Tightening the noose: Putin’s stifling hold on Russia

Comment International Issues

Image Description: the Kremlin on a sunny day

On Sunday, prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was detained just minutes after he landed in Moscow, denied access to his lawyers and promptly jailed for 30 days. This marks a new turn in the messy spiral of Russian political developments that have taken place since his poisoning in the summer. The official reason behind the arrest is Navalny’s repeated failure to appear before the agency overseeing his ongoing suspended sentence — a ridiculous premise in and of itself, given the pandemic and the politician’s lengthy recovery. However, the deeper motivations behind this arrest shed a sombre light on what may yet be in store for the country.

[…] a new turn in the messy spiral of Russian political developments that have taken place since his poisoning in the summer

Navalny’s sentence, the aftermath of an embezzlement case declared by the European Court of Human Rights to be “arbitrary and unreasonable,” may now be replaced with real jail time of up to three and a half years. If this plan is carried through to completion, it will be the most successful in a string of attempts to silence the critic. These came to a temporary halt during his forced exile, but picked up the pace again when it became clear that Navalny was determined to return to Russia. Since December the threats to arrest Alexei, intended to keep him out of the country, have been a constant news topic in Russia.

The Kremlin, despite insisting that Navalny’s popularity rates are too low for him to constitute a potential threat, has proved desperate to silence him, and is prepared to go to frightening lengths to do so, as its actions over the years have repeatedly shown. This is hardly an isolated phenomenon. Many of Navalny’s allies have been in and out of custody for a long time, and some unlucky rank-and-file citizens have been given very real sentences for posting fairly innocuous anti-establishment content on (sometimes private) social media accounts, as the government’s crackdown on freedom of speech has been getting underway. These actions speak louder than any words – but words can add to the picture, too.

These past few months saw the Russian school of ad absurdum reach new heights. In the early days after the poisoning, the flurry of comments made by government officials, spokespeople and state-affiliated journalists were a mixture of lazy soundbites, and stand-up worthy riffs. One highlight was when Russia Today’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, advised Navalny to carry around a Raffaello, following rumours that his coma was induced by low blood sugar levels.

Even though some momentum from the event has since been lost, it never fails to bring new reasons for laughter, swiftly followed by horror. Navalny’s phone call with one of his alleged murderers, for example, revealed many curious details. After a recording of the call was uploaded onto YouTube, Navalny’s underwear was launched into immediate internet notoriety, in light of the FBI spy’s claim that he had been specifically instructed to apply poison onto the garment and wash it manually afterwards.

Putin himself has been a source of many memorable quotes, referring to his opponent exclusively as ‘the patient’ and a ‘blogger faded into irrelevance,’ in his annual news conference, three months after he infamously suggested that Navalny might have poisoned himself.

The theory that Putin was involved in Navalny’s assassination bid, now also supported by a recent investigation, has been made most believable by the Russian government itself. It has done an exceptionally poor job of concealing what looks more and more like the truth; in fact it has made almost no attempt to do this at all.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming the Russian government’s series of blunders on incompetence. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of truth to that. But, its comedic value aside, the show put on by the government seemed to serve a broader purpose. It has broadcast a loud and clear warning to potential dissidents, gift-wrapped in absurdity, but sinister nonetheless. A recent joke made by the president, claiming that Russia would have ‘finished the job’ if it had set out to kill Navalny, is just one manifestation of that.

The government’s aim in publicly persecuting Navalny and other critics seems to be two-fold. It seeks, firstly, to silence them and prevent them from tapping into the younger generations’ growing discontent with the state of affairs in the country. Secondly, it aims to make an example of those who are brave enough to speak out, nipping nonconformity in the bud.
The Russian regime has not yet resorted to the methods of political mass destruction that have been on vivid display for months in neighbouring Belarus – but nor have protests in Russia gained nearly as much traction. Should people take to the streets en masse, however, it’s hard to imagine that Putin will shy away from following in his long-time ally Lukashenko’s footsteps.

It aims to make an example of those who are brave enough to speak out, nipping nonconformity in the bud.

Navalny’s case has only illustrated what was already evident: that the transition to democratic institutions that many thought possible in 2008, when Putin seemed to loosen his grip on Russia as he stepped down after eight years in power, is all but a pipe dream. Now, over 12 years later, it’s painfully clear that his grip is only tightening — and so then is the noose around the neck of Russia’s development.

 

Image Credit: larrywkoester

 

 

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