Every news event in Russia precipitates a new round of questions, analyst Masha Gessen writes for the New York Times:
Did the murder of the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov signal the beginning of a new, more frightening era? Did it communicate something even worse than the murder of the opposition journalist Anna Politkovskaya portended in 2006? How bad are things, really?
……Frightening and heartbreaking as Mr. Nemtsov’s murder was for anyone who opposes Mr. Putin, it likely marks yet another step in a slow descent rather than a fall off the precipice. The last apparently political murder that produced similar feelings of despair and fear was that of Ms. Politkovskaya, and that was more than eight years ago. It is conceivable that years will pass before the next such murder. This awful calculation may be calming for a number of people.
“While Mr. Putin has done much to restore the ideological mechanisms of the totalitarian system, Russia is not run by means of total terror,” Gessen asserts. “It is, rather, a country that sounds like a totalitarian one when it speaks through its media, or even through most of its citizens, but has not yet squashed all public space and restricted all activity. Russians know — and some Russians actually remember — that things can indeed be much worse.” RTWT
Viktor Voronkov (above) has seen it all before. Arrested by the Soviet secret police in 1983 for disseminating dissident literature, he went on to play a major role in developing Russia’s civil society at a time when the authoritarian system he fought against was nearing collapse, Al Jazeera reports:
Today Voronkov, a 69-year-old sociologist, believes tactics reminiscent of that system have returned to haunt him. Branded a foreign agent under the government’s newly toughened law against foreign-funded NGOs, the Center for Independent Social Research (CISR), which he founded almost 25 years ago in St. Petersburg, has been drawn into a potentially crippling legal battle with the state…..
Almost all of Russia’s nonprofits opted to boycott the law when it came into force. A nationwide inspection of NGOs and advocacy groups that commenced in the spring of 2013, resulted in lawsuits by the Justice Ministry against those refusing to join the foreign agent registry. Among the groups that became involved in protracted legal battles were human rights group Memorial and election watchdog Golos, whose activity the state suspended that June.
The largest fine imposed under the law so far has been against the Regional Press Institute, another St. Petersburg-based nonprofit, whose declared aim is the “development in Russia of independent media able to become the basis of a stable democratic society.”
The stepped-up campaign against foreign-funded NGOs has left many such groups fearful of intrusive searches and unannounced inspections, the report adds:
One of them is the St. Petersburg Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, which provides legal advice to Russian army conscripts and first came under pressure when it began documenting reports of Russian deaths in Ukraine’s armed conflict. …After securing a government grant last year, the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee terminated all outside funding. That grant is set to expire in July, and director Ella Polyakova doesn’t know if it will be extended. Despite her position on the Kremlin’s Human Rights Council, she has been unable to fix the organization’s problems. Today she describes the Human Rights Council as little more than a symbolic discussion club, adding that directors of several other organizations now branded foreign agents are also on its board.
Complaining of mounting administrative and financial pressure, several St. Petersburg NGOs have sought assistance from the Human Rights Resource Center, one of a handful of organizations in Russia offering advice to nonprofits. On March 27 the center released a report, “‘Foreign Agents’: Mythical Enemies and Russian Society’s Real Losses,” which analyzed 41 cases of forcible inclusion on the state registry.
Another prominent observer agrees that Putinism is not an updated version of the Soviet Union, even though Putin famously has declared that the collapse of the USSR was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.
I do not find comparisons to the current crisis and the Cold War useful and do not agree that the latest situation is a “New Cold War”, says David J. Kramer, senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership:
The Cold War was a unique confrontation between two ideologically different powers, one being the Soviet communist system and the other the democratic West. The Soviet system collapsed and the western model prevailed. This is not to sound the trumpet of victory but to state the simple fact that when the Soviet Union fell apart and lost its satellites, it is impossible to deny that it lost the Cold War.
The current situation is more complicated, Kramer tells New Eastern Europe:
Putin’s ideology is to stay in power no matter what. He is willing to play the nationalist card to do so, if that suits his purposes, but he is more opportunistic when it comes to real Russian nationalism than a true hard-core believer. His talk about Russia as the protector of traditional values also seems contrived. It is more a play to Russian populism than a platform from which he espouses an alternative model.
Putin cannot afford to surrender power and has become a kind of hostage to his own system, adds Kramer, who previously served as the president of Freedom House as well as a former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor:
This is why he cannot tolerate real elections, serious opposition and criticism, or even the emergence of genuine civil society movements. Opposition to him, he believes, must be driven from outside forces and thus to deal with that threat, he has implemented the “foreign agent” legislation and is even considering new legislation that would enable authorities to close down foreign organisations operating in Russia that are deemed “undesirable”. Putin refuses to believe that populations either in Russia or in neighbouring states are able, on their own, to rise up and demand better, more accountable governance. RTWT
For Voronkov of the CISR, the foreign agent branding represents a major existential obstacle for many civil society organizations:
He has appealed the CISR’s status, citing a clause in the 2012 law that lists research among several fields excluded from the definition of political activity. But he and his 25 colleagues at the CISR are not optimistic. As they anticipate the court ruling, they are beginning to adjust to what Voronkov calls the “yellow star” on their shoulder, referring to the badge Nazis required Jews to wear during World War Two.
“In the Soviet Union criticism was banned, and powerful repressions took place. Now we’re gradually heading in that direction. Back then, we didn’t even imagine we could be free, but in the ’90s we tasted real freedom. What makes today worse is that we’re moving to fear from the freedom we knew,” he said.