In search of Russia’s elusive repression strategy


This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum

Repressions and human rights abuses in Russia, happen for other, myriad reasons besides Kremlin policy and those reasons will still need to be addressed, no matter who sits in Moscow. 

In late February, opposition activist Ilya Yashin presented a damning report on the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the litany of abuses committed in his de-facto fiefdom, accusing him of everything from embezzlement to murder and torture. Yashin requested an audience with Kadyrov and, according to the published request, he pointed to a direct connection between last year’s murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Kadyrov’s administration.

The report preceded a curious situation: On February 27, the anniversary of prominent Putin critic Boris Nemtsov being gunned down just steps from the Kremlin, a 24,000-strong demonstration proceeded through the streets of Moscow unfettered. It was not just a demonstration to express defiance, but also one simply indicating that people are no longer afraid.

These events underlined a certain paradox which lies at the heart of questions over whether Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has a coherent strategy of political repression and what that strategy might be. Is there a logic to a situation where opposition figures are gunned down mere steps away from the Kremlin and where bloggers are given jail terms for reposting something on a social network; where tens of thousands of people demonstrate against the Kremlin, where Yashin is not prevented from presenting his report, and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny is prevented from releasing a high-quality documentary detailing corruption allegations against Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika?

The character of the Kremlin’s regime in the last two years – and, in some ways, the kind of “precision repressions” it has resorted to in the past – run at odds with the kind of regime that the Kremlin is (hybrid-authoritarian, authoritarian or even dictatorial, based on some elements). Dissent is not exactly prevented, but any assortment of terrible things may happen to anyone as a result of their political activities, or even as a result of simply existing. This is an unnerving situation for the individual citizen. The burden of establishing what is forbidden and what is permissible is taken from the domain of the state and placed squarely on the subjects of that state. It is essentially a repressive regime that has become so lazy as to have most of its citizens repress themselves.

The most interesting question is to what extent this state of affairs is manufactured by the state, and indeed, deliberate. From the standpoint of cui bono, it is easy to argue is that the Kremlin, by allowing the Nemtsov investigation to stall, has implemented selective terror as a matter of policy in order to silence some of its most daring critics and to keep the rest in a state of fear. But an actual look at the policies, actions and inaction coming out of the Kremlin and its repressive apparatus do not indicate the existence of a coherent repressive policy. If there is a terror, however mild or selective or even theatrical, there is little evidence of a strategy or policy, based on what we know of how Russia is governed. To understand the nature of Russia’s policy of repression is – if indeed there is one – we must separate the legal and extrajudicial spheres.

Repression in the legal sphere

In Russia there is no censorship and political activity is not forbidden, but however flimsy the rule of law may be in modern Russia it is nevertheless a force to be reckoned with given that the law is what Russia invokes when meting out repression. Broadly speaking, unlike the Soviet Union where the state held a monopoly on the media, there are no legal mechanisms to prevent, de jure, the presentation of Yashin’s report or Navalny’s film about Chaika. Instead there are laws that crack down selectively – and often randomly – on the wrongdoer after the fact.

Aside from trumped-up charges for arcane economic crimes, which are mostly used against prominent dissidents, the most widespread legal mechanism to crack down on dissent among rank-and-file activists is article 280 outlawing calls for extremist activity and article 282 on inciting religious, ethnic or other kinds of hatred, as well as a handful of other recently introduced laws, like those banning calls for separatism and insulting religious feelings. It was under this kind of legislation that Tatar activist Rafis Kashapov was jailed for three years for publishing articles that denounced Russia’s annexation of Crimea on the Vkontakte social network. Under the same legislation, a single mother was sentenced to one year of community work for reposting pro-Ukrainian articles on Vkontakte. When publicised by the mass media, these selective persecutions serve to frighten others and create an environment of pervasive self-censorship. According to Memorial, the number of political prisoners in Russia has now risen to 50; this is 50 too many. Yet the number is hardly indicative of a robust repressive strategy when more high-profile dissidents like Alexei Navalny and Ilya Yashin remain free (albeit harassed and threatened). More to the point, the chances of being politically repressed in Putin’s Russia are miniscule when compared to becoming a victim of corruption. Even Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, the same man implicated by Navalny for his family’s ties to organised crime, said in 2014 that 14,261people were wrongfully jailed over the previous three years (for full disclosure it should be noted that Chaika blamed his long-time rival agency, the Investigative Committee). And according to the Russkaya Ebola project, at least 197 people died in Russian jail cells and detention centres in 2015. The climate of fear that liberal protesters demonstrate against, and which has undoubtedly grown, has more to do with human rights abuses perpetuated by chaos and corruption than it does with deliberate government-instigated political repression.

Extrajudicial repression

Forces outside of the legal sphere play a more serious and problematic role in repressive actions. The murders of prominent Kremlin critics like Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Nemtsov do more to instill a climate of fear than trials of political activists, and, as Yashin has pointed out, the fact that investigations into such murders almost always stall paves the way for more attacks. This pattern, which has persisted throughout Putin’s tenure, but actually predates him well into the Yeltsin years, raises an important question about the extent to which the government has outsourced the extrajudicial intimidation, harassment and even murder of its critics to powerful individual actors. If we are to glean anything about how this pattern works, the best we have on display is the drama around Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov over the last year. Security officials close to Kadyrov have been implicated in a number of killings, most notably that of Nemtsov, and Kadyrov himself has openly called for the persecution of Putin critics as traitors, evenposting an Instagram photo of Mikhail Kasyanov as a sniper’s target, with the cryptic inscription “Whoever hasn’t understood will understand”.

Outsourcing implies deliberate and cohesive intent, a strategy to use proxies to silence high-profile critics, yet the kind of conflicting initiative witnessed in the Nemtsov probe is suggestive of anything but. Initially, there was some indication of a robust investigation of links between the five Chechens arrested in the wake of Nemtsov’s murder and officials close to Kadyrov. But after the replacement of a prominent detective, the investigation stalled. The change came amid suggestions of mounting tensions between federal law enforcement, particularly the FSB, and Kadyrov.

Mark Galeotti has described Kadyrov as an exception that proves the rule about Russia’s repressive apparatus. Under a web of unspoken understandings, activists of lower rank are fair game, while foreigners and prominent figures, such as Yashin and Kasyanov, are untouchable. Yet the murder of Nemtsov and its aftermath is not just an exception that proves the rule; it is a case that proves that the Russian government’s system of understandings itself is unenforceable. The likelihood that the Kremlin will keep Kadyrov despite his suggestions that he may resign is thus not necessarily a validation of Kadyrov’s role in hounding Putin critics, but rather an indication that, as Sam Greene has argued, there is no one to replace him with.

The significance of intent

From the standpoint of responsibility, blame, or, ultimately, ethics, the question of intent – i.e., whether those in the Kremlin actually want bad things to happen to their critics – is largely unknowable and in many ways irrelevant. Putin presides over a country where such things happen and where law enforcement fails to punish the perpetrators, and it is he that is morally responsible. But the question of intent does matter if one is seeking to identify a coherent policy, because a coherent policy can be changed at will with varying degrees of effort. The current Kremlin may very well benefit from a climate of fear that helps keep the masses in line, and that may be the reason it not only tolerates but promotes this climate. Yet to a large extent many of the forces that perpetuate it are not exactly under the Kremlin’s control. Repressions and human rights abuses in Russia, in other words, happen for other, myriad reasons besides Kremlin policy and those reasons will still need to be addressed, no matter who sits in Moscow. 

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