Putin’s shrinking circle shows return to Soviet politics



Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, has made no secret of his ambition to restore his country to what he sees as its rightful place among the world’s leading nations. He has invested considerable money and energy into building an image of a strong and morally superior Russia, in sharp contrast with what he portrays as weak, decadent and disorderly Western democracies, The New York Times reports, highlighting the poisoning of Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza and the killing of other Russian dissidents, including Alexander Litvinenko, Sergei Magnitsky (below) and Anna Politkovskaya:

Muckraking journalists, rights advocates, opposition politicians, government whistle-blowers and other Russians who threaten that image are treated harshly — imprisoned on trumped-up charges, smeared in the news media and, with increasing frequency, killed.

Political murders, particularly those accomplished with poisons, are nothing new in Russia, going back five centuries. Nor are they particularly subtle. While typically not traceable to any individuals and plausibly denied by government officials, poisonings leave little doubt of the state’s involvement — which may be precisely the point.

“The government is using the special services to liquidate its enemies,” said Gennadi V. Gudkov, a former member of Parliament and onetime lieutenant colonel in the K.G.B. “It was not just Litvinenko, but many others we don’t know about, classified as accidents or maybe semi-accidents.”

Recent trends point to continued stagnation, which is probably the best-case scenario for the Russian economy and Putin’s political system, notes William E. Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington:

The Duma elections may yet produce a surprise, as in 2011. But that appears ever more unlikely. Instead, Russia may well have to relearn a lesson that many thought had been definitively learned 25 years ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union: Elite competition is no substitute for real politics.

In a chilling epilogue to Mr. Kara-Murza’s ordeal, a warning (above) appeared in February on the Instagram account of Ramzan A. Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, The Times adds:

It showed Mr. Kara-Murza outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where he was speaking in favor of sanctions against Russia. He was in cross hairs, with the caption: “Those who haven’t understood will understand.”

As both countries prepare for elections this fall, US-Russia relations have played an important, and increasingly divisive, role in the U.S. presidential race, notes the Center on Global Interests:

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin’s ostensible mutual affinity has raised questions about the Kremlin’s influence on U.S. policies and electoral process. Meanwhile, Russia is preparing for its first parliamentary elections since major protests in 2011-2012, a barometer on Putin’s leadership moving toward 2018. What factors are Moscow watching in the American decision? How have geopolitics shaped the domestic debate in both countries? And what do these elections mean for the future of U.S.-Russia bilateral relations?

The Center on Global Interests is pleased to invite you to a discussion with M. Steven Fish, professor of political science at the University of California-Berkeley and Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the Council on Foreign Relations [and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy].


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