Staunton, January 3 – The Putin regime does not need any further expansion in its capacity to put pressure on the population in order to guarantee its security, Aleksandr Verkhovsky says; but despite that, the regime is so organized that that it will inevitably continue to tighten the screws with “new repressive or senselessly harsh laws” in the coming year.
Verkhovsky, the head of the SOVA monitoring group which the Russian government recently declared was a foreign agent, says that among the most noxious developments of the past year has been “the unbelievably large number of criminal prosecutions for really intolerant expressions” (polit.ru/article/2017/01/02/verkhovsky/).
On the one hand, the SOVA researcher says, one can only decry the rise of such attitudes in the Russian public space; but on the other, one must condemn the politicization and even more the criminalization of actions which Russians have the right to engage in under the terms of the Russian Constitution.
It might be possible to “understand” what the authorities have been doing, Verkhovsky says, “if in the country the activity of ultra-nationalist, radically Islamist or other genuinely dangerous movements had been growing.” But in fact, just the reverse has been true over the last 12 months.
“Radical nationalism is in ever-progressing decline, and genuinely militant Islamists more often prefer to go to Syria than to organize and fight in Russia,” he points out.
The Yarovaya package of laws adopted this past year is deeply disturbing, but he points out that it is his impression that “the space of freedom is being reduced not so much by laws as by various kinds of methods of intimidation only part of which are directly based on law. The laws themselves are understood more as ‘signals’” that officials then act on.
That doesn’t mean that laws aren’t important at all, but rather it suggests that it is the extension of the intended application of these laws to other groups that is the most worrisome development, Verkhovsky says. The Yarovaya package was ostensibly about combatting Islamist terrorists; it has been used to repress Protestant missionaries and others far from Islam.
If activists protest these things, they can sometimes but far from always make a difference, the SOVA head says. Protests lodged with the interior ministry about the misuse of some laws actually had an impact and led to improvements. But that isn’t always the case, he continues. And the year ahead promises to be even worse.
(For a survey of 2016 laws, see kasparov.ru/material.php?id=586A4E3020008; for a list of laws that have gone into force this month, see vestnikcivitas.ru/news/4031; and for a list of those who have died while incarcerated, an indication of what detentions and arrests can mean, see rusebola.com/statistics-2/).
Russian commentator Andrey Piontkovsky extends Verkhovsky’s remarks. In his new year’s greeting to Russians, Piontkovsky says that 2017 is just like 1937 in that the powers that be can now arrest anyone they like, “be he a blogger or a member of the government” (nv.ua/opinion/piontkovskiy/s-novym-1937-godom-rossijane-388390.html).
Russians and unfortunately others have gotten used to this because that practice has been introduced slowly and in what is still a relatively small way, thus repeating the experience of the frog who ultimately is killed in boiling water because it is gradually heated rather than jumping out because it is hot to begin with.
“In the provinces” of Russia,” Piontkovsky writes, “an individual can be arrested for a post in social networks, for the most ordinary expression, and this already is not something which generates general anger in Russia and the West. Instead, it has become routine.”
And those who complain about such arrests are told that what the Putin regime is doing is not a return to Stalinism because one is talking only about hundreds and not millions of people incarcerated. But what Putin has established was the foundation of Stalin’s repressions: anyone can be arrested if the authorities want him to be. Law is irrelevant.
Moreover, “whether 100,000 are arrested or a thousand depends exclusively on the choice of the powers that be.” At present, Putin doesn’t need mass arrests, and he would not gain anything from incarcerating millions in a new GULAG. His degrading economy doesn’t need workers. “But however many the powers that be need to arrest will be arrested.”
Just like in 1937.