The US today expressed its concern over fresh charges against prominent Russian blogger Aleksei Navalny in the light of further investigations of opposition figures and the trial of members of the Pussy Riot punk band (right).
“All of these developments raise serious concerns about the politically motivated prosecutions of the Russian opposition and pressure on those who express dissenting views,” said a statement from the US Embassy in Moscow.
Recent events suggest that Russia’s system of “managed democracy” is running out of steam, say analysts, and have left “apologists for the Kremlin … struggling,” according to one leading observer.
“The Russian regime’s dogged defense of the blood-drenched Syrian dictatorship, and its persecution of the Pussy Riot musicians for their stunt in Moscow’s main cathedral, display its nastiest hallmark: support for repression at home and abroad,” says The Economist’s Edward Lucas:
Putin’s return to power has eclipsed the liberal-sounding talk of his predecessor as president, Dmitry Medvedev. Russia’s leader has in recent weeks signed laws that criminalize defamation, introduce £6,000 fines for participants in unauthorized demonstrations, require non-profit outfits financed by grants from abroad to label themselves as “foreign agents”, and create a new blacklist of “harmful” internet sites. …
The regime is dropping even the pretense of liberalization. Instead – as the Pussy Riot trial exemplifies – it appeals to ignorance, prejudice and superstition. The Russian Orthodox Church, far from offering an alternative to the greed and bullying, complements it.
Putin’s aversion to punk goes beyond the particular style of protest favored by Pussy Riot. ….Mr Putin and the circles surrounding him at the top of the Russian state are allergic not just to blasphemous provocation, but to irreverence itself; their prickliness is triggered not just by genuine threats to their power, but by mere disapproval.
The charges against Navalny, the architect of the Rospil anti-corruption project “marks the beginning of a campaign of reprisals against the opposition,” said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the veteran head of the Moscow Helsinki Group.
“What wrong has Navalny done? Attended authorized rallies and openly exposed corruption on the Internet? I fear travel restrictions will be imposed on me, soon, since I am dealing with the Magnitsky case,” said the 85 year-old activist.
The Kremlin appears to be spooked by Navalny’s growing public profile.
While only 6 percent of Russians knew his name in spring 2011, 34 percent do now, according to the independent Levada Center polling group.
“You have to see the charges against Navalny in that context,” she said.
The Kremlin is pursuing the Pussy Riot prosecution even though a recent Levada survey found that 43 percent of respondents consider the likely jail terms of two to seven years as disproportionate, while only 17 percent support calls by senior Orthodox Church officials for harsh punishment against the Pussy Riot band.
The Pussy Riot case has sparked a wide-reaching debate on the Orthodox Church’s relationship with the state, writes the Guardian’s Miriam Elder.
“A strong source of opposition in Soviet times, the church has collaborated closely with, and benefited handsomely from, Putin’s regime,” she writes. “It is now believed to be one of the main landowners in Russia.”
[Church spokesman Vsevolod] Chaplin praised the growing closeness between church and state. “For the Orthodox believer, like for Muslims, of course the authorities and the church are understood as one thing,” he said. “Our ideal is the unity of the church and the authorities, and unity of the people and the authorities.”
“In this way, we are decidedly different from the west. I think attempts in the west to separate the spiritual sphere and secular sphere is a historical mistake,” Chaplin said. “Such a division is not characteristic to any civilization except the west.”
He denied the existence of corruption in the highest ranks of the Russian government and only criticized the authorities for one thing: not “speaking loudly enough” about western involvement in the growing opposition movement in Russia.
“The west gives its support to divide the people of Russia,” Chaplin said. “The west has to finally understand that we are different from western society, with its governmental, political and holy structures. The quicker they understand it, the better.”
The case demonstrates that the case for Russia’s sovereign democracy has lost any credibility it may once have had, say observers.
“Today’s system looks much more repressive than the one put in force a decade ago. Back then – though the Kremlin never admitted openly what it was doing – advisers and officials, on background, would lay out a pragmatic justification for ‘Putinism’,” writes the FT’s Neil Buckley:
The Kremlin needed to re-establish centralized power, they said, to end the chaos resulting from Russia’s deeply flawed 1990s attempts at democracy-building, and allow its economy to develop. Russia had to nurture a responsible, property-owning middle class that would not vote for communists or fascists…..As the screws were tightened, however, the appearance of multi-party competition was maintained in Russia’s infamous “managed” democracy.
The system’s economic underpinnings are also increasingly fragile, notes Lucas, author of Deception: Spies, Lies and how Russia dupes the West, which is one reason it has adopted an increasingly xenophobic political narrative:
But the more the regime denounces its foes as foreign puppets, the less persuasive its propaganda appears. Its business model is in trouble too: the gas price has plummeted thanks to the rise of America’s shale-gas industry. The oil market may be heading in the same direction. For a regime that survives by collecting and distributing the windfall gains of its mining industries, that is ominous news.
The humiliating chaos of life under Boris Yeltsin meant that Putinism enjoyed an early, if questionable, legitimacy based on the “assumption was that once society was ready, the screws would gradually be loosened, and democratic choice returned to the people, notes Buckley.
But this “benign interpretation of Putinism is becoming unsustainable,” as “Putin’s return further hollowed out Russia’s institutional framework, restoring overtly personalized rule.”
Putin has few strategic options available to him, analysts suggest.
“Many of those around him know that change is needed: more openness, more legality, more choice. But they fear what it would mean,” notes Lucas:
Opposition politicians, media and prosecutors, if unleashed, would feast on the regime’s past misdeeds. Tens of billions of dollars have disappeared into offshore bank accounts. Dozens of people have died mysterious deaths. The cupboards are packed with skeletons. Opening up Russia’s political system risks them falling into public view.
“For all its contempt for the West, Russia’s regime also feels cornered by it,” notes Lucas:
It sees the opposition at home, and pro-democracy movements abroad, as part of the same threat. Mr Putin does not want to share the fate of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya – or, closer to home, the Ukrainian leadership toppled by the “Orange revolution” of 2005.
Yet the Kremlin’s hostility towards the West “is still largely a one-way street,” he observes:
Western companies grovel before Mr Putin (he recently kept oil-industry chiefs waiting for hours in an airless room with no chairs; they uttered not a squeak of complaint).
Western governments largely ignore what their intelligence services tell them: that the regime in Moscow is a criminal syndicate, fuelled by a noxious ideology of paranoia and supremacy. But in public, politicians such as David Cameron bow and scrape to Mr Putin, hoping for a few crumbs of trade and investment. The West is far too cash-strapped to stand up to Russia, and the Kremlin knows it.
If the growing political opposition “continues to spring up, Hydra-like, Mr Putin may eventually face a challenge from within the leading group,” says Buckley:
If oil prices tumble and the economy stalls, some commentators believe he could yet face a Tahrir Square-like uprising….In the meantime, if cases such as the Pussy Riot trial are now necessary to defend the Putinist system, even one-time supporters may conclude it is no longer a system worth defending.
The Levada Center and the Moscow Helsinki Group are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.