The Arab Spring was made possible by Facebook servers -- sitting in one country affecting another. The ability of information in the form of electrons, to easily pass through borders designed to stop things in the form of atoms, forces us to update our ideas of sovereignty, and the seven billion pieces that give it form -- citizenship.
The most simplistic reading of sovereignty is the ability to issue passports, to have a postal system, print money and field an army. But what is the point of a postal system when letters arrive in your inbox without needing stamps? And what is the point of government-issued currency, when we pull out a plastic card instead of paper bills every time we buy things? And what is the meaning of citizenship, when people who are born and live in one country carry passports issued in another? And what is the power of an army when dealing with non-state actors like Al-Qaeda?
Perhaps a way to understand the big picture is to look at the small picture.
My attention these days is focused on Russia -- not for the obvious reasons of civil unrest due to election fraud that is currently in the news; the story that has got my attention is smaller but it, too, is a window into the health of Russian democracy.
It is the story of an Italian resident and American and Russian citizen, Marianne Grin, who fled Italy for St. Petersburg, Russia with her four children. My friendship with her family is how I initially learned about this story. The rest comes from Russian and Italian newspaper reports and court documents.
Ms. Grin has said she has fled to St. Petersburg, Russia to escape domestic violence where she claims to have close family. This is an odd claim as she has no family in Russia. Her mother, the children's maternal grandmother lives in California, as do the children's paternal grandparents.
Once in Russia she re-invented herself as a persecuted "Russian mother" playing to cultural xenophobic fears. She appeared on TV, gave interviews, and started a blog drawing attention to herself -- leaving out the fact that she owns property in both Russia and Italy and has a law degree from Harvard University from her new narrative.
She has also claimed that the U.S. Consulate tried to break into her apartment and kidnap her children. This seems more like a cry for a help than a serious accusation against the State Department.
While the weakness of Russian democracy can be seen through the lens of a recent fraudulent election, another way to get a pulse of this democracy is by looking at the integrity of the press corps. In Russia, it seems as if it is on life support. The transition from a top down authoritarian system under communism that told the press what to write, to the independent investigative system that is essential for a healthy democracy has not gone well.
In fact, it has gone terribly. While the high-profile brutal murders of journalists Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya, Paul Klebnikov, Khadzhimurad Kamalov are well known, what is less known, but horrifying, is the murder of 213 Russian journalists in the last decade. With so many journalists killed one can conclude that in order for a reporter to survive it's better not to ask questions. This makes doing one's job as a journalist impossible. Perhaps, this why none of the reporters verified Ms. Grin's story by talking to the father, family members, or the Italian authorities before publishing it in Russia.
When the story was told in Italy, it was radically different than the story told in Russia. According to the leading Italian national newspaper, La Repubblica, Ms. Grin had lost custody after the court-appointed psychologist concluded that she had a severely disturbed personality and posed a danger to her own children. It's not easy for a mother to lose custody in Italy as the Italian courts strongly favor "Mamma" in custody disputes and fathers are awarded exclusive custody in only 1.6 percent of cases.
The Italian newspapers also reported there had been no domestic violence by the father and others that Ms. Grin had accused of violence.
It appears that Ms. Grin was not escaping domestic violence -- rather she was escaping a court judgment that she didn't like.
Why does any of this matter?
I think this case redefines how we can think about the bigger ideas of citizenship and sovereignty and is a window into the state of democracy in Russia.
Let's talk about citizenship first. What does it mean to be a citizen in a world of global employment hop-scotching? There are four children involved here. Three of them were born in Italy, one in the U.S. The children have Russian and U.S. passports, but that's a legal status. What does that mean to a child? To these kids the only home they have ever known is Florence, Italy. This is where they have been growing up. It's where their schools are and where their friends live. It's their state of mind, and their state of place, until now.
Now, through no fault of their own, it seems the children are stateless. The mechanism for protecting children is established. It's called the Hague International Convention Against Child Abduction. The Convention provides for the immediate return of children abducted from their "habitual place of domicile." In July of 2011, Russia joined the convention. This is the first case to come up in Russia after the convention came into force in October 2011. So far it seems that the Russian Foreign Ministry is supporting international child abduction instead of honoring the treaty it signed and has turned a blind eye to the human rights at stake here. The father, family and friends have been denied access to the children; the children's education has been interrupted, and that's cruel.
The safety of the children needs to be made a priority.
Given the Italian courts' allegations against Ms. Grin of mental instability, all of this took on a sense of urgency on Nov. 21, 2011 when, in a parallel story, Elke Mellersh left her husband with her two children and fled from England to Turkey, where she also claimed to be protecting them from the father. She, too, found refuge in local Turkish media, which sensationalized rather than verified her story. The story ends with Elke taking her delusions of protection to the extreme, killing herself and the two small children.
Do laws in countries matter? Do laws between countries matter? I would argue that they do now with the new permeability of borders caused by a shift from the analog to the digital more than ever. So while the concept of citizenship remains blurry to me, one thing that would make it clear, and would also be a sign of healthy democracy would be if the children were returned to their home in Italy and reunited with their father, friends, family and classmates in accordance with Italian law, Russian law, and international treaty.