Staunton, May 27 – Although a decade ago, the Russian government declared it favored openness and transparency in the handling of official information, since the Crimean Anschluss and especially since the imposition of Western sanctions, it has classified ever more materials in the name of national security, Ivan Tkachev says.
The economics editor of RBC says that in doing so, the Russian authorities have faced real problems because the Internet which allows them to watch the Russian people also allows the Russian people to watch the authorities. But Moscow has classified ever more information (ridl.io/ru/sekretnye-materialy-kak-rossijskoe-gosudarstvo-stremitelno-uhodit-v-ten/).
Moreover, it has done so in ways and involving businesses not ostensibly part of the regime but closely linked to it and subjected to sanctions that opens the way to ever more draconian restrictions in the free flow of information not only in areas that might be connected with national security but across the board.
According to the economics journalist, Moscow has invoked the West’s sanctions on Russia as justification for its actions; but the authorities have taken actions that increasingly have little or no clear relationship to these issues. Poorly written laws and decrees have allowed for this mission creep, something quite likely intentional.
For example, Tkachev continues, because the limitations on information involving individuals and groups who fall under sanctions “formally do not fall under the category of state secrets,” the established rules for handling such security-related information do not apply and the government has moved to extend the application of sanctions rules to unsanctioned companies.
And this has created dangerous precedents which the powers that be are applying ever more often. Thus, when officials began talking about further reform of the Russian pension system, Moscow classified information about those discussions lest it spark public outrage even before any changes are announced.
At present, he continues, the Russian government is also seeking to create an intermediate category between state secret and publicly available information. This would be something like an “official use only” restriction and would if the Duma approves it allow a large amount of information to be withheld from the public without formally classifying it.
But perhaps the most disturbing use of this new drive for restricting information involves efforts by the authorities to prevent defenders of journalists like Ivan Safronov or political activists like Aleksey Navalny from having access to the information the powers have and are using against them.
That not only limits their ability to mount a defense but also ensures that the government can decide that any hearings about their cases must be behind closed doors because newly classified information is involved, Tkachev continues. He says that this move to restrict information has reached the point that one can divide it up into three categories.
First of all, the journalist says, there is “politically motivated secrecy: the authorities limit access to public and high-profile cases connected with the opposition or dissidents;” second, it may be used to limit the spread of information the population is likely to be angry about; and third, it gives the regime more opportunities to engage in corruption without exposure.
Tkachev says that as a journalist he has often experienced the following: information he needs and wants is publicly available until he or another journalist seeks it out. Then it disappears with officials saying that it has been classified. That happens more and more, sparking a race between researchers and classifiers.
According to the Russian law on state secrets, the authorities may not classify data on “the state of health care, sanitation and demography.” But during the pandemic, they have restricted information on all three, creating uncertainty and even leading various officials to contradict one another because there is no one reliable source.
Tkachev says that all indications are that the situation with regard to classification will only get worse given “the stagnation of economic growth, the demographic crisis brought on by the pandemic, the growing ‘spy mania’ of the force structures and the toxic atmosphere for the media and civic activists.”