Russian police today detained critics of President Vladimir Putin protesting against restrictions on freedom of assembly, Reuters reports:
Police seized opposition figure Eduard Limonov and several supporters who attempted to demonstrate on a central Moscow square without official permission to gather there. Some of the activists were hauled away minutes after they unfurled a black banner reading “Freedom of Assembly – Always and Everywhere!” and roughly shoved into police buses.
The arrests came a day after fifteen prominent economists issued an open letter warning the Kremlin that the “foreign agents” law targeting foreign-funded NGOs could undermine Russia’s economy.
“There has already been a period in our history when economic science and economic analysis was fully controlled by the state,” they wrote. “It is well known how it turned out for the Soviet economy.”
The recent “turn towards repression may not be a sign of Mr Putin’s strength, but rather of his fear and desperation,” the Economist suggests:
Some advisers say he is worried about instability and is doing as much as he can to eliminate anything or anyone that contributes to it. …What he does not see is that the biggest destabilizing factor of all was his own return to the Kremlin. In trying to hold the situation still, he destabilizes it further, forcing further repression.
Lacking a coherent ideology, the Kremlin is justifying itself by ratcheting up its confrontation with the West and its search for enemies within. It has partly succeeded: the number who believe that Russia has outside enemies has gone from 13% in 1989 to more than 70%, according to Levada. Nationalism, xenophobia and intolerance, once part of the political fringe, have become mainstream.
The highly-regarded Levada Center is the latest victim of the NGO law, after prosecutors informed the polling firm that it was a “political organization” because it “aimed at shaping public opinion on government policy” by publicizing its poll results.
“Every assault on civil society is a tragedy for Russia,” writes Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute:
Nongovernmental organizations are, first and foremost, schools of democracy, teaching personal responsibility, self-organization, peaceful dissent and compromise. Left in their rubble are stagnation, hatred and radicalism. Yet even among the myriad instances of this state-directed civil catastrophe in the making, the (likely fatal) assault on the Levada Center stands out.
“For a regime that seems determined to deny the country desperately needed institutional reforms because they involve democratization, the letter was a logical move. All manner of findings routinely reported by the Levada Center in the past few months have flat-out contradicted the official propaganda narrative,” writes Aron, the author of Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991:
One in five Russians, the center found, were considering emigration, with the rate skyrocketing to 44 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds and 36 percent among those 25 to 39. A majority of Russians (57?percent) said that that the Magnitsky Act … was aimed at those who “misuse power and violate human rights,” or at the “meretricious and corrupt Russian bureaucracy,” or at the country’s leadership that covers up the misdeeds of “swindlers and embezzlers.” …. The final straw for the Kremlin may have been polling data on Putin’s approval rating: It was at the lowest level in 12 years, Levada reported in January. Less than two weeks ago, the center found that if the presidential election were held this month, only 29 percent were ready to vote for Putin.
“In the past the Kremlin has shown little tolerance for political challengers,” The Economist notes:
But as Kirill Rogov, an opposition observer, notes, it largely limited its control to politics, manipulating elections and marginalizing the opposition. …. But faced with mass protests by civil activists and ordinary citizens, not politicians, the Kremlin is trying to extend its control to other areas, including the internet and even entertainment magazines which carry protest banners.
“The Kremlin is trying to destroy the infrastructure of the protest movement,” says Mr Rogov.
The widening crackdown on dissent has left his opponents asking: “Who’s next?” Reuters reports:
Liberal economist Sergei Guriev’s flight from Russia under pressure from state investigators has deepened the sense of alarm as the Kremlin broadens a drive to stifle dissent and quell protests that began in December 2011. Curbs on demonstrations, criminal cases against protest leaders and tough new funding rules for non-governmental organizations smack of the repression that accompanied stagnation under Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s, say critics.
Opponents say Putin is using strong-arm tactics to rebuild his authority, dented by the mass street protests, and note he has also sidelined aides who have fallen out of favor, including his political strategist Vladislav Surkov.
“Anyone dreaming of fighting (Putin) will be subject to the most severe measures,” said Sergei Aleksashenko, a former deputy finance minister.
Resistance by Russia’s elite would be crushed by a return of the communist-era choice – emigration or repression – he said, adding: “Everything will be built on his fears, manias and visions.”
The era of “managed democracy” is over, and Putin’s third presidency is fragile, beset by economic problems and relying more upon coercion than co-option, says a new report.
“The third Putin presidency faces falling popularity and widespread dissatisfaction manifesting itself in a broad but fragmented opposition to the Kremlin, and without the safety blanket of strong oil prices,” says Kadri Liik, author of Regime change in Russia, a publication from the European Council for Foreign Relations:
The most effective EU policies towards Russia will require more homework on energy security and anti-corruption initiatives. This would make EU members less vulnerable to Moscow divide-and-rule tactics.
The EU should not bargain domestic carte blanche on issues like human rights and democracy in exchange for cooperation on the Kremlin contributing to a realistic settlement over Syria and Iran.
Putin is ready to exploit European indecision and weakness on issues like granting visa-free travel. Europe must be strong, by combining resources to ensure representation at political court cases such as the trial of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Europe is already taking a more principled, outspoken stance than the Obama administration’s pragmatic approach, and there are three reasons why it is right to do, says The Economist:
First, holding back criticism may not in fact make Mr Putin any more helpful. It is true that the Kremlin can lash out in retaliation in specific cases or against particular countries. But more broadly Russia, like the West, pursues what it sees as its own interests. So it will co-operate on international terrorism….But it will not over Syria…. Indeed, Mr Putin’s rule at home has become increasingly bound up with his confrontational attitude towards the West in Syria and elsewhere (see article).
The second reason is that criticism can count for more than sceptics believe. Mr Putin and his cronies are not suddenly going to embrace liberal democracy. But they are conscious of their image (and assets) abroad and they like to be judged by Western standards. Mr Putin values his country’s international standing. Russia will chair the G8 next year and he plans a summit in Sochi. He badly wants the Sochi winter Olympics to be a success. He may not change in response to foreign critics but he is not impervious to them. ….
How the West can win
The third and most important reason is that the West should defend its democratic values in order to lend support to the opposition to Mr Putin. Opponents of autocratic governments everywhere are disheartened if they see the West pulling its punches or even embracing dictatorships. … One day change will come to Russia—as it will to Syria. When that happens, among the losers will be those who appeased or backed the dictators.
A post-authoritarian Russia also appears to be on the mind of the ruling elite which is “angling to make itself viable in a future when Putin is no longer the undisputed master of the Kremlin,” writes RFE-RL’s Brian Whitmore. “We see a lot of these survivalist tactics,” New York University professor and longtime Kremlin-watcher Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services, said on last week’s Power Vertical Podcast.
“Nobody is ruling Putin out now. But the sense is that he is no longer salvageable. The gamble that was the castling has failed…. What is the point of expending political capital to get on within the Putin system, if in fact the Putin system might not last long and when he himself doesn’t seem to have any great vigor or vision?”
But any post-Putin transition is unlikely to be pain-free, observers suggest.
“The negative image of pro-Western reformers in the 1990s makes a pro-Western program of change all but impossible to sell,” says The Economist:
The absence of an alternative may give Mr Putin comfort, but as Russia’s history suggests, it is also a sign of political fragility. It was the presence of Boris Yeltsin in the political landscape that ensured a relatively peaceful transition of power after the Soviet collapse. The lack of such a figure now raises the risk of the unexpected.
“Contradictions and injustices within the society are growing and instead of trying to resolve them peacefully, the Kremlin uses force, which makes a peaceful transition of power unlikely,” says one businessman.