The Week In Russia: A Crackdown Changes The Landscape

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hunt for opponents real and perceived appears to roll on with no sign of a letup.  

The crackdown that intensified upon opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s return to Russia six months ago appears to be expanding ahead of parliamentary elections at summer’s end, with increasingly broad swaths of society in the crosshairs. The latest victims include a legal-aid organization and an independent media outlet whose investigations have irked the Kremlin.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

The Country Next Door

Lately, much of the talk about Russia has focused on Ukraine: There was President Vladimir Putin’s “paranoid new essay” about the neighboring country, followed by the U.S.-German agreement allowing the controversial Nord Stream pipeline — which will carry Russian natural gas across the Baltic Sea to Germany and bypass Ukraine — to be completed and begin operating without the immediate threat of sanctions.

And now, there’s also what Ukraine’s justice minister called Moscow’s “completely ridiculous" complaint against Kyiv at the European Court of Human Rights, which repeats Russia’s largely debunked narratives about matters including the Maidan protests that drove a Moscow-friendly president from power in February 2014 and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the war zone in eastern Ukraine that July. International investigators say a Russian missile shot down the plane, killing all 298 people on board.

Home Front

Back in Russia, meanwhile, Putin’s crackdown on opponents real and perceived appears to roll on with no sign of a letup, bleeding into an election season ahead of a September vote that may seem barren of promise for citizens hoping for change.

The victims include opposition politicians, human rights activists, civil society organizations, independent media outlets, lawyers, cultural institutions, and ordinary people — some in the crosshairs, others perhaps hit at random in what might be described generously as a severely lopsided melee.

In some ways, the crackdown appears geared to the September 17-19 elections to the State Duma, which is Russia’s lower parliament house and the chief conduit of legislation that, for many months now, has seemed to critics to be laser-focused on the aim of silencing dissent and increasing the Kremlin’s control.

The most prominent target has been Aleksei Navalny, the opposition leader and anti-corruption crusader who was poisoned in Siberia last August with a Soviet-designed nerve agent in what he charges was an assassination attempt by Putin and the Federal Security Service.

Following treatment in Germany, Navalny returned to Moscow in January, apparently hoping to fire up opposition to Putin and mount a meaningful challenge to the long-dominant, Kremlin-controlled United Russia party in the Duma elections.

Putin’s government moved fast and hard to gut that challenge, arresting Navalny upon arrival, violently suppressing the protests that ensued, and detaining thousands of people.

January To July

Navalny has now been behind bars for more than six months, and in that relatively short period of time — which is one-fifth of the time he has been sentenced to serve under what he and supports say was a patently absurd parole-violation charge stemming from a fabricated case — the landscape outside prison has changed substantially.

Navalny’s own organizations, including his network of offices nationwide, have been deemed extremist and outlawed — by a government that has worked hard lately to engage the Taliban in Afghanistan. Anyone who has supported them now faces potential prosecution, and many of Navalny’s associates are already being prosecuted — or have fled the country. And a law that Putin signed days before the extremist designation barred members of groups branded as extremist from seeking public office.

On July 21, a court extended house arrest for Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, for six months — an unusually long period of time — pending trial on a charge of violating coronavirus-related restrictions in connection with the January protests.

Others charged include Pussy Riot protest punk-band member Maria Alyokhina; Navalny’s brother, Oleg; and opposition politician and Navalny ally Lyubov Sobol, who has abandoned her bid to run for the Duma due to concerns that the extremism designation could put her campaign workers and sponsors in jeopardy.

The crackdown goes far beyond Navalny’s circles, however, and there are few signs that it will ease after the election.

In the past two weeks, the investigative reporting outfit Proyekt (The Project) and the legal-defense group Komanda 29 (Team 29) became two of the most recent victims of the crackdown.

Putin’s Paradox

In comments about the closure of Komanda 29, veteran opposition politician Lev Shlosberg suggested that the Putin administration has passed a point of no return.

“Everyone needs to understand: Human rights and freedoms are incompatible with the current authorities,” he said, contending that the government was on its way to creating “a gulag nationwide.”

The persistent clampdown appears to be aimed at increasing the Kremlin’s control over the country both in the short term, ahead of the Duma elections, and for years to come — certainly into and beyond 2024, when Putin’s current term ends but when, under a constitutional amendment he pushed through a year ago, he can seek reelection.

But Kremlin critics say there is little evidence that over nearly 22 years as president or prime minister Putin has managed to increase control over the authorities themselves — to reduce the corruption, corner-cutting, mismanagement, and negligence that continue to hamper economic growth, put the populace at risk, and aggravate the effects of natural and man-made disasters.

All That Glitters

A glaring example of the kind of graft that government critics say flourishes was an announcement by federal investigators this week that they had uncovered a long-standing bribery scheme led by the top traffic police officer in the southern Stavropol region.

Members of the alleged corruption ring were accused of selling fake permits for drivers transporting grain and other cargo in the agriculturally rich region, and the allegations were highlighted by footage and photographs purportedly depicting the top traffic cop’s opulent mansion — including a bathroom with a gold-colored sink, toilet, and bidet.

On a broader level, wildfires — whose effects many Russians blame largely on poor planning and negligence — are ravaging swaths of Siberia this summer and hitting the vast Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, particularly hard.

Meanwhile, Putin’s government has struggled to convince Russians to get vaccinated and take other precautions against the coronavirus, encountering a massive lack of trust and other obstacles, including what critics say have been its own deeply mixed messages on the subject.

The slow pace of inoculations — officially, about 15 percent of Russians are fully vaccinated, compared to 42 percent in France and nearly 50 percent in the United States — has exacerbated a COVID-19 surge that has sent daily case numbers sharply higher and led to record death tolls in recent weeks.

NOTE: The Week In Russia will not appear on July 30. The next edition will be issued on August 6.

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