The cube of truth

by Christian Ewert & Deborah Kalte

Hidden Politics

On a busy street during an ordinary day with people walking by, black-dressed activists in Guy Fawkes masks get in position. They claim a part of the public space by standing in a cube formation, some of them hold laptops and tablets that display disturbing and evocative footage of animal farms, others carry signs that bear the word “Truth” in English or other languages. Yet some other activists stand beside this cube and reach out to passersby to discuss animal welfare and veganism. Together, these activists perform, as they call it, a Cube of Truth.

Jeangagnon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Cube of Truth is a complex performance of the animal rights organization Anonymous for the Voiceless. What started in 2016 as a local event of Australian activists has soon become a worldwide movement which has, as of today, performed more than 10’000 Cubes of Truth. It is thus a rather new, yet very successful form of communicating and informing the greater public of the “hidden politics behind common consumer goods” as scientists Micheletti and Stolle have called it. Or as the organizers state on their website, “people can learn there is no humane way to exploit, enslave or murder an animal.”

Indeed, the almost militaristic and anonymized cube depicts “the truth” about animal suffering in writing and on explicit and very graphical footage, while the outreach team (in civilian clothes) hands out information, asks questions, and engages in deliberation. With their impressive performance, the activists have, in their own words, “successfully convinced hundreds of thousands of people” so far.

Modern Consumption

The Cube of Truth is one of the many examples of innovative strategies that citizens have developed to engage politically and express their concerns with current consumption practices. Possibly the most familiar political consumer activities are the boycotts of certain products or companies. Other strategies include the conscious choice of products such as organic or Fairtrade, the decision to adapt one’s lifestyle along certain guidelines, for instance by living vegan, or discursive actions such as campaigns that target fast food chains by anti-branding them (for example “Murder King”), culture jamming (such as the famous Nike Email Exchange), or public protests.

Conscious or political consumerism, as it is often called, has been on the rise for at least 30 years or so. It can be seen as a response to the increasing power of multi-national corporations, and the (perceived) inability of states and international organizations to hold these corporations accountable for their (mis)conduct. And indeed, companies such as Nike, the global diamond trader De Beers, or Shell have felt the consumers’ “wrath” in the past and have consequently changed their practices to some degree. Today, many companies have developed some form of corporate social responsibility scheme to communicate the ethics of their behavior.

Vegan Community

As a performance related to political consumerism, the Cube of Truth is unique in two ways. For one, the activists do not address big corporations but instead, target ordinary people. While the first-generation political consumerism aimed at influencing the behavior of multinationals such as Nike, De Beers, or Shell, this second generation is trying to convince consumers to adopt a more conscious and animal-friendly lifestyle.

More importantly, however, the Cube of Truth is unique because of its performers: the vegan community.

In Western countries, only 0.5–3% of the population identifies as vegan, making vegans a tiny minority that is culturally dominated by the mainstream omnivore society. Think about how major supermarkets always sell some form of meat, eggs, or dairy, and how common leather clothing is. Think about how difficult it is to find vegan-friendly menus in some (often less urban) restaurants. And think about the mockery and ridicule that vegans experience, even with family and friends.

It is then perhaps not surprising that vegans create their own communities that stand in stark contrast to omnivores. Using a term coined by the linguist Michael Halliday, vegans form their own “anti-society.”

An anti-society is a small minority which is embedded in a (much) larger and dominating host society (the mainstream). The anti-society has its own values and norms, cultural practices, and even patterns of communication that are distinct from the host society.

And given its dominated status, many anti-society practices and patterns of communication center around the question of identity: Who are we, compared to them? What is important to us, and not to them? What do we do differently, compared to them? Maintaining its distinctiveness is necessary for an anti-society’s survival.

Vegan Identity

Understanding the vegan community as an anti-society sheds a new light on the Cube of Truth. Yes, vegans perform the Cube of Truth to convince non-vegans into adopting a more animal-friendly lifestyle.

But vegans also perform the Cube of Truth for themselves. Together, they plan and prepare each performance. Together, they wear the same clothes and masks and stand in strong formation for their cause, firmly representing their values. And together, they not only have access to “the truth” (about animal products and welfare), but also show it to the world.

As a highly ritualized performance, the Cube of Truth impresses passersby. Simultaneously, it impresses its performers as well, because it connects each individual performer to the larger, global community. A community that shares similar values, norms, practices, and communicative patterns.

To outsiders (i.e., non-vegans), the Cube of Truth holds meaning because of the graphic footage of animal suffering, the helpful discussions with the outreach team, or the black clothes and masks. To insiders (i.e., the performers), it holds meaning because it is a joint undertaking that welcomes contributions, and thus creates a strong sense of shared identity and belonging.

With tens of thousands of performances, the Cube of Truth is a highly successful manifestation of political consumerism. Maybe it so successful because it speaks to non-vegans and vegans alike.

The political struggle over Status S in Switzerland

by Raphael Capaul

During the tragic night of February 24, 2022, Putin began his invasion of Ukraine. Shortly thereafter, the fighting spread across the country, accompanied by reports of suffering and death. Nearly four million people have already escaped the country, with many more Ukrainians expected to flee. In the past weeks, Europe has been preparing for an influx of migrants and preaching support and solidarity.

People from Ukraine are allowed to enter the Schengen Area without a visa – that is, also Switzerland – and have a right of residence for 90 days.

But what are the options after these three months?

On March 2, 2022, the European Commission proposed to activate the EU Temporary Protection Directive (TPD). The principle is to provide temporary protection unbureaucratically and quickly. Asylum applications are not examined individually, but certain groups of people – in this case Ukrainians – are granted protection collectively. Eventually, on March 3, 2022, the European Home Affairs Ministers approved the application of TPD.

Switzerland applies Status S for the first time

As is often the case, the question arises of how Switzerland, as a non-EU country, will approach the current crisis.

On February 28, 2022, the Federal Commission on Migration (FCM; an extra-parliamentary commission) recommended to the Federal Council (the government) to apply Status S for people from Ukraine. Apart from some details, it is the equivalent of the EU’s TPD. In fact, both status were introduced after the war in former Yugoslavia, have never been applied before, and the right of residence is limited to one year but may be extended.

Political debates and opinions on Status S were not long in coming. For example, the Swiss Refugee Council (SRC) is in favor of its application, provided it is adapted to the current situation. Among other things, family reunification should be broadly interpreted. The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SPP) does not want to apply Status S but is in favor of immediate assistance in Ukraine’s neighboring countries. The Social Democratic Party (SP) pleaded for the adoption of the EU’s TPD, because the party sees disadvantages of Status S in comparison to TPD, e.g., people are only allowed to work after three months of residence. Federal Council and Minister of Justice Karin Keller-Sutter countered that the level of protection of the two temporary protection regimes is very similar and that one has a certain flexibility with the application of Status S.

At a meeting with the European Home Affairs Ministers on March 3, 2022, Keller-Sutter announced that she intended to propose the application of Status S to the Federal Council. One day later, on March 4, 2022, the Federal Council welcomed the idea. This was followed by a hearing of the cantons, the humanitarian organizations, and the UN Refugee Agency UNCHR on the proposal, which was met with strong approval. Ultimately, on March 11, 2022, the Federal Council announced its historical decision: Status S will be applied for the first time for people from Ukraine seeking protection.

Recent legislative project on Status S in parliament

It comes with little surprise that Status S is currently attracting the attention of the Swiss political debate. It is a situation of war in Europe, requiring governments to act quickly and flexibly.

However, many issues concern political debates in the long term, including Status S. In June 2018, the Political Institutions Committee (PIC; a parliamentary specialist committee) mandated its secretariat, in cooperation with the administration, to prepare a draft law for a punctual revision of the Asylum Act regarding Status S, based on a parliamentary initiative (see below). The law was to be amended so as to regulate family reunification in a more restrictive way.

The consultation, which took place at the beginning of 2019, disclosed that the draft law was being met by a divided and polarized opinion. A back-and-forth between the Council of States (the upper house of Swiss parliament) and the National Council (the lower house of Swiss parliament) ensued between June 2020 and March 2021. The Council of States voted twice in favor of the draft law and the National Council twice against it, meaning that the legislative project ended up failing.

Several years of decision-making process from the beginning of the preparation of a draft law until the end of the parliamentary debate. This is known about Swiss politics.

Decision-making processes even during initiation of legislative project

But how did it come about that the PIC issued a mandate to prepare a draft law? Such a mandate hardly originates in a vacuum: The draft law on Status S recently discussed in parliament has its history.

According to the Asylum Act and the Geneva Refugee Convention, a refugee is anyone who is personally persecuted, e.g., because of religion or nationality. Following this definition, someone who is fleeing from a hail of bombs is not a refugee. Therefore, Switzerland usually grants the status of provisional admission (Status F) to a person who does not qualify for permanent admission and is supposed to leave Switzerland but cannot do so, e.g., because of war. There is widespread dissatisfaction in the Swiss political debate around Status F because most of those admitted “provisionally” de facto stay in Switzerland. Regarding Status S, many have questioned whether this regulation should be abolished or adapted, since it has not been applied (until very recently).

In March 2016, Philippe Müller (the Liberals), former member of the Council of States, submitted a parliamentary initiative aiming to tighten family reunification for Status S. He argued that extensive family reunification was an obstacle for the application of Status S and wanted to tackle this status to address the problems associated with Status F. In addition, in autumn 2016, the Federal Council published a long-awaited report in response to several postulates, in which the creation of a new status and the abolition of Status S is proposed. This report resulted in a motion of the PIC of the National Council (PIC-N) in April 2017, which called for a new status according to the report, as well as a motion of the PIC of the Council of States (PIC-S) in January 2018, which was a response to the motion of the PIC-N and only called for a punctual adjustment of Status F.

In this complex situation, political decision-makers had to negotiate and decide what needed to be regulated, how, and where, even before any legislative mandates were issued by the Federal Council or the PIC. The interplay between government and parliament – widely recognized as typical for legislation – even began with the initiation of the legislative process.

Even though the first application of Status S in the wake of the war in Ukraine came surprisingly quickly, the status is the subject of Swiss political debates in the long term. For one, years of decision-making on a legislative project have just taken place. For another, it would come to no surprise if the first application of Status S raises new questions and debates, e.g., integration measures.

Why does Russia always cheat? 

By Ivanna Biryukova

“Today, at 4 o’clock in the morning, without any claims having been presented to the Soviet Union, without a declaration of war, German troops attacked our country, attacked our borders in many places and bombed our cities from their planes.” This is a quote by Vyacheslav Molotov, who announced the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941. 

Yesterday, at 5 o’clock in the morning, without a declaration of war, Vladimir Putin ordered an attack on Ukraine. 

However improbable this move may have seemed to many experts, a government that continuously sponsors a doping program despite having been penalized, cannot be trusted to make predictable and logical political decisions. 

During the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, Kamila Valieva and the coaching team behind her were investigated after the 15-year-old figure skater tested positive for a banned drug. Kamila is a student of Eteri Tutberidze, a coach with a track record of producing “disposable” athletes. 

Many skaters who trained under Tutberidze retired before reaching the age of 17. Her methods are ineffective for a long-term career, which is why Russia is home to some of the sport’s youngest World and Olympic champions, who quit after one or two major accomplishments and nothing more than a suitcase of ceased hopes of long-term success. 

The 2014 Sochi doping controversy also demonstrates that, for some reason, Russian coaches and sports associations have lost faith in their athletes’ ability to succeed without the use of performance-enhancing substances. If a Russian athlete enters the race for an international title, they have no choice but to participate in the illegal activities that have been enforced by the Russian government for many years (for a more in-depth look into the doping scandal watch “Icarus”, an Oscar-winning documentary on Netflix).

In an attempt to try and find proof that doping is not an exclusively Russian problem, I did some digging on this issue in my own country: Switzerland. A close friend and former Swiss figure skater told me: “The main goal of Russian figure skating is the pedestal. The girls show crazy results very quickly and burnout just as fast. A minimum age of 18 should be required to compete in elite events, as it is in many other sports. Because of the discrepancies in bodily development, the differences in results are so pronounced. Teenagers have different abilities to adults, point-blank.” To my question as to whether she had ever been offered any form of drugs, she said: “Absolutely not. And I don’t know anyone who has been.”

For various reasons, ex-athletes rarely discuss this, but numbers and facts speak louder — Russia cheats. It cheats quietly, almost shamefully, but it still does. During the Sochi Olympics, after every foreign supervisor had already left for the day, the testing lab swapped out incriminating urine tubes for clean ones and handed them over to FSS (Federal Security Service) agents through a hole in the wall. Thankfully, the cheating scheme was revealed by a whistleblower, and Russia was banned from competing under its flag. This did not, however, prevent Russian athletes from participating. The Russian Olympic Committee is now the official representative of Russian athletes at international events. For some, this halfway ban does not make sense, and rightfully so. As these Olympic Games have shown, this state-sponsored, all-permeating swindle is still very much intact. 

Russia doesn’t only cheat in sports. It cheats in much bigger, more influential international arenas – it cheats politically and morally. Vladimir Putin is not afraid to completely rewrite history for the sake of disruption and chaos. He will do everything to conquer and destroy. He will announce the return of his troops from a sovereign country where they were not supposed to be in the first place, only to send in more. In his eyes, he is no longer “just” a president – he is a puppeteer, playing with his Western counterparts from his big cosy castle. He is a king, an emperor. But in reality, Putin is nothing but a pathetic war criminal, afraid to look out of his gold-plated windows to witness the destruction he has caused in his country and is going to cause in Ukraine. He is nothing but a dictator, whose power lies in the apathy and tiredness of his people. 

In order to make sports fair again, to restore the rudiments of Russian democracy, to assure peace in Europe and save tens of thousands of Ukrainian lives, Putin and his gang must be held accountable. 

The Qatar disaster: What hideous actions a country is willing to undertake for profit

Qatar, a tiny country located at the northeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, is hosting the 2022 World Cup. The gas- and oil-rich emirate is around one third the size of Switzerland and has more or less the same population as the city of Manchester. How is it possible that a small-scale country was awarded the responsibility of hosting the biggest sporting event in the world? What are the dark sides of a World Cup in Qatar and what has been done to shed light on this darkness?  

How to get away with vote buying

In 2010 the Executive Committee of the governing global football federation FIFA, today known as the FIFA Council, elected Qatar to host the World Cup in 2022. The votes were cast in secret; thus, it is not officially disclosed who voted for whom. Following the vote, the Sunday Times launched a thorough investigation inspecting allegations of vote buying in the 2022 as well as in the 2018 World Cup bidding process. The investigation was based on intelligence that had been confidentially gathered from seven people involved in the England 2018 bid. Additionally, over a span of four years the Sunday Times investigated and later published information and millions of documents gathered from a whistle-blower inside FIFA, known as the FIFA files. The investigations found evidence that Qatari officials, in particular then FIFA vice president Mohamed Bin Hamman, had bribed FIFA Council members in return for their votes for the 2022 Qatar bid. According to the Sunday Times, Issa Hayatou and Jacques Anouma for example, two former African FIFA Council members, were paid $1.5 million by the Qatar 2022 bid in exchange for their vote. Also, the information gathered by the Sunday Times included different vote trading deals between bidding countries, among them a deal between Qatar 2022 and Spain-Portugal 2018. This was only possible due to FIFA’s decision to conduct the vote for the 2018 and the 2022 World Cup host simultaneously, for whatever reason. Even though the practice of vote trading was strictly banned according to FIFA regulations, it was practically an invitation for FIFA Council members to exchange their votes. 

One day after the first Sunday Times publication in June 2014, US attorney Michael Garcia, who was appointed by FIFA to investigate earlier allegations concerning vote buying, announced that the evidence-gathering phase of his inspection would shortly come to an end. A couple of weeks later, Garcia submitted his final report, without having investigated the evidence by the Sunday Times. FIFA then published a summary (!) of Garcia’s results, which exonerated the Qatar 2022 (and also the Russia 2018) bid of all wrongdoing. Case closed. Interestingly, in response to the Sunday Times reports the organizing committee claimed that Bin Hammam had not been involved in the Qatar 2022 bid team. FIFA, who had already banned the Qatari for another corruption scandal, supported the claim. That is how to get away with vote buying. 

Human rights only secondary

After the successful World Cup bid, Qatar began with its megaproject, which included among other things the construction of seven new stadiums, a new airport, a new public transport system and a new city, where the World Cup final is set to take place. In the past few years, Qatar’s excessive construction has been under intense scrutiny. Several reports have claimed that the construction workers – mostly migrant workers from South Asian countries such as Nepal or Bangladesh – have been exposed to dreadful labor conditions. In February 2021, The Guardian revealed that more than 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the emirate won the hosting rights for the World Cup in 2010, the number likely to being an underestimate. 

An earlier report from the Guardian in 2019 addressed the causes of migrant workers’ deaths. According to the official Qatari death toll, most migrant workers had died because of “natural deaths” such as heart or respiratory failure. The investigations, however, show that many of the deceased were in their twenties and thirties, and had arrived in Qatar in good and healthy shape. This leads to the suspicion that their deaths may not have been as “natural” as stated by the Qataris. For its research, the Guardian collaborated with an experienced clinical cardiologist. He found that hundreds of young men, who rarely suffer heart attacks, died in Qatar due to heart strokes, which in turn were caused by the immense heat stress that they were exposed to. This is not surprising, given the fact that these migrants were forced to work in temperatures as high as 45 degrees for up to ten hours a day. 

The deaths of these migrant workers caused by the exposure to such heat is certainly tragic. However, these are not the only human rights violations that the organizers of the 2022 World Cup are responsible for. In 2016, Amnesty International published a report based on interviews with over 200 migrant workers. Some of them worked on a stadium construction site, others as landscapers for a sports complex, where teams such as Paris Saint-Germain have carried out training camps regularly. The findings were shocking. Many migrant workers claimed to not have been paid for months. Besides not being able to pay for basic needs such as food, this impeded them from paying recruitment-related debts or sending money back home to their families, the latter initially being the reason for the migrants leaving home. Another example was the confiscation of migrant workers’ passports by their employers that prohibited the workers from leaving the country. Some of the interviewed Nepali workers claimed that they were not allowed to visit their families in 2015 after a disastrous earthquake struck the country, killing almost 10,000 people. These are only some of the examples of human rights abuses migrant workers had to go through. Dirty and cramped accommodations, lies about the salary and threats for complaining about the terrible conditions are some of the others. Clearly, the organizers of Qatar 2022 do not view the adherence to human rights as a top priority.

Lucrative football industry

Of course, hosting the 2022 World Cup – the biggest sporting event in the world – will greatly benefit Qatar in economic terms. Foreign investments will significantly increase, since such huge events are very lucrative for foreign businesses. Also, the tourism industry is likely to gain a notable economic boost. In particular, the luxury packages offered by MATCH Hospitality AG – FIFA’s official hospitality programme for the Qatar World Cup – will bring in an incredible amount of money. To illustrate, a private lounge ticket for the semi-final match in the newly built Lusail stadium can be purchased for a bargain of $1,760,800. Just to be clear: This doesn’t include neither travelling nor accommodation costs, it is just the price tag for watching one single game of football from a VIP lounge. Fortunately, caviar and a glass of champagne are likely to be included. 

However, it is not only the World Cup that will be beneficious to Qatar economically. In fact, the emirate’s World Cup bid should be seen as part of a broader strategy to maintain Qatar’s wealth once it runs out of its oil and gas reserves. Football has in this regard been viewed by powerful Qataris as a lucrative investment opportunity. Besides the bid, Qatar has tried to invest in the football industry for example by sponsoring Bayern Munich through the state-owned airline Qatar Airways or, more importantly, by taking over the French side Paris St. Germain (PSG) in 2011. Qatar Sports Investment, a subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority, which is one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, has pumped hundreds of millions into the club, transforming it from a struggling side to one of the best football teams in the world instantly. In 2017, for example, PSG (de facto the state Qatar) shocked the world when they paid the €222 million release clause to bring in star-player Neymar from FC Barcelona – the highest amount ever paid for a football transfer. As leaked documents from whistleblower Rui Pinto demonstrate, PSG have repeatedly violated Financial Fairplay regulations, but the Qatari bosses have managed to arrange settlement agreements and get away with ridiculous fines. 

As described, in a long-term attempt to make money, Qatar is investing in the profitable football industry with all necessary measures. Moral convictions such as a fair election or human rights do not seem to be of interest. 

Tick tock

On November 21st, 2021 the final countdown started: 365 days until the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Qatar. While FIFA president Gianni Infantino travelled to Qatar to celebrate the beginning of the one-year countdown by unveiling the fancy Hublot countdown clock, Amnesty International published “Reality Check 2021: A year to the 2022 World Cup”. The report describes how Qatar had made an agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO) back in 2017 in an effort to ”end labour abuse and exploitation of its more than two million migrant workers” by introducing several potentially effective legal reforms. More importantly, however, the report demonstrates how the Qatari government has failed to actually implement these reforms that are supposed to tackle abusive practices such as wage theft or unsafe working conditions. Also, the kafala system, which binds migrant workers to their employers, often preventing them from changing jobs or leaving the country, is still intact. Amnesty International highlights that employers who are abusing their migrant employees are not effectively sanctioned by the government, and are therefore still incentivized to violate human rights. Based on its investigation, the NGO concludes that – in practice – concerning human rights not much has changed since the reforms. 

In its report, Amnesty International do not call for a boycott. Instead, in a highly optimistic statement they urge Qatar, FIFA and corporate actors involved in the 2022 World Cup to immediately take further actions. In addition, they encourage football associations to “actively and publicly take action to ensure that the rights of migrant workers are respected in the run up and during the 2022 World Cup”. However, for that it is too late. Too many workers and their families have suffered. Too many workers have died, no, killed! And realistically, what will some pre-match jerseys with the inscriptions “HUMAN RIGHTS” or “FOOTBALL SUPPORTS CHANGE” worn by national teams – such as Norway, Germany and the Netherlands during the 2022 World Cup qualifiers – achieve? It is more likely that such actions will benefit these associations from a PR perspective – regardless of whether intended or not – than actually lead to change. 

Change is certainly needed, and football must support it. But as for right now, it does not. If football really does want to support change, as the Netherlands jerseys claimed, then particularly associations and players need to show courage and take real actions. The most effective way to bring about change would be to boycott the World Cup. Imagine the uproar it would cause if a leading football nation such as France or England, or a player like Lionel Messi – the idol of so many people around the world – would refuse to travel to Qatar. Football fans would stand up in support, other players and associations would follow, causing an unstoppable domino effect. In the end, it would be clear to everyone that it is unacceptable for bidding countries to buy votes and to violate human rights in an effort to exploit the lucrative football industry. Only a boycott will guarantee that the Qatar disaster would never be allowed to be repeated. 

So far, none of the 211 FIFA member associations and no prominent football player has spoken out in favor of a boycott. One brave player, or one brave nation – that is all that is required to bring about significant change. And no, it is not “10 years too late” for a boycott, as German international Joshua Kimmich stated in an interview. There still is time, but the clock is ticking. 

Vladimir Putin and his methods – how Russia’s president deals with opposition

By Ivanna Biryukova

Russia, January 23rd, 2021. The streets of 198 cities were filled with slowly moving masses. A sea of down jackets, scarfs and hats. A sea of old and young. A sea of hope, rage, unfulfillment and disappointment. It was a cold, slippery day, a day when people would soon be met with overwhelming police presence. Thousands of them would end up detained and beaten up by law enforcement officers.  It was two days after the infamous video “A Palace for Putin: The Story of the Biggest Bribe” was released.  It was also one week before Alexey Navalny would officially become a political prisoner. 

Vladimir Putin’s difficult relationship with opposition 

Russia’s president of 18 years Vladimir Putin is not the biggest supporter of the opposition in his country. A man who granted himself the opportunity to stay in office until the year 2036, he has a long-winded history in suppressing his critics. Today, almost every single independent news outlet and non-profit organization is either closed or falls under the “foreign agent” law. This law is used to punish disloyal media outlets that have little to do with foreign governments – it is simply another tactic of disempowerment and pressure. In contrast, even though 1990s Russia was a lawless and unsafe place to live in, freedom of speech thrived during that time allowing many of the most notorious anti-Putin journalists and politicians to rise to to fame after the Soviet Union fell apart. 

“A reformer who never backed down”

One of these people was Boris Nemtsov (1959 – 2015), whose political career started off  under Yeltsin’s presidency. Nemtsov stood loyally behind Yeltsin during a coup attempt in August 1991, and the latter rewarded him with the job of presidential representative in his native region of Nizhny Novgorod. After that, he secured the position as the governor of the same region. 

The early years of Nemtsov’s political career were filled with change and progressive thinking: the West saw the future of Russia’s liberal and open politics in him. More so, Yeltsin introduced him to Bill Clinton as his “successor”. However, when Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned in 1999, Vladimir Putin took over as president. The reasons for this are still unclear, but the fact remains that Putin, a former director of the Russian Federation’s Federal Security Service (F.S.B.), the same security service that poisoned Alexey Navalny last year, has been in power ever since.  

As years passed, Nemtsov became more outspoken about his disapproval of Putin’s governance. He organized rallies and marches, was detained several times, and spoke out against the annexation of Crimea and the situation in Chechnya. In February of 2015, Nemtsov expressed fears that he might be killed. On February 27th, his body was found on a bridge near the Kremlin – he was shot from behind and died at the scene. 

All eyes turned to the Kremlin. One of Putin’s most vehement opponents assassinated in front of the presidential office? 

According to some journalists close to Nemtsov, he was working on a report that would have proven the presence of Russian military forces in eastern Ukraine, despite Russia’s denials. Others spoke of Ramzan Kadyrov’s (the Head of the Chechen Republic) involvement in the murder. After all, many critics of Chechnya’s leader face a similar fate. Kadyrov has obtained a license to kill, and many fear that he plays the role of executioner for another higher-ranking figure who sponsors him and covers up his crimes. Even if Putin was not on board with Nemtsov’s killing, he covered it up, which makes him an accomplice. 

Ramzan Kadyrov and a woman’s attempts to unveil the truth 

Why is Kadyrov’s possible connection so important? Because Anna Politkovskaya, a brilliant, fierce, and honest journalist, that described Kadyrov as the “Chechen Stalin of our days”, was murdered in the elevator of her apartment building in 2006. Politkovskaya reported from Chechnya – she was the person who showed the Russian public what was really going on behind the high peaks of Caucasian mountains. The Second Chechen War (1999-2009, a conflict between Russian Federation and Chechen separatists) was one of the most traumatic events modern Russia has gone through – and Anna Politkovskaya (along with many other journalists) put pen to paper. 

She survived a poisoning attempt on a flight (a well-known tactic at this point), was a victim of a mock execution, received death threats from an OMON (Special Purpose Mobile Unit) officer and from Kadyrov himself. Politkovskaya managed to get Kadyrov to convey his feelings toward Putin in a 2004 interview during which he referred to Putin as “one of their own” and called for him to be the lifelong president of Russia. 

Anna Politkovskaya was one of Russia’s most genuine journalists, and her honesty was not appreciated in governmental structures. On October 7th, 2006, she was shot 4 times. In 2014, four Chechen men were convicted of her murder – according to court materials, none of them had personal motives to assassinate Politkovskaya. October 7th, 2021, marked 15 years since her death – the person who hired the killers is still free.

The last hope of Russian opposition 

On a domestic flight from Tomsk to Moscow, Alexey Navalny, a 45-years-old politician, and anti-corruption activist, fell ill. After an emergency landing in Omsk, he was brought to a hospital, where the authorities wouldn’t let his wife Yulia and his team see him. Yulia demanded them to release her husband to transport him to a better medical institution in Germany. It took 2 days, but on August 22nd Navalny was put in an induced coma and evacuated to the Charité hospital in Berlin. A month later, the politician was discharged, and Novichok agent (a chemical weapon) was pronounced to have been found in his blood work. 

Alexey Navalny stayed in Germany until January 17th and while he was there, he and his organization FBK (known as “Anti-Corruption Foundation”) released investigative videos about his poisoning. They could prove that FSB was behind the murder attempt. The incompetence of the team that was ordered to poison Navalny was the only thing that saved him putting concrete evidence of their contribution into his hands. One of the films features a phone call with one of the poisoners, in which he essentially explains the poisoning process step by step. The Russian government denies any involvement to this day. 

As soon as the plane that carried Navalny and his wife landed in Moscow, the politician was taken into custody – Navalny violated the terms of his probation by not contacting his parole officer while he was in a coma.  

After Navalny was detained, FBK published an investigative documentary on their Youtube channel: “A Palace for Putin: The Story of the Biggest Bribe”. The film calls for people to come out and protest for Navalny’s release and exposes Vladimir Putin’s 1.35-billion-dollar palace on the Black Sea. All hell broke loose – tens of thousands of people took it to the streets after seeing their opposition leader detained and their president in possession of a literal royal palace with 700€ gold pipe-cleaners, while millions of Russians live below the poverty line. 

On February 2nd, 2021, Alexey Navalny was sentenced to 2.5 years in a penal colony. The protests went on, but so did the beatings and the detentions, and so FBK have called off the marches until further notice. 

When addressing the court, Navalny said: “Murder is the only way he [Vladimir Putin] knows how to fight. He’ll go down in history as nothing but a poisoner. […] I hope very much that people won’t look at this trial as a signal that they should be more afraid. This isn’t a demonstration of strength – it’s a show of weakness. You can’t lock up millions and hundreds of thousands of people. I hope very much that people will realize this. And they will. Because you can’t lock up the whole country.”

One of the characteristics of Russian mentality is to endure something for as long as humanly possible. So that slippery 23rd of January was not only a way to show disagreement with the government, but an important sign of unionization and mobilization of a normally passive nation. The Russian opposition finally managed to show Putin that they have had enough, they are here, and despite countless threats, they aren’t going anywhere. 

The radicalization of politics

By Christian Ewert and Raphael Capaul

On that fateful Tuesday, November 8, 2016, the United States elected Donald Trump as their President. Four years later, there is no doubt that he was one of the most radical and aggressive incumbents the USA have ever seen. Standing out not only for his inclination for authoritarian rule—as demonstrated by the 2019 Ukraine affair and his involvement in the recent breach of the Capitol—but also for his degrading rhetoric toward women, minorities, and political opponents.

Donald Trump was not reelected in the 2020 presidential election. But of course, there are still other countries run by rather radical actors. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro is in power and has to face re-election in 2022. In the same year, elections are also due in Hungary, where the Fidesz party headed by Victor Orban governs. And the Law and Justice Party (PiS) leads the governing coalition in Poland, at least until the next regular renewal of the Sejm, the lower house of the parliament, in 2023.

However, it is important to acknowledge the unique circumstances in which the next elections will take place: A global pandemic threatens health, the markets, and social cohesion. Climate change endangers the survival and prosperity of all people. The EU and the UK have yet to cope with and fully process Brexit. Mediatization, privatization, globalization, and conflicts between more traditional and more progressive values and lifestyles are creating new political arenas, new winners and losers. Geopolitical conflicts between the USA and China will determine international politics for the foreseeable future. And demographic changes continue to deplete social security and pension schemes. Each one of these political, economic, and cultural crises is difficult enough to handle. If they occur together, they reinforce and amplify each other.

Crisis favours radicalization

A situation of crisis favours the radicalization of politics. To be precise, radical actors are always present in democratic societies, but they profit more than moderate actors from unresolved challenges and insecurities. This can be explained by, on the one hand, the growing disappointment and disenchantment of citizens with moderate or “mainstream” politics. For instance, virtually all governments of Western democracies have made painful political decisions in recent years. These include most notably the strict austerity measures implemented in connection with the last economic crisis, but also the restrictions on personal freedoms enacted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. All of these measures have created strong resentments and criticism. Moreover, and despite these measures, many political problems appear to remain unsolved. Deforestation continues at an alarming rate, fossil fuels are still being burnt which contributes to global warming and climate change, and pension schemes have to rely on fewer and fewer contributors to support more and more retired persons; these are just some of the persisting policy problems of course. Finally, many people fear or are directly affected by a declining socioeconomic status.

Out of this disappointment and fear, voters are increasingly turning to and into radical actors.

On the other hand, radical actors know how to profit from crises. They try to convey or intensify the “mood” of crisis through a rhetoric of emotionalization, simplification, and negativity. And indeed, the voter turnout shows that Bolsonaro, Fidesz, and PiS know how to play their cards. Trump, for instance, received more votes than any other sitting President before him in spite of his failures to control the pandemic.

Is the radicalization of politics inevitable?

Considering the many crises we face and the implications they have on voters and politics, is the radicalization of politics inevitable?

The answer is no. For one, the USA have shown on November 3, 2020, that radical actors can still be “kicked out” of office. And in addition to this, history has shown that radical actors can de-radicalize themselves, and become more moderate.

The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) exemplifies such de-radicalization. The party was a junior member of a coalition government from 2000 to 2005. During this period, FPÖ came closer to the policy positions of the leading centre-right coalition party, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). FPÖ’s convergence was indeed so substantial that its moderate wing, consisting of ministers and members of parliament, seceded and founded the new Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ). Another example following a similar trajectory is the Norwegian Progressive Party (FrP). It was represented in government along with established “mainstream” parties from 2013 to 2020, and also departed from its radical positions. Massive internal tensions and debates among the more moderate and radical members were the result.

It seems like a paradox: Radicalism in times of crises leads to electoral successes, and yet at least some radical actors de-radicalize and become more moderate. How come?

Many factors shape a political actor’s development. It certainly makes a difference whether this actor is in opposition or part of the government. In opposition, it is possible to agitate and criticize the government and the “corrupt elites.” In government, there might be no time for this because it is more urgent to actually “fill potholes” and “fix sewage systems,” as political scientists Tjitske Akkerman and Matthijs Rooduijn have put it. Apart from that, in many democratic systems, it is necessary to form governing coalitions and engage in compromises with other powerful political actors. If the incentives of joining a governing coalition are compelling, radical actors might be tempted to leave their radical positions.

The outlook is thus ambivalent. Given the current political challenges and crises, it would come as no surprise if Bolsonaro, Fidesz, PiS, and others would continue their winning streaks at the urns. Nevertheless, the election of Joe Biden and the de-radicalization of both FPÖ and FrP have shown that political radicalization is not a one-way street.


  • Christian Ewert, PhD, is a lecturer in political science at the University of Zurich (Christian.Ewert@uzh.ch)
  • Raphael Capaul, MA UZH, is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Legislative Studies, University of Zurich (Raphael.Capaul@rwi.uzh.ch)