IN her new campaign ad this week, Hillary Clinton likens Donald Trump to famous bullies in Hollywood lore, like Biff in “Back to the Future.” But if she were being more realistic, she’d compare her opponent to some actual bullies, like the ones I’ve covered for the past 16 years in the former Soviet Union.
I know Trump’s type well: The puffed-up guy who sees himself as bigger than life and struts around with a faux-masculine grimace on his face, thinking that not only women but his entire country should admire him. Hello? We’ve been living with this type since at least 2000, and his name is Vladimir Putin, along with the many mini-Putins in surrounding countries. At the second debate earlier this month, when Trump told Clinton that if he were the president “you’d be in jail,” his worlds rang frighteningly true for many of us in this part of the world.
Where I’m from, political prosecutions and vendettas ruin people’s lives, spoil reputations and slow down the development of whole countries. Leaders with a KGB mentality—the place where Putin got his worldview—are famously vindictive. For decades now, political court hearings against opposition, former government leaders ended with prison terms and assassinations in Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Central Asian countries. Here, we refer to such threats and the prison terms that follow them as political repression.
“Trump sounds like someone along the lines of rulers in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and other post-Soviet states, where blinded by revenge fury politicians rout out all their competition, eventually depriving their countries of a chance to see their power challenged,” says Alexander Cherkasov, chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow.
In an interview, Russia’s most famous opposition leader, former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, told me that Trump’s rhetoric has made him feel concerned about the future of the United States and the degradation of democracy through the practice of political vendetta. Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, spent 10 years in jail for what authorities said was tax evasion and embezzlement, but which he and many others saw as political persecution. Khodorkovsky now has to live in exile because the Russian leadership still wants to see him jail; last year a Russian court convicted him in absentia for the third time, this time for murder. “What makes me worried is not a threat that they will send me to jail again but that it is not an independent court, but rather somebody else, who decides that,” Khodordkovsky told me.
Another big dimension of bullying is the suppression of free speech in response to criticism of the bully/leader. Based on the way he’s attacked the media—in ways so vicious that the U.S. press covering Trump had to be escorted by police from one rally for their own safety—Trump would love to ditch the First Amendment and do what Putin’s done.
Consider the case of Nadia Tolokonnikova, one of two members of the anti-Putin female band “Pussy Riot” imprisoned for “hooliganism” after a performance. In a conversation on Friday, Tokokonnikova told me that Trump’s threatening words were all too familiar—“a dangerous machismo symptom,” she said, that would inevitably change American society. “People like Trump or Putin who obviously are not secure and cannot stand equal competition should not be ruling countries, as they are irrational,” Tolokonnikova said. “Looking back at what Putin has done to us, I believe that a rational leader would not have allowed us to be sent to prison—our prison term brought more damage than benefit,” said Tolokonnikova, who now works on political songs and films in Los Angeles.
Since the Pussy Riot arrests, and after more than a dozen activists were arrested in 2011-12 and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated next to the Kremlin wall, anti-Putin protests have become a rare event in Russia. “Any statement against Putin is read as political activism and an attempt to overthrow the constitution,” Boris Nemtsov’s daughter, Zhanna Nemtsova, told me.
Putin has played the bully a number of times abroad too, once threatening “to hang by his balls” Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia’s leader and a crusader against everything KGB-controlled. At the time Putin said that, in August 2008, a number of us journalists were interviewing Russian military commanders who were parking their tanks on the outskirts of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. As a result of week-long war with Russia, Georgia lost 20 percent of its territory, and thousands of people suffered from the conflict for years to come.
And Saakashvili, the current governor of Odessa, still lives in exile. Why? Because he is now wanted at home. This time it is not Putin who threatens him but a new, shadowy Putin-aligned leader named Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, who proceeded to conduct political vendettas as soon as he came to power in 2012. The new prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, publicly called Saakashvili’s party, United National Movement, “a criminal organization.”
Dozens of prison sentences followed. Saakashvili is now under investigation for corruption. Now nationalism has gripped the land; even those who ones were a part of Saakashvili’s team and sought to open up and reform Georgia have come around to the bullies. “Prison is where Saakashvili belongs; if police do not stop him on the border, thousands of my supporters will grab him the moment he crosses,” Saakashvili’s former ally and parliament speaker Nino Burjunadze told me in an interview last week.
Trump should know that loose talk about repression can sink lives—and it can become self-fulfilling. Last week, I interviewed 26-year-old Nastia Bendukidze in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Her father, Kakha Bendukidze, former minister of economy and owner of two private free universities, was one of the most brilliant reformers in all of the 15 post-Soviet countries, but in 2014 he received prison threats from the shadowy leader Ivanishvili. He had to flee, but dropped dead before after he gained political asylum in the UK. “I believe that political persecutions killed my father,” Nastia Bendukidze told me. “My father knew that his health was so weak he would not survive the imprisonment; but unfortunately, his heart couldn’t handle him living in exile either—the pressure of leaving his homeland and his beloved universities behind him had caused his heart to fail.”
Another famous bully in these parts, former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich, also could not stand competition—launching a vendetta in 2011 against his main rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to seven years in prison. Tymoshenko spent over three years behind bars, until her case was recognized as politically motivated by European Court of Human Rights.
The degradation of democracy doesn’t happen right away; the best bullies take their time. Putin succeeded in chipping away gradually at free speech until it was gone. Trump’s menacing but vague words today remind Victor Shenderovich, a well-known Russian satirist, of his first meeting with President Putin back in 2001. Shenderovich and a group of journalists from the still-independent television channel NTV came to the Kremlin to ask the president to look into the case of their friend, manager of Media Most, Anton Titov, who had been jailed for unclear reasons. “We told Putin that our friend, a father of two little children, was a hostage, that he is being questioned for 16 hours without a break; and in return we heard a 30-minute long lecture about the rule of law and independent court, that the president could not influence,” Shenderovich said. Later special services in masks raided NTV, and it was the beginning of the end of free press in Russia. “First somebody like Trump threatens to put his opponent in jail, then he closes the independent media, takes control over the court and a few years later, he threatens the world with a nuclear bomb,” Shenderovich said.
Still, many of the critics of Trump in this part of the world think that even if he’s elected and carries out his threats against his opponents and free speech, he’ll have a much tougher time than Putin did. Zhanna Nemtsova, who now lives in Germany and works for the international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, believes that American justice and democracy are bigger and stronger than Trump’s threats. “The court is independent in the USA, and so the executive power would not have any influence on the decision,” Zhanna told me. “The situation would have been different if the case took place in Russia.”
Maybe. But many Russians also once believed their courts were independent too—until the bullies took over.