The Week In Russia: A Rough Start To A New Era
By Steve Gutterman July 10, 2020
Raids, arrests, and a terror-related verdict against a journalist examining the root causes of a violent act. Russia's first week under an amended constitution that opens the path for Vladimir Putin to remain president until 2036 was packed with developments that deepened concerns among opponents, rights activists, and critics about the country's direction in a potentially harrowing new era.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
In September 2007, late in what would have been President Vladimir Putin's final term had he not resolved to remain in power far longer, Mikhail Gorbachev warned against the rehabilitation of Josef Stalin, saying that the Soviet dictator's lethal heyday was being portrayed as a "golden era" – with dangerous, potentially disastrous consequences for Russia's future.
It was one of many warnings since the Soviet collapse, from Gorbachev and others, that Russia must reckon with the darker episodes of its past and examine the roots of its problems in the present -- not leave them buried or twist them for short-term political purposes -- if it is to have a brighter future.
"It is impossible to live in the present or build long-term plans for the future if the disease of forgetfulness afflicts the country and society, or at least certain sections of it," Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, told a forum at which another participant, Irina Shcherbakova of the rights group Memorial, said the Russian people were under "a massive attack aimed at revising our memory."
Still president today, Putin certainly seems to be building long-term plans for the future: An amended constitution that could keep him in the Kremlin until 2036 took effect on July 4 – a date that was not likely to have been coincidental, given the Russian state's recent penchant for tweaking, trolling, and thumbing its nose at America -- following a nationwide vote marred by widespread allegations of fraud.
The words of warning came to mind in light of the verdict handed down to journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva on July 6, two days after the changed constitution came into force: Guilty, the judge ruled, of "justifying terrorism," a charge stemming from a 2018 commentary about a bombing at the offices of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the northern city of Arkhangelsk.
The suspected attacker, a 17-year-old boy who died when his homemade bomb exploded, had posted remarks on social media in which he accused the FSB of falsifying criminal cases. Prokopyeva linked the teen's statements to the political climate under Putin, suggesting that activism was severely restricted by the authorities, leading people to despair.
Prokopyeva's conviction was denounced by supporters and media freedom advocates as an attack on the freedom of speech and an effort, in the vein of forgetting, hiding, or whitewashing crimes of the country's past, to punish someone who is serving society -- not doing it a disservice, let alone posing a threat -- by examining the possible root causes of a violent act.
"Why should we not think about it and try to understand why it happened?" Ivan Golunov, a journalist who was arrested in June 2019 on a drug charge that police later acknowledged was falsified. "Attempting to understand the reasons that pushed a 17-year-old boy to build a bomb and go to the local FSB building is a socially important part of a journalist's work."
Prokopyeva, a freelance contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service, was not sentenced to prison -- though prosecutors had asked court to put her behind bars for six years. But she was fined 500,000 rubles ($7,000) -- a ruling that opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov likened to the state demanding a "ransom" for the unspoken understanding of innocence while formally finding her guilty.
Search And Destroy?
In thanking Russians after the weeklong ballot on the constitutional amendments, Putin made – two days after the voting was over – by far the closest thing to a direct pitch for the option of seeking two more six-year terms after 2024. Speaking almost 30 years after the Soviet collapse and more than 20 years since he came to power, Putin said that modern Russia is "still in the formative stage," and added: "We need internal stability and time to strengthen the country and all of its institutions."
For Russians targeted in a series of searches, raids, and arrests focusing on opponents of the constitutional amendments, there was little stability on offer in the first week after their adoption -- and plenty of confirmation for analysts who had predicted the changes would strengthen the security services, law enforcement, and assorted hard-liners while leaving ordinary citizens increasingly vulnerable to the whims of the state and its agents.
Prokopyeva's verdict, on July 6, came amid a head-spinning series of actions by law enforcement agencies and the courts -- what one journalist described as a "a flurry of arrests, detentions, [and] trials."
For Tatyana Usmanova, a coordinator with Open Russia, an opposition group that helped organize a "Nyet" campaign urging Russians to vote "No" on the constitutional ballot, the flurry came in the form of a home search in which officers confiscated two computers, a telephone, a bank card, and "every single piece of paper with anything at all written on it."
For Olga Gorelik, another coordinator with Open Russia, which was founded by Putin foe and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, it meant "12 ½ hours of searches" at home and office followed by questioning at the Investigative Committee. Gorelik's husband, opposition Moscow district lawmaker Konstantin Yankauskas, decried the actions of the authorities with a term that could be translated as "fantastic bastardliness."
Yankauskas and others said that the formal pretext for the searches was an investigation linked to Yukos, Khodorkovsky's former oil company, which was taken apart after the tycoon's arrest in 2003 and later sold at auction.
It ended up in the hands of Rosneft, the state oil giant headed by Igor Sechin, the close Putin ally whom Khodorkovsky -- who was imprisoned for 10 years on financial crimes charges he said were a politically motivated fabrication -- contends was behind the law enforcement actions that broke up Yukos and led to his two trials.
Gorelik was in sixth grade in 2003, Yankauskas said, and Open Russia members said they believe the real motive for the raids was a planned protest against the vote results in central Moscow on July 15.
In between the Prokopyeva verdict and the raids, meanwhile, came the arrest of another journalist, longtime former defense reporter Ivan Safronov, on a treason charge stemming from allegations that he provided a NATO country with classified information.
Trial And Error
Safronov's arrest and moves targeting the "Nyet" campaign deepened fears that a crackdown by emboldened security services – the so-called "siloviki" -- is under way following the constitutional vote allowing Putin, a former Soviet KGB officer and Russian FSB chief, to seek two more terms.
"What, among the 206 amendments that 78 percent of the people joyfully supported, was the one that lets the siloviki do whatever the [expletive deleted] they want?" journalist Tatyana Felgengauer tweeted sarcastically.
Another indication of the strength of the "siloviki" and the vulnerability of Russians who question Kremlin narratives about the past, present, and future may come with the verdict in the trial of Yury Dmitriyev, the head of Memorial in Karelia who has worked to expose crimes committed by the Soviets in the northwestern region.
After years of legal proceedings, a verdict is expected later this month in Dmitriyev's trial on a charge of violent sexual abuse of a child.
The 64-year-old historian and his supporters and colleagues contend he is innocent and say the case is an attempt to thwart his research into extrajudicial executions in Karelia under Stalin.
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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