In Putin's Russia, anyone who opposes the Kremlin is treated as a threat, while those who commit political murder and violent attacks are left alone.
About a year ago, a gigantic banner was posted on Moscow’s largest bookshop. Written on the banner were the words “Fifth Column: Foes Among Us”. Above the words, five portraits were displayed: two rock stars, Andrey Makarevich and Yuri Shevchuk, and three political figures, Ilya Ponomarev, Aleksei Navalny, and Boris Nemtsov, all five known to be outspoken critics of the Kremlin’s policies. In late February this year, Nemtsov was shot to death right next to the Kremlin. Although several suspects have been arrested, there is no clarity as to who wanted him dead and why. But in Russia, Nemtsov and other opponents of Vladimir Putin’s regime are the ones widely seen as a threat to Russia, not those responsible for political murder, violent attacks, and open threats against members of the “fifth column’’.
The bookshop where the banner was raised is located on the Novy Arbat, a road that many top-ranking officials take every day to get to the Kremlin. Putin’s motorcade regularly goes along the same route. So, the street is swarming with police and security men. It remains unknown who posted the banner, but whoever it was, they could not have gone unnoticed. There can be virtually no doubt that they acted with the approval (or even on the instructions) of somebody with high authority.
Aggression towards the “fifth column” has never been as intense as it has been in the past year.
Public vilification of the Kremlin’s opponents is nothing new in Putin’s Russia. For years, those who have spoken out against the regime have been the targets of insulting collages displayed by pro-Kremlin youths at their summer camp, of smear campaigns and pseudo-documentaries on national TV channels, as well as of aggressive rhetoric from government officials and loyalists. But aggression towards the “fifth column” has never been as intense as it has been in the past year, throughout which televised defamation has been poured forth in an unending stream and the hate clichés of TV propaganda have spilled over to fill the web.
Based on focus group studies and on research on the Russian web, Russian sociologists Lyubov Borusyak and Aleksey Levinson register “a powerful rise of hatred toward the ‘fifth column’”. They say that, in the eyes of the general public, those perceived to be of the “fifth column” have become a major enemy, even worse than the evil America.
In the eyes of the general public, those perceived to be of the “fifth column” have become a major enemy, even worse than the evil America.
The jingoistic TV propaganda that followed the annexation of Crimea enabled the Kremlin to win over some of the radical nationalist groups previously opposed to the government. Sova center, a nongovernmental organisation that studies nationalist movements in Russia and monitors human rights violations, observed a “rise in politically-motivated violence” including “attacks of pro-government nationalists” on those whom they regarded as the “fifth column”.
Those in charge of enforcing the law have demonstrated a policy of zero tolerance towards public expressions of disagreement with the Kremlin, especially its Ukraine policy. In various regions of Russia, activists have commonly been detained by the police for even the slightest public action. Mere verbal expression can be a reason for harassment, if law enforcers deem it to be “pro-Ukrainian” or “anti-Russian”.
To take one recent example of this “zero tolerance”: in the city of Saratov, several young Russians, some of them teenagers, wore blue and yellow ribbons – the colours of the Ukrainian flag – at a government-organised rally to celebrate the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea (at the same rally, signs saying “Fifth Column, Get Out Of Russia” were naturally also raised). One of the participants, a 14-year old girl, was summoned for questioning by local state security officials (as a minor, she was accompanied by her parents). In an interview with online publication Iod, the girl, who would not give her name, said she had been pressured to tell the officials who gave the ribbons to her and others and to admit that they had been paid for wearing them. But this was not true, the girl said: they wore them as a protest against brutality and propaganda and out of genuine support for Ukraine. She added that the state security threatened to punish her family with a fine of many thousands of roubles.
The people who express hatred towards the “fifth column” routinely get away with threats and violence.
The people who express hatred towards the “fifth column” routinely get away with threats and violence, and their mass public actions are readily authorised by the government. In late February, an “anti-Maidan march” was staged in downtown Moscow with the government’s active assistance. The march’s stated agenda was the struggle against Russia’s “internal enemy” and about 35,000 people took part.
Before that, Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, openly threatened Alekey Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of popular radio station Echo of Moscow. Kadyrov accused the journalist of taking an anti-Islamic and anti-Russian stance: “Russian Muslims,” he said, “will not forever tolerate the excesses of Venediktov and Co.”
All the men arrested on charges related to the assassination of Boris Nemtsov are from Chechnya. The main suspect, according to the investigation, is Zaur Dadaev, who previously served as deputy commander of an elite police unit loyal to Kadyrov.
The Kremlin has looked the other way on Kadyrov’s brutal methods and the abominable human rights record in his region.
After two atrocious anti-secessionist wars in Chechnya, which was also a black hole of terrorism until the mid-2000s, the Kremlin has relied on Kadyrov to keep his territory reasonably peaceful. The Kremlin has looked the other way on Kadyrov’s brutal methods and the abominable human rights record in his region, and Chechnya has been the recipient of generous allocations from Moscow. For his part, Kadyrov has pledged ardent allegiance to Putin. About two weeks ago, he wrote on his Instagram page: “I am forever [Putin’s] faithful comrade-in-arms […] To give [my] life for such a man is the easiest thing.”
Kadyrov enjoys a degree of autonomy accorded to no other Russian regional leader. In Chechnya, his will and his decisions matter much more than Russian laws. Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian siloviki, writes: “The more than 20,000 so-called ‘Kadyrovtsy’, the Chechen security forces, are notionally part of the national Ministry of Internal Affairs structure, but in practice swear a personal oath to Kadyrov. He himself selects their commanders and issues their orders.”
Over the years, those who got in Kadyrov’s way – journalists, human rights activists, his rivals and enemies – have been mysteriously assassinated, in Chechnya, in Moscow, in Vienna and Dubai. Kadyrov has invariably remained beyond legal suspicion. When a prominent human rights activist dared suggest that Kadyrov bore responsibility for one of those murders, the Chechen leader sued him for defamation.
Whether or not Kadyrov or his men were indeed involved in Nemtsov’s assassination remains a matter of conjecture and rumour.
Whether or not Kadyrov or his men were indeed involved in Nemtsov’s assassination remains a matter of conjecture and rumour. Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that some among the security elites have long been outraged by Kadyrov’s free rein and that there have been serious tensions between them and the head of Chechnya. A report by Bloomberg claimed that Putin was “furious” when he heard about Nemtsov’s assassination and that his relations with Kadyrov “soured”.
Meanwhile, as the government continues to harass and intimidate the “fifth column” and to pit the pro-Putin majority against this non-violent, politically impotent, semi-suffocated “enemy”, a real danger to the Russian state and society is rapidly rising. Analysts in Moscow are warning about the “privatisation of violence”. Russia is turning into a “confederation of mafias”, prominent Moscow analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said in an interview. “It’s not clear who’s killing in each particular case, whether it’s Kadyrov’s people, or [state security] people, or whether somebody else has come out with a private initiative,” he added. “The state as a system of institutions has disappeared. It has been privatised by certain groups who have executed violence at their own discretion.”
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.