Learn the lessons of Russia’s creeping authoritarianism



A few hours before Vladimir Putin gave his 2014 new year’s speech, a shadowy group calling itself Shaltai Boltai — the Russian for Humpty Dumpty, the nursery rhyme character — beat the Russian president to it by posting the text online, The Financial Times reports:

“We’re always with you, even when you least suspect it,” the anonymous bloggers wrote. Such audacious leaks used against the Kremlin itself made Shaltai Boltai one of the leading exponents of the peculiarly Russian dark art of “black PR”, a cottage industry mixing fake news and compromising material, or kompromat, used to blackmail politicians and businessmen…

Now, after years of sparking intrigue and gossip among Kremlinologists by leaking top officials’ correspondence, Shaltai Boltai has been thrust into a wider spotlight by the arrest of its ringleader, Vladimir Anikeev in a murky case tied to treason proceedings against officers of the FSB, the Russian intelligence service. Russian press reports claim the FSB officers were Mr Anikeev’s handlers.

While Russia is using cyber-hacks and “weaponizing misinformation” to undermine Western democracies, the country’s civil society remains under attack, as the apparent poisoning of pro-democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza (right) attests.

In retrospect, Russians who lament the consolidation of Putin’s autocracy all say they reacted too slowly at the beginning, notes Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a Hoover fellow at Stanford University. They didn’t believe things could get so bad. They didn’t believe Putin would ever go as far as he did, he writes for The Washington Post:

Back in 2000, Putin had few allies within the state, and lukewarm support in society. He won his first election because of government support and weak opponents, not because of wild enthusiasm among voters for him or his ideas. Back then, important actors in Russia’s business class remained autonomous from the state, regional leaders also acted a check on Moscow’s power, independent media still existed and parliament still enjoyed some real power.

“Had these forces pushed back immediately against creeping authoritarianism, Russia’s political trajectory might have been different,” adds McFaul, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. RTWT

Russians see their obsession with the US as “a confirmation of their great power status” and as a guarantee of “Russian sovereignty,” goals they have not been able to achieve by any other means, analyst Lilya Shevtsova (left) says.

“The Kremlin isn’t able to legitimate its power status via a show of machismo toward China: that would be suicidal. And doing it only via frightening the neighbors is humiliating. For a convincing demonstration of our power and faith in ourselves, [Russians] need a relationship with the most powerful global force,” as long as it is ready to “ignore our antics” (HT: Paul Goble’s Window on Eurasia).


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