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Fear and Loathing in Putin’s Russia

28 Jun 2021
By Dr Matthew Sussex
Alexei Navalny in 2013, photographer Evgeny Feldman / Novaya Gazeta sourced from Wikimedia Commons

A Moscow court decision  recently  labelled Alexei Navalnyi’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) an “extremist” group .  It is a new low in the Kremlin’s campaign to identify and sanction any person or group capable of challenging its rule.

With the exception of  “official” opposition parties, dissent under Putin is now so tightly sanctioned and regulated that for many Russians, expressing dissatisfaction is not worth the risks. The latest decision, coupled to a new round of repressive laws around foreign interference, reveal Russian politics to be little more than a charade in which carefully curated “selectorates,” which owe their positions to fealty rather than legitimacy, govern for themselves instead of their citizens.

Of course, it was hardly surprising that Navalnyi’s supporters would be targeted in the lead-up to this year’s Duma elections. His “smart voting” strategy – identifying anyone on the ballot who was not aligned with the Kremlin and voting for them in large numbers – was hardly a wholesale threat to United Russia as the party of power. But it did raise the potential for some awkwardly large protest votes, especially given the increasing unpopularity of a government that has struggled to bring COVID-19 under control and has presided over significant declines in real income. That is why in Russia’s phoney democracy, where maintaining the appearance of overwhelming public support has been a key instrument of regime control, Navalnyi’s strategy was viewed as more than a simply an irritant by a political elite united by the fear that Russians might express contrarian opinions en masse.

The decision to sanction Navalnyi’s foundation, as well as the circumstances surrounding his imprisonment, was etched in ironic symbolism, and typical of a regime which seems to delight in publicly trolling its adversaries. The reason for jailing Navalnyi in the first place – that he violated his parole by not seeking permission to leave the country – was symptomatic of that, given that Navalnyi was unconscious and being evacuated to Germany after being poisoned with a fourth-generation chemical weapon by individuals clearly linked to the security services.

After the court ruling, Putin signed the order banning donors, members, and leaders of “extremist” organisations from running for office for three to five years (a list which previously added the Jehovah’s Witnesses) on Navalnyi’s 45th birthday. The court itself deliberated behind closed doors, on the grounds that it would be examining secret information, leaving the verdict in little doubt.

The penalties for being a member of Navalnyi’s foundation, or even assisting it, are harsh. To be found guilty of recruiting members to his cause carries a jail sentence of eight years. Being convicted of organising activities for the FBK can lead to a maximum ten-year sentence. Mere “participation” in so-called extremism can land demonstrators in prison for six years of mandatory labour and a fine of up to one million roubles.

The Kremlin’s decision to crack down even further on Navalnyi was accompanied in March 2021 by changes to Russia’s foreign agent laws, which were already some of the harshest on the planet. Under the new rules, anyone who posts critical opinions of the government on social media and receives foreign payments can be branded a spy or traitor. Companies that fail to lodge extensive documentation about their organisation and activities can be closed and their employees imprisoned for five years.

Some of the most prominent Russian NGOs and media organisations – and in truth there are now few remaining – that can be classified as independent are subject to close scrutiny, fines, potential criminal charges, and closure. The list includes Memorial, the organisation set up by Andrei Sakharov to detail Soviet political repression, as well as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL.) Both had also previously been branded foreign agents in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Others included the news site Meduzha, which was forced in April 2021 to prominently display the term “foreign agent” to every page it published – using a font size twice the size of its usual content. And even if individuals associated with such groups escape formal punishment, they face informal social sanctions: eviction from their homes by landlords, inability to find work in critical fields like education, and ostracism from professional networks.

Rounding out its new moves towards complete totalitarianism, the Russian state has also cracked down on education policy, linking “anti-Russian propaganda” to existing legislation on hate speech. It obliges scientists, academics and teachers to seek government approval before making any agreement with a foreign education institution – which includes inviting guest lecturers from overseas. It deepens the government’s capacity to imprison and censure academics for treason, on the grounds of passing information to foreigners.

The only plausible answer to question of why the Russian government feels compelled to control the lives of its citizens so closely is that it fundamentally fears them. After all, it is not as though Putin and his regime need more power. As early as 2000, Putin inherited a “superpresidential” constitution from his predecessor Boris Yeltsin that allowed him to rule by decree, dissolve parliament, and decide the makeup of Russia’s constitutional court. Not content with that, he swiftly “strengthened the vertical” by cracking down on free speech in the era of the Yukos affair and punished many of Russia’s independent oligarchs. Alongside the employment of black PR against enemies of the government, and bringing the media almost completely under state control, meant that for a number of years dissent was occasionally tolerated in order to allow the public let off steam.

Not any more. Russia’s progressively tighter media laws, the regime’s paranoid fear of “colour revolutions” and meddling by Western intelligence agencies, and its wariness of any moves to challenge its authority are indicative of a government that sees itself as under siege, from both within and outside. And although they may be intended to provide symbols of unity and strength, they are ultimately anything but that. Increasingly sclerotic, ageing, and disconnected from its citizenry, Russia’s regime has now completely abandoned even the pretence of popular legitimacy. But in turning instead to the instruments most favoured by despots – oppression, punishment, and the exercise of raw political power – Russia’s regime may also have inadvertently exposed its brittleness.

Matthew Sussex is an associate professor at the Australian National University’s National Security College. His main research specialisation is on Russian foreign and security policy, with a particular interest in contemporary trends in armed conflict, especially information warfare, cyber security, “hybrid” warfare and in the evolution of propaganda. He has also served as president of AIIA Tasmania and as Associate Editor of the Australian Journal of International Affairs

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.