On February 24, while Ukrainian protesters were still reveling in their victory over corrupt pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, eight Russians stood in a Moscow courtroom to hear their sentences in a blatant show trial stemming from the last of Moscow’s massive street protests two years ago. Seven men convicted on trumped-up charges of rioting and assaulting police officers during a May 6, 2012, march toward Bolotnaya Square—their crimes, by all credible accounts, consisting of either minor acts of resistance to rampant police brutality, or mere presence at the rally—received sentences of two and a half to four years in a penal colony; the lone female defendant got a suspended sentence.
Defending this outcome in a radio interview the next day, government lawyer Mikhail Barshchevsky invoked events in Ukraine, where, he claimed, the government fell because it failed to properly back up its police forces. The harsh sentences in the Bolotnaya case, Barshchevsky argued, had less to do with the defendants themselves than with sending a “message” from the state to the security services, the siloviki: “We’ve got your back.” It is not too much of a stretch to suppose that the message was also directed to anyone harboring fantasies of a Russian version of the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square and the site of the protests that toppled the Yanukovych regime: Don’t try this at home, kids.
While the Russian opposition viewed the revolution in Kiev as a source of both envy and inspiration, the Kremlin’s nervous response to these events was undoubtedly driven by domestic as well as international concerns. It is important to keep in mind that an earlier wave of Maidan demonstrations—the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, which forced the reversal of an election stolen by Yanukovych—had a great deal to do with shaping Vladimir Putin’s mindset. Apparently genuinely convinced that the protests were the work of Western and particularly American plotting, Putin became obsessed with the “orange threat” at home. In Kremlin propaganda, “orange”—meaning “foreign-backed subversive”—became a common slur against the liberal opposition, particularly in 2011-2012 when the opposition actually managed to bring almost Maidan-sized crowds into Moscow’s streets and squares.
A new Maidan triumph in Ukraine surely ranked among Putin’s worst nightmares. That alone seems to portend stepped-up repression against what’s left of independent politics, civic life, and media in Russia.
The sentences handed down to the Bolotnaya defendants are one likely sign of such a crackdown. Somewhat paradoxically, the case also galvanized some of the largest protest rallies Moscow has seen in the past two years, with thousands gathering outside the courtroom; one demonstrator wore a Putin mask and held a sign that read, “Let’s lock up everyone!” But it also generated the biggest wave of detentions since the Bolotnaya events: 230 peaceful demonstrators were dragged into police vans on the morning of February 24 outside the courthouse where the sentencing took place; more than 400 were detained at rallies in downtown Moscow later that afternoon. Among those arrested and released were the two recently amnestied Pussy Riot activists, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina.
Several detainees, including former governor and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and blogger, activist, and recent Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny, received jail sentences of 7 to 10 days; Navalny was found guilty of resisting arrest despite a video, and testimony from two eyewitnesses, contradicting the charge. (After his release, Navalny was placed under house arrest in an unrelated, politically driven embezzlement case for which he is now awaiting trial; in a particularly blatant attempt to muzzle the activist, he has been banned from the Internet until April 28.)
The Ukraine crisis almost certainly provided the impetus for new measures against nongovernmental organizations—already required, under controversial 2012 legislation, to identify themselves as foreign agents and include a disclaimer to that effect in all their published materials if they receive any funding from abroad. On February 24, Putin signed an insta-law, enacted by his puppet parliament, expanding the government’s power to harass NGOs with investigations and surprise inspections to root out noncompliance with various rules, regulations, and prior official orders. A simple complaint of “extremism” or other misconduct brought by any entity—a government agency, a prosecutor’s office, a citizens’ group, or a private individual—will now trigger such scrutiny.
On the media front, Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio, one of the very few surviving broadcast media outlets that provide a platform for dissent, may be facing new threats. Since 2001, the station has operated under the primary ownership of Gazprom Media, an arm of the natural gas giant with close government ties. And despite initial fears of a pro-Kremlin takeover, its editorial independence has remained largely intact until now, perhaps as a showcase for media freedom. On February 18, however, Ekho’s Gazprom-controlled board of directors abruptly sacked its CEO and general manager, Yuri Fedutinov, and replaced him with Yekaterina Pavlova, a former producer at the state-owned Rossiya TV channel and more recently deputy chair of the pro-government radio station Voice of Russia.
The station’s editor in chief, Alexei Venediktov, who has held the job since 1998 and has managed to maintain a difficult balance between principle and compromise, told reporters that Pavlova’s appointment was a blatantly political move: With Ekho operating at a profit, there seemed to be no business-related reason for the change of leadership. Pavlova has pledged, for now, not to push for changes in programming. A big test of Ekho’s ability to continue as an independent voice will be whether the board of directors votes to keep Venediktov as editor in chief later this month. On March 2, Nemtsov wrote on his Facebook page that, for the first time ever, a blog post he made on the Ekho website became the target of censorship: He was asked to remove the phrase “fratricidal war” and a reference to Putin as “a vampire thirsting for blood” from a comment on the Crimea invasion.
The possible muzzling of Ekho is particularly alarming given the slow strangulation of Dozhd, Russia’s last TV news station that does not toe the Kremlin party line. The cable channel found itself under attack after running an online poll on January 26 asking whether Leningrad should have been surrendered to the Germans during World War II rather than face a blockade that cost a million civilian lives. The backlash was swift, and came not only from the blogosphere but from the government. Despite an apology from Dozhd, the St. Petersburg legislature filed a complaint seeking legal retribution against the channel, “possibly including its shutdown.” The State Duma passed a resolution condemning the poll; then, on February 11, it ordered an investigation into claims that Dozhd was offering illegal kickbacks to cable providers for offering it allegedly preferential treatment. Under pressure, one cable provider after another began to drop Dozhd from its lineup. In early March, the channel’s general manager Natalya Sindeyeva said that unless the situation changed, Dozhd would be off the air in a month.
Another alarming development was reported by Izvestia on March 6: The Duma will soon consider legislation that makes it a criminal offense to publish “deliberate falsifications intended to provide support for terrorism, intervention, extremism, separatism or genocide.” The author of the bill, Yevgeny Fyodorov, told the newspaper that his initiative was a response to what he regards as overly sympathetic coverage of the revolution in Ukraine.
With Russia poised on the brink of a war with uncanny echoes of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and with political repression on the rise, one can understand the concerns of independent journalists such as EJ.ru deputy editor in chief Alexander Golts, who wrote in his March 4 Moscow Times column, “I am afraid that when we wake up tomorrow, we will find ourselves in a different country. I even know the name of that country: the Soviet Union.”
Still, for now Putin’s Russia has space for dissent that would have been unthinkable in the USSR—and not just in the virtual space of the Internet. The President’s Advisory Council on Human Rights—which has no real power but does have a public voice—issued a statement condemning the use of military force in Ukraine, causing a very public split between the council’s liberal majority and its pro-Kremlin minority. The human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, has criticized the detentions of protesters at the Bolotnaya sentencing. And, remarkably, Andrei Zubov, a professor at Moscow’s prestigious State Institute of Foreign Relations who was asked to resign from his job after publishing a column that compared the Crimea incursion to Hitler’s Anschluss, was promptly reinstated after his dismissal received negative media coverage and drew protests from students.
Where do Russia’s internal politics go from here? That almost certainly depends on whether Putin escalates in Ukraine. At worst, a Russian war in the post-Soviet space might bring about a Soviet-style crackdown against domestic dissent. At best, things will revert to Putin-era “normal,” in which dissent is allowed as long as it poses no tangible threat to the regime.
Cathy Young is a columnist for Newsday and Real Clear Politics and a contributing editor to Reason magazine.