The last ten years have witnessed the erosion of Russia’s democratic institutions, but “an important line was crossed” this summer, writes Yuri Dzhibladze.
Following the recent passage of new repressive laws, Russia “is no longer a democratic state – not only in essence, but formally.” Contrary to Kremlin pretensions to be developing sovereign democracy, “the authoritarian nature of the current political system is acknowledged to be a denial of democracy.”
The new NGO law, for example, is designed to stifle civil society, imposing on NGOs “an intolerable burden of financial reporting and inspections, and demanding of organizations involved in the defense of human rights and in education that they describe themselves as ‘foreign agents’, which in Russian means ‘spies,’” writes Dzhibladze (above), founder and president of the Moscow-based Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights:
Putin’s obsession with the supposedly important part played by human rights NGOs in organizing the [winter’s Snow Revolution] protests (using foreign money), their mythical ‘unacceptable meddling in politics’ remain on the whole a mystery. The analogy with the ‘colored revolutions’ could have something to do with it. Whatever the case, NGOs were actually not involved at all in organizing the protests of winter 2011 and spring 2012, just as there was no ‘orange threat’ some years ago, with NGOs or without them. Times have changed and the civil society leaders – or at least that part of civil society which protests loudly against the existing order – are no longer the traditional NGOs, but the informal public movements and the ‘disgruntled citizens’ united by social networks.
“The genius of Putinism has always been its ability to keep the apolitical masses ignorant of or apathetic about the regime’s opponents, while at the same time eschewing mass arrests,” writes Anne Applebaum, director of political studies at the London-based Legatum Institute:
Putin understood this very well: The modern elite Russian doesn’t want to live in a pariah state, and he doesn’t want to be cut off from the outside world. He might not care if his foreign friends think Russia unpleasant, but he isn’t keen to be compared to North Korea either. Putin’s solution was to keep the pressure on serious opponents while studiously ignoring those he deemed unserious.
But the jailing of the three members of the Pussy Riot punk band may represent a watershed, she suggests, even if their Western celebrity backers like Madonna have “never expressed before much interest in Russia and certainly not in the persecution of Russian women,” such as human rights activist Natalia Estimerova, who was murdered three years ago in Chechnya, or investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, killed in 2006:
The fate of three fellow pop stars, however, is clearly different — and it is precisely that difference that poses an unusual challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although it is often assumed otherwise, Putin’s regime has long permitted political dissent — so long as it appeals only to a small elite. Although most television stations are controlled in one way or another by the Kremlin, a few low-circulation newspapers have long been allowed to keep up some criticism.
Some observers believe the Pussy Riot prosecution may rebound to the Kremlin’s disadvantage.
“This can provide a new signal that will trigger a fresh wave of protests,” said Moscow-based analyst Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a member of the ruling United Russia party. “The opposition has united, organized itself and grown in numbers. They are fighting for power, for real changes. This is very dangerous.”
But there was a reason why the “more far-sighted opposition leaders” kept their distance from Pussy Riot, writes editor and novelist Leonid Bershidsky.
“They hope someday to win public office in a deeply conservative country,” he says:
In a poll taken by the Levada Center, 44 percent of respondents said they thought the Pussy Riot trial was “fair and just” — this despite the judge’s unvarnished bias in favor of the prosecution. Some 52 percent of the population still supports Putin’s policies, and it was Putin’s electorate that demanded harsh punishment for Pussy Riot in the first place.
“Most people get their information from TV, so they either know nothing or buy the official version,” said Levada Center director Lev Gudkov. “This is a very aggressive society that needs clear rules of behavior and dogmatic, authoritarian enforcement of these rules.”
Former Kremlin insider and political technologist Sergei Markov reflected public opinion when he argued that Pussy Riot cannot be forgiven, writes Mikhail A Molchanov, a political science professor at St Thomas University.
“Pussy Riot’s sacrilegious performance was not just an affront to a particular group of parishioners; a good half of the population perceives it as spitting in the face to the whole nation still reeling from a series of catastrophes that started back in 1917,” he argues:
Fully 47% of those polled by the Levada Center in April believed that seven years’ imprisonment for Pussy Riot members would be an appropriate punishment for the act, while only 10% found no criminal content in the women’s actions.
“Opposition activist Vladimir Milov, writing on the website gazeta.ru, warned that the Pussy Riot trial could serve to deepen the chasm between the liberal opposition and the rest of Russian society,” Bershidsky notes, while anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, expressed similar concerns, describing Pussy Riot’s action as “despicable” in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel:
For Navalny, the Pussy Riot case is an uncomfortable subject because, like Milov, he believes the Kremlin has used it to divert attention from the opposition’s true cause — to end what it sees as a corrupt and illegitimate regime. The Kremlin “succeeded in taking the conflict between the government and the opposition movement and obscuring it behind the confrontation between the Church and the opposition,” he said.
“According to Levada Center data, by the middle of August 2012 people were significantly less willing to take part in demonstrations,” he notes, while “some NGOs have announced that they feel compelled to refuse funds from abroad.”
But there has also been the “opposite reaction” of defiance and resistance by a revitalized civil society.
“Active participants in protest rallies on the one hand, and human rights organizations on the other, have for the last month been engaged in discussing reaction strategies,” Dzhibladze observes:
They make no secret of the fact that they consider the new laws anti-constitutional and unlawful and, in the case of the ‘foreign agents’ law, also absurd. Various activities are planned: from the legal, material and moral defense of certain activists and organizations (a strategy for preservation and survival) to campaigning for an open boycott of the unlawful laws (a strategy for defending the supremacy of the law).
Nevertheless, the opposition will need to demonstrate “a greater degree of self-organization and social solidarity” than it has shown thus far:
100 or 500, rather than 5, NGOs must announce that they will not comply with an anti-constitutional law, and several thousands more must support them publicly. Hundreds, rather than scores, of courageous people will be needed to turn out without preliminary permission in defense of their constitutional right to peaceful assembly. Many passionate supporters of LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] activists will be needed to contribute their own money to a fund for the defense of activists and organizations being prosecuted, and barristers prepared to defend them on a pro bono basis. In the event of such a leap forward in civil self-organization, the government will find it very hard to apply the new laws as they had planned – selectively and for the purpose of instilling fear.
“The ‘constitutional coup’ of the summer of 2012 could, unexpectedly for its initiators, awake powerful forces of resistance,” Dzhibladze concludes. “The scenario is by no means as hopeless as it might seem today.”
The Levada Center receives support from the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.