They are brave. Their foes are brutal cowards. And we are helpless. It is easy to feel despair as we watch the riot police in Moscow smashing their truncheons on a protester’s legs as they crush protests against election-rigging, while the Hong Kong police carry out similarly violent repression in the supposedly autonomous former British colony. The world watches but does nothing.
Yet we are not helpless. For a start, we can try to identify the perpetrators. The Chinese regime has its own brand of surveillance technology, with vast databases, sophisticated algorithms and ubiquitous cameras. But as the investigators at Bellingcat have shown, anyone with sharp wits and a computer can do something similar just by compiling and analyzing open-source information. The Moscow authorities are scared of this – the police chiefs have reportedly told their officers to delete all personal photos from social media. At the most recent protests, some of the police were wearing balaclavas over their faces, as well as removing all identifying badges from their sinister Star Wars uniforms.
But there are plenty of pictures of violence at previous protests, and in the hot Moscow summer police may take their helmets off from time to time. Protesters can also try to get the names of the officers who interrogate and threaten them – not least the ones who threaten to chop off the fingers of those detainees who refuse to give fingerprints. In Hong Kong, we have plenty of footage of the white-clad, stick-wielding gangsters who seem to be taking a growing role in the authorities’ plans to suppress the pro-democracy protests there.
Simply putting even some names and faces together is a start. A bit of “name and shame” removes the oppressors’ feeling of complete impunity. Creating even a flicker of doubt in their minds about the long-term consequences of their actions is better than none.
Then we can find and punish their bosses. The goons on Moscow’s streets may cloak their identity, but we still know who is in charge of the city’s security, and the responsible officials at the Interior Ministry and other government agencies. The notorious Serhiy Kusyuk, who as head of Ukraine’s Berkut special forces was responsible for ordering attacks on protesters on Maidan in 2013 and 2014, has been spotted coordinating police action against demonstrators in Moscow. He is not the only person we should be interested in. We should ask our governments to task intelligence agencies with producing and publishing detailed charts showing who in the power structures is accountable for ordering violence against the protesters, who are the prosecutors who bring bogus charges against them, who are the judges who convict on the basis of phony evidence, and who are the jailers who mistreat their prisoners.
All these people, once identified, can be subject to sanctions. Do they have assets in the West? A bank account in Austria perhaps, or a villa in Spain? These can be frozen. In Britain we have a new tool called an “Unexplained Wealth Order” which can be applied to people who have assets that they could not afford to acquire on their official salaries.
Even if they lack identifiable assets, these officials (and their families) probably travel abroad for leisure. It is a tough job serving the kleptocracy, and they need to relax. We can make them rethink their holiday plans, permanently. Brotherly Belarus awaits them, but a visa ban will prevent any future trips to the European Union, North America, and allied countries. These people may find their credit cards stop working elsewhere abroad, too.
We may be lazy. But we are not helpless.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.