Russia: a ‘new authoritarian equilibrium’?


President Putin’s United Russia party represents the interests of organised crime, from the lowest rungs of local government to the highest echelons of power, according to an opposition report.

The 65-page report, entitled The Party of Criminal Russia, was written by Ilya Yashin, a former ally of Boris Nemtsov, the Kremlin critic shot dead near Red Square last year. Mr Yashin said that he hoped his report would result in United Russia losing votes in parliamentary elections next month.

“The bouquet of crimes associated with this party covers the entire criminal code,” Yashin said Tuesday in Moscow. “It’s not just about fraud and stealing, but also about other, much more serious articles of the criminal code,” he added:

In his 66-page report, Yashin offers a long list of United Russia members accused of involvement in – or even organizing – various high-profile crimes. They include Vyacheslav Gaizer, former governor of northwestern Russia’s Komi Republic, who was arrested in 2015 for operating a criminal group involved in the large-scale theft of state property; Alexander Khoroshavin, former governor of the Far Eastern Russian region of Sakhalin, who was also arrested last year for alleged large-scale embezzlement and bribe-taking; Said Amirov, the former mayor of Makhachkala, the capital of North Caucasian republic of Dagestan, who was sentenced last year to life in prison for murder and other crimes; and many others.

Local authorities are trying to silence even the mildest critics in advance of the September 18, 2016 election for the head, or governor, of Chechnya, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today:

The 56-page report, “‘Like Walking a Minefield’: Vicious Crackdown on Critics in Russia’s Chechen Republic,” describes how local authorities punish and humiliate people who show dissatisfaction with or seem reluctant to applaud the Chechen leadership and its policies. The report also details increasing threats, assaults, and detention of journalists and human rights defenders.

“Chechen authorities are tyrannizing critics and anyone whose total loyalty to the local leadership they think is questionable,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “Under the circumstances it’s very difficult to see how the election in Chechnya can be free and fair.”

Toward a New Authoritarian Equilibrium?

Despite the fact that the 2011 parliament remained loyal to the Kremlin, all elections are now risky moments for the regime, argues Vladimir Gelman, Professor at the European University at St. Petersburg and Distinguished Professor at the University of Helsinki.

Tightening the screws, institutional re-engineering, and more efficient top-down political control greatly assist in maintaining authoritarian equilibrium and legitimizing the status quo. Non-democratic elections also serve as a tool for the partial replacement of elites through careful selection and advancement of candidates by the Kremlin and its subordinates, he contends:

The Russian leadership’s upcoming victory in next month’s parliamentary elections will give it free reign going forward: at the moment, there are no domestic restraints other than increasing economic problems. With an eye toward the 2018 presidential election, the newly elected parliament could even turn into a major provider of constitutional change. A logical extension of Russia’s authoritarian trajectory would be the adoption of a new constitution stripped of declarations on individual rights and liberties, the primacy of Russia’s international obligations, and other such liberal statements (not to mention the removal of presidential term limits). After the expected restoration of authoritarian equilibrium this September, the Kremlin will be interested to further consolidate political and institutional arrangements that can help Russia’s leadership maintain its monopoly on power for some time to come. RTWT

In light of the countless transatlantic achievements since the end of World War II—the institutions and treaties that make up the liberal order, the policy victories in the areas of democracy and human rights, and the joint military missions around the world—making unity the first pillar of a new transatlantic strategy toward Russia may seem superfluous, argues Julianne Smith, senior fellow and director of the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for a New American Security. In truth, both sides of the Atlantic have lost sight of the importance of maintaining this unity, especially as it relates to Russia, she writes for the Task Force on U.S. Policy Toward Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia project.

Neither Europe nor the United States have dedicated much thought or significant resources to engaging the Russian public, she contends:

Some individual countries run exchange programs, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty continues its Russian-language broadcasts, but many of the programs in Europe and the United States designed to foster deeper dialogue haven’t been expanded or strengthened since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. In some cases, opportunities to engage Russians have actually decreased. Putin expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2012, cutting off an important channel for U.S. engagement with Russian NGOs, journalists, and parliamentarians dedicated to human rights, democracy promotion, and freedom of the press. Given that the Russian public is fed a healthy diet of propaganda through the state-controlled media, which fuels anti-American sentiment and a sense of victimhood, engaging in a frank and open dialogue with Russian citizens comes with plenty of challenges. But the West can’t allow the limited connections it does have with the Russian public to atrophy. As former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul stated before Congress in mid-June 2016, “There is no better way to undermine Russian propaganda than a three-week trip to Palo Alto.”

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