Putin’s New ‘Fortress Russia’
By ARIEL COHEN
AS members of the Russian punk-rock band Pussy Riot appeal their two-year prison sentence for a political protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a pale of repression is settling over their country. This crackdown is wrapped in legislative garb, but the iron grip of authoritarianism is unmistakable.
Vladimir Putin’s tightening of the screws is a part of a broader pattern, which includes a return to confrontation with the United States and NATO. The United States must specifically recognize that its “reset” policy of see no evil, hear no evil has contributed to the trampling of human rights in Russia.
Moscow is cozying up to China, supporting the Assad regime in Syria and ignoring the Iranian nuclear race. The Kremlin is hard at work to create a sphere of influence along its periphery and a “pole” in the multipolar world that would stand up to Washington.
Recent developments have an unmistakably flavor of the 1920s and 1930s, when the Soviets sent people the Gulag simply for who they were, not for what they did. For example, the Cheka — the grandfather of Russia’s security service, the F.S.B — preventively arrested those of noble descent or with relatives abroad.
Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet state and a lawyer by training, wrote: “The courts should not do away with terror — to promise otherwise would be to deceive ourselves and others — but should give it foundation and legality, clearly, honestly and without embellishments.” One wonders if the sorcerer has become a role model for the apprentice. Putin has called Stalin “an effective manager.”
In this spirit, three weeks ago, the Duma unanimously passed new amendments proposed by the F.S.B. that will expand the definition of “high treason.” The charge now can be applied to almost any Russian citizen who works with foreign organizations or has ever had contact with a foreigner.
“Treason” no longer refers only to a concrete crime, such as knowingly passing state secrets to a foreign power. It can apply to any behavior that the state secret services, prosecutors and judges deem as undermining “constitutional order, sovereignty and territorial and state integrity.”
Moreover, the courts, which sit in judgment on treason cases, are not truly independent. The Kremlin has expanded “telephone justice” (a Soviet practice), by which judges receive verbal instructions from the top on how to decide cases. Prominent opponents of the government, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former chief executive of the Yukos oil company, are sentenced to lengthy prison terms, which are widely seen as politically motivated.
These changes are in addition to a package of Draconian laws and practices that curtail citizens’ rights — introduced this year with nary a protest from the Obama administration:
• In June, the Duma passed a law that criminalized unauthorized protests, giving the government the ability to fine organizers exorbitant sums.
• In July, the Duma approved a bill that allows the government to block Web sites it deems harmful to the public.
• The law on registration of nongovernment organizations now requires that every “politically active” NGO that receives funding from abroad must register as a “foreign agent.”
• The Duma is considering a bill “on the protection of religious feelings of the citizens of Russia,” which criminalizes blasphemy and includes the possibility of a prison term. The courts would use “experts” close to the Orthodox Church to determine what is blasphemous. The regime would then decide which offensive materials to censor, just as the authorities in Rostov recently banned the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
The blasphemy law is a sop to the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Kirill I, who is expanding the church’s function as an ideological crutch for the state. The law is also an important step in distancing Russia from Western values, which the liberal intelligentsia has desperately tried to inculcate for the last quarter of a century. Slavophiles and “Eurasianists” are on the ascendancy.
The recent legislative developments have severe geopolitical implications. Putin is implementing a “Fortress Russia” policy, which is based on repression at home and confrontation abroad. It is used to justify a $700 billion military buildup.
The Obama administration “reset” needs a serious reassessment, and so does the overall relationship with Russia. America should pursue its national interests in relations with Moscow, instead of chasing a feel-good mirage.
Washington should work to advance individual rights, democracy and free media through public diplomacy and pinpointed support of worthy causes. Washington should cooperate with those along the Russian periphery and in Europe who are concerned about the growth of Russia’s sphere of influence. Finally, the United States and its allies should engage international organizations, expert communities, mass and social media to counter the crackdown in Russia.
It is preferable to engage now, before the specter of a more authoritarian Russia once again haunts Europe — and the world.
Ariel Cohen is a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy policy at The Heritage Foundation.
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