“People are scared”: Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on the Russian opposition

Russia’s latest wave of arrests and media restrictions signals a new willingness to repress opposition ahead of September’s legislative elections. 

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In June 2019 Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist working for the Latvia-based news site Meduza, Russia’s most popular independent media outlet, was arrested on drugs charges widely viewed as fabricated. 

Uproar was immediate. The great and good of Russia’s cultural scene lined up to demand Golunov’s release. Overnight, Russian Facebook profiles adopted bespoke, pro-Golunov avatars. The country’s three largest newspapers – all, to varying extents, loyal to the Kremlin – printed identical front pages demanding the charges against their colleague be dropped. Within five days he was free and five police officers involved in his arrest were dismissed.

It was one of a series of muscle flexes by Russia’s civil society that year. From halting an unpopular church building project in the Urals, to blocking plans for Arctic landfill sites, to slashing United Russia’s majority on Moscow City Council, the Russian opposition in 2019 scored minor win after minor win. In those heady days, the country’s liberals could convince themselves that something big really was about to happen.

Last week, almost two years later – even as state prosecutors demanded 16 year jail terms for the former police officers who allegedly framed Golunov – Meduza, his employer, was officially designated by the Russian state as a “foreign agent”. 

The designation, under which Meduza editors must preface every public statement with an acknowledgement of its status or risk prison, could have been designed to kill the site. For the hardliners and security service veterans now widely believed to be on the rise within the Kremlin, that was the whole point, wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, a well-connected political analyst on the messenger app Telegram.

Meduza was only the biggest victim of the new normal, however. Earlier in April, four journalists at the student newspaper Doxa were arrested and charged over making a video in support of student protesters. On 29 April, an ally of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for reposting a music video by the German metal group Rammstein in 2014.

[See also: What Alexei Navalny's jailing means for the Russian opposition]
 
Already, it was a crackdown unprecedented in Russia’s post-Soviet history, one that signalled a decisive turn for a Kremlin that had once limited itself to marginalising and harassing its critics. Now, read the unmistakable message, they were fair game. 
 
In the last week of April came the seismic blow. Moscow City Court suspended the activities related to Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), pending a ruling that will almost certainly see them declared “extremist”, a legal category shared by the likes of neo-Nazis and al-Qaeda.
 
In future, supporting any Navalny-related activity – financially or otherwise – could carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. On 29 April, Leonid Volkov  the Lithuania-based head of what is left of Navalny’s regional network – bowed to the inevitable and pre-emptively dissolved the political operation he had spent a decade building, in order to protect staff from being arrested.

***

On 21 April, at the protest Volkov had called to demand Navalny’s release from prison, it felt like the end of an era.

Everyone who showed up that damp Wednesday afternoon to a rally dubbed by its organisers as “the final battle between good and neutrality” knew they were there to go through the familiar routine one last time.

Only ever a small minority of Russians, Navalny supporters often seem to have found a sense of community in yelling their well worn slogans: “Putin is a Thief”; “Russia Will Be Happy”; and – more recently – “Release Him”. In Moscow, an estimated 15,000 people decided that one last hurrah in the company of like minded fellow citizens was worth the legal and physical risks of attending.

For some, the only way to celebrate the end of their movement was absurdity. One demonstrator prowled around the protest in stilettos and a gimp suit in the colours of the Russian flag. Another showed up in a knight’s suit of armour, his wooden shield emblazoned with the three letter acronym denoting Navalny’s organisation. 

Others, having watched rallies in Russia’s ten other time zones flop one after the other throughout the day, could hardly disguise their disappointment.

“People are scared,” a 21-year-old medical student told me hours after she attended the protest, as it became clear that turnout was lower than in January.

“I don’t think anyone was expecting a huge crowd to barrel around the corner at any moment.”

As it became clear the police were not going to mete out the sort of violence they had in January, the mood lightened a little. When a police officer’s overstrained voice audibly gave out over his loudhailer, the crowd cheered with something like sympathy.

In the following days, those flagged at the scene by Moscow’s state-of-the-art facial recognition surveillance systems started getting knocks on their doors.

***

Earlier that day, President Vladimir Putin had delivered his annual state-of-the-nation address to the gathered elite.

Though there had been speculation that the much-hyped address would see Putin announce the annexation of Belarus or the recognition of the breakaway statelets in the Donbass, the speech included few announcements of note for the international community, focusing on social issues. There was more money for mothers, for students and for children. There were subsidies for children’s summer camps and low-interest loans for hotel builders. There was a plea to take advantage of Sputnik V’s wide availability and get vaccinated against Covid-19.

It was a speech looking squarely ahead at September’s elections to the State Duma. With the ruling United Russia bloc – itself never having enjoyed Putin’s genuinely broad popularity – sinking to record polling lows, the Navalny movement had identified the vote as its last, best chance to land some blows on the system.

But with the opposition movement now crushed and the viability of “smart voting”, its much-discussed anti-Kremlin tactical voting project cast into doubt, it now seems likely that the Duma polls will become simply the latest outing for Russia’s exceptionally well-managed democracy. The president will make sure of that.

[See also: Why Russians still choose Putin's stability over Navalny's revolution]

Felix Light is a reporter with the Moscow Times, covering Russia and the former Soviet Union.

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