearance of competent rule but actually are designed to exclude opposition. What is not accomplished by faux legalism is carried out through government-backed neighborhood militias or extreme nationalist youth groups.

In my discussions with the Venezuelan student leaders, I was struck by deep parallels with the conditions faced by Russian civil society leaders, such as Oleg Kozlovsky, whose courage has never faltered in the face of attacks, arrests, threats and harassment from official and unofficial sources. It occurred to me that the monstrous violence on the streets of Caracas and Moscow is perhaps useful to both regimes -- and that in their incompetence at delivering public security, they have found a convenience that contributes to their grip on power.

The first step toward improving this situation is to drop the pretense that these two governments have constructed a vertical structure of power and recognize that they have institutionalized a horizontal structure of incompetence -- one characterized by violence, insecurity and impunity. It's time we summoned the political will to hold such world leaders accountable for the rights of their own people by all means available, regardless of how much oil they export.

Robert R. Amsterdam is an international lawyer who represents political prisoners in several countries, including Eligio Cedeño in Venezuela and Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia. He blogs at

© 2009 The Washington Post Company