Staunton, January 10 – For most of the last two decades, Vladimir Putin has promoted the image of Russia as “a besieged fortress” and concentrated his attention on foreign countries. But as Russia’s enemies abroad have become more numerous and its friends fewer, Boris Vishnevsky says, the Kremlin leader has shifted his attention to domestic “enemies.”
Indeed, over the last year, the opposition deputy in St. Petersburg’s legislative assembly says, “the Kremlin has acted as if the fortress were besieged from the inside” with “the main threat” no longer from abroad but rather from Russians within who have foreign backing (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/01/10/88647-krepost-osazhdennaya-iznutri).
What makes this shift so striking, Vishnevsky argues, is that there aren’t “any serious causes” for Putin’s change of focus. The opposition hasn’t won that many victories, although the ratings of the president and his United Russia Party have fallen to unprecedented lows. It would seem Putin could thus have continued his earlier course without risk.
This process began with changes in the constitution that allow Putin to remain in power forever and with a raft of repressive new laws which “in fact make any disagreement with the policies of the powers that be a crime” and label “basic democratic principles ‘hostile Western values which supposedly threaten [Russia’s] ‘sovereignty and national security.’”
Many thought that Putin pushed through the constitutional changes only to keep himself in power longer, but the real thing he did was to give his regime more tools to avoid responding to the desires and democratic aspirations of the citizenry and thus allow him to rule without change.
That in turn required a significant tightening of the screws and behind “the smokescreen” of extending his time in office, the Constitutional changes set the stage for focusing on and moving to crush all forms of dissent within Russia, including making illegal many things that had been permitted, Vishnevsky continues.
In this new order, the opposition politician says, “in the best case, opponents are being declared ‘foreign agents’” and their rights striped away. “In the worst case, they are being labelled enemies and subject to liquidation with the help of military toxicologists” as the case of Aleksey Navalny highlights.
All of this reflects the Kremlin’s efforts to preserve its power without having to do anything for the population despite all the problems the people face. But in pursuing this new line, Vishnevsky argues, “the Kremlin has publicly displayed its Achilles’ heel” by showing that Putin and his entourage will try to avoid doing anything more than remain in their positions.
Consequently, the Kremlin risks radicalizing and uniting those who might not object to the current rulers if they were somewhat responsive but who will make broader demands on the system precisely because they are not. And the more people feel that the situation in the country must change, the more they will insist that the leaders be changed too.