The Week In Russia: Two Countries, Two Crackdowns

Pushing ahead with crackdowns: Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka on the Black Sea on May 29.  

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The Kremlin crackdown continued apace as State Duma elections expected at the end of summer draw closer, with the head of a civil society group that dissolved itself in a bid to spare members from possible prosecution being targeted anyway, among others. Meanwhile, Moscow dismissed Western criticism as Alyaksandr Lukashenka pursued his own harrowing clampdown in Belarus.

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

Airport Arrests

In Belarus on May 23, a MiG warplane intercepted a passenger jet on a flight between two European Union capitals after an alleged bomb threat widely dismissed as fake and escorted it to Minsk, where a journalist who had fled the country fearing prosecution was arrested.

Eight days later in St. Petersburg, Russia, a passenger jet taxiing for takeoff on a flight to Warsaw turned back and halted on the tarmac long enough for an activist and Kremlin critic to be taken off the plane and, likewise, arrested.

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Despite years of efforts by the Kremlin to rope Belarus into a tighter embrace, the Union State that Moscow and Mink have been developing for about a quarter-century still exists largely on paper.

But with state authorities in both countries cracking down hard on opponents real, perceived, and potential — and sweeping up countless citizens who may fit none of those categories in the process — they’re looking pretty similar these days, in some ways. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has supported Lukashenka’s actions so far, hosting him on the Black Sea on May 28-29 and dismissing Western criticism of the plane diversion as an “outburst of emotions.”

Crackdowns on the opposition and curbs on constitutional rights in both countries have been happening for years, of course, and the brutality of the crackdowns may differ in degree. But it’s possible to take August 2020 as the beginning of a new era in both Russia and Belarus, where continuing clampdowns are clouding the future for their citizens and eliciting the opprobrium of the West.

In Belarus, authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory in an August 9 election that opponents and Western governments contended was rigged — falsified to an even greater extent than previous votes that have kept him in power since 1994.

Large campaign rallies for his main opponent, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, transformed into even larger demonstrations against the official result — and Lukashenka responded to the unprecedented protests with a violent crackdown that persists 10 months later, generating accounts of torture and brutality on a regular basis.

‘Pressure Chamber’

The setting for one of these grisly incidents was a courtroom in Minsk on June 1, when caged defendant Stsyapan Latypau cut his own throat with a pen in an apparent suicide attempt after saying he had been told that he would be thrown in a “pressure chamber” cell and that his relatives and neighbors would be targeted for prosecution if he did not plead guilty.

Footage of Latypau handing out flowers at a rally on August 12, three days after the election, provided a heartrending contrast to the desperate courtroom drama this week.

The arrest of Raman Pratasevich and his partner, Russian citizen Sofia Sapega, following the diversion of a Ryanair Athens-Vilnius flight to Minsk, meanwhile, underscored the lengths Lukashenka is going to in his campaign to quash opposition and maintain power.

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In Russia, the arrest of Andrei Pivovarov does the same, highlighting the severity of a clampdown that has intensified since August 2020, when opposition politician Aleksei Navalny was poisoned in Siberia with a weapons-grade nerve agent in what he contends was an assassination attempt that he blames on Putin.

Pivovarov was pulled from an outbound passenger jet at Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg on May 31, four days after he announced that Open Russia, the pro-democracy group he headed, was dissolving itself to protect members and supporters from being targeted under legislation aimed at foreign-funded groups the state has deemed “undesirable organizations.”

Open Russia was registered in Russia after an organization with the same name, founded by exiled former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and registered in Britain, was designated an "undesirable organization" in 2017 and subsequently closed. Pivovarov and other activists from the Russian-registered organization say it was not formally related to the British-registered group, but the government has been treating it as "undesirable organization" anyway.

The accusations against Pivovarov stem from an August 2020 Facebook post in which he reposted a note from a liberal lawmaker in the southern Krasnodar region who was urging people to support opposition candidates in local elections. Prosecutors claim the repost constituted "carrying out the work of an undesirable organization."

It’s The Elections

Pivovarov, who could be sentenced to six years in prison if tried and convicted, told a court the charges against him are a "farce." He maintains that he is being prosecuted to prevent him from running in elections to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, which are expected to be held in September.

Supporters say the same about accusations against Dmitry Gudkov, a liberal former Duma deputy who was detained a day after Pivovarov and could be imprisoned for five years if tried and convicted on fraud allegations — which he, too, dismisses — stemming from an office-rental agreement dating back to 2011.

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Gudkov was released on June 3 without charge, but remains a suspect, authorities said. Gudkov’s father, Gennady Gudkov, who also faces potential charges, contends that the accusations are aimed at keeping him from returning to Russia from abroad and preventing his son from running in the elections.

The Duma elections also loom large behind what observers say is a campaign by the Russian authorities to neutralize Navalny and his supporters and associates across Russia. The vocal Putin foe, who turned 45 on June 4, survived the poisoning last August and is now serving a 2 1/2-year prison term on a parole-violation charge he says is absurd after being arrested at a Moscow airport in January upon his return to Russia following treatment in Germany.

An apparent effort to keep anyone linked to Navalny’s network of offices nationwide, his Anti-Corruption Foundation, and another organization he founded out of electoral politics advanced on June 4, when Putin signed a bill barring members and backers of groups labeled “extremist” from running in elections at any level. As a result of an ongoing court process, the three Navalny organizations may be tagged with that designation as early as next week.

Media outlets have also been targeted persistently both in Belarus and in Russia, where online aggregator NEWSru announced its closure on May 31, citing the political situation, and VTimes — an outlet created in 2020 by journalists who left the authoritative financial newspaper Vedomosti after its sale — did the same on June 3, saying it was “destroyed” by its designation by the state as a “foreign agent.”

‘Four-Letter Word’

Many analysts say the persistent crackdown stems from Kremlin concerns about the Duma elections, which in turn are stoked by worries about the deep unpopularity of United Russia, the party that dominates politics nationwide and is one of Putin’s main instruments of power across the country.

As the elections approach and United Russia’s ratings founder, “the view that this problem must be resolved in a radical fashion — by simply not letting anyone run — has prevailed” in Putin’s government, Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst and former Kremlin speechwriter, told the Siberia.Realities desk of RFE/RL’s Russian Service in an interview published on June 3. By “anyone,” he appeared to mean independents and others from outside the three “systemic opposition” parties that are widely considered to be part of Putin’s ruling apparatus.

But while the elections seem certain to be a major catalyst for the crackdown, there’s also a sense that it goes beyond electoral politics and into some other, broader realm.

“Feels like we are headed toward a situation in Russia where much of the non-systemic opposition of the past decade ends up in prison, in exile or shot,” Andrew Roth, Moscow correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian, wrote in a tweet that seemed to evoke the Stalin era.

Leonid Bershidsky, a Russian journalist and commentator now based in Germany, wrote that when he decided to translate the novels 1984 and The Trial into Russian, “I meant it as a warning to compatriots. But it ended up as more of a running commentary.”

“Either I worked too slowly or reality copied Kafka and Orwell too fast,” Bershidsky wrote on Twitter.

And Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, suggested that the current situation could be summed up with an expletive.

“I was considering writing a column about recent events, but I’m not quite sure how to stretch four letters into 800 words,” he tweeted on June 3.

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