Deposing a dictator, let alone hanging him in public, has never been popular in Russia. Saddam Hussein’s death was no exception. Public commentary in Russia over Saddam’s death by hanging on December 30, 2006, was almost unanimously negative, although the reasons offered by those who commented on it vary.
Interestingly enough, the only commentator who pondered the proximity of Saddam’s death to that of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov was Andrei Illarionov, the former economics advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin who resigned a year ago in protest over authoritarian misrule. Though Illarionov singled out the fact that the dictator invariably becomes the victim of his own power if he leaves office while his country is thrown into a situation of congenital unpredictability, his was a minority voice (Ekho Moskvy Radio, December 30). The only other commentator who suggested that Saddam’s death might not have a huge political effect in Iraq was Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Research (RIA-Novosti, December 29).
Instead the chorus of opponents of Saddam’s hanging and death found a myriad of reasons to argue against it. Vitaly Naumkin, speaking on Russia’s Channel One Television (December 30) opined that Saddam would “always be remembered as a victim of injustice, a victim of an unjust trial.” The Foreign Ministry rediscovered its principled opposition to the death penalty (except, that is, for Chechen terrorists who have rather less blood on their hands than did Saddam) and regretted that the Iraqi regime saw fit to reject the numerous appeals from other governments and organizations to spare Saddam (Itar-Tass, December 30). More concretely, and like many non-governmental commentators, the ministry argued that the political sensitivity of the issue of Saddam’s fate should have been taken into account because the country is on the verge of civil war.
Other commentators like Duma members Mikhail Margelov and Federation Council chairman Sergei Mironov expressed fears that Saddam might become a martyr and thus a symbol of Sunni resistance against the Iraqi government (Channel One Television, Itar-Tass, December 30). Moving further along this line, these experts argued that Saddam’s death would not bring peace to Iraq; if anything it might aggravate the tendency towards violence. These Duma members and experts cited the possibility that Saddam’s death might trigger an upsurge of Jihadi violence leading to full-scale civil war in Iraq. More charitable opponents of the execution like Konstantin Kosachev, Chairman of the Duma Council on International Affairs, called it a “tragic mistake which may bring the Iraqi people more troubles and more suffering” (Ekho Moskvy Radio, December 30).
RIA-Novosti’s commentator, Marianna Belenkaya, wrote that this was merely an act of vengeance against Saddam and the situation reminds her of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was charged with many crimes but never tried. Saddam’s execution was doubly unfortunate because he was never proven guilty of all the crimes he allegedly committed. Moreover, this verdict and the execution was again essentially an act of political justice by occupiers carried out to silence questions about America’s earlier support of Iraq (RIA-Novosti, December 30).
Russia’s religious authorities also felt compelled to speak out. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy head of the External Relations Directorate of the Moscow Patriarchate, worried that other dictators, seeking to protect themselves against such a fate, might not move faster to go nuclear. Archpriest Oleg Stenyayev, head of the Rehabilitation Center for victims of nontraditional reasons, said that it was merely an act of intimidation to help the Americans control the region. He also opined that on many counts Saddam’s guilt was not proven, conveniently forgetting that Saddam’s guilt for at least one massacre was proven (Itar-Tass, December 31). The Russian Council of Muftis called the execution “a transition to savage medieval barbarity even if it’s called democracy” as well as a blow to Islam (RIA-Novosti, December 30). The fact that the execution occurred on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha is also a desecration of God’s testament that forbids human sacrifice.
All these arguments, except for the purely theological ones, were contained in the Foreign Ministry’s statement, which possibly was the equivalent of the Pravda lead of the past that set the media tone for all who had to speak on politics. The Ministry not only lambasted the Iraqi government for provoking more violence, it also blamed Washington for not realizing that the Iraqi regime’s actions would provoke not reconciliation but more violence. The Ministry further charged Washington with full responsibility for the open violation of the humanitarian values that “they readily teach others” (Itar-Tass, December 30). While calling for a defusing of the situation that could lead to civil war, these charges suggest the real problem for the Russian elite.
That problem is that Saddam’s death, however brutal and politically ill-advised, illustrates the principle of accountability and rule by law even under less-than-perfect conditions. It is unlikely that Putin and his colleagues fear this kind of retribution, but as fellow dictators they cannot take comfort from the spectacle of one of the fraternity having to answer for his deeds. Thus the real threat perceived by the elite is not just civil war but rather the haunting specter of democratic accountability to the public.