Changes in Russian society: pervasive low-level fear

The US State Department report’s Russia section is singularly toothless and irrelevant. Russia today is not what it was six months ago, when arguments raged about the new NGO legislation. Russia today is what Belarus was a decade ago.

It’s just like 30 years ago. In response to the US State Department’s report on human rights and democracy, Russia has accused the United States of interfering in its internal affairs. Lawmakers from all pro-Kremlin parties are making outraged statements and requesting the Prosecutor General’s Office to crack down on NGOs – while the State Department rebukes the Russian authorities for harassing NGOs. And President Putin has made a demonstrative appointment: the new head of the Federal Registration Service is from the team of former prosecutor general Vladimir Ustinov.

Quite right, too. Effrontery guarantees success. After all, the US State Department report’s Russia section is singularly toothless and irrelevant. Russia today is not what it was six months ago, when arguments raged about the new NGO legislation. Russia today is what Belarus was a decade ago. We keep hearing of some newspaper editor being prosecuted for publishing a disrespectful comment about President Putin, or someone being prosecuted for a blog entry that criticizes the law enforcement agencies. And when people seek to hold an opposition rally, the police simply seize and arrest them in the street, with no concern for any legal justifications.

With regard to the current state of affairs in Russia, here’s what a report on human rights and democracy really ought to say: “Opposition activity, or any independent political activity, is subjected to harassment and selective repression. Election procedures have lost their democratic nature and are falsified across the board. The media are unfree or under political pressure.”

Yes, it should be noted that arrested opposition demonstrators are soon released, and as yet there haven’t been any extremely harsh sentences in “censorship” trials. The process of getting us accustomed to the state’s right to political repression is smooth and gradual. Already, however, practically no one (not even the US State Department) is challenging that right as such: the right of the authorities to exercise mild, selective repression against their opponents.

From the pragmatic standpoint, it isn’t immediately clear why the state would want to do all this. Why prosecute non-influential publications and the authors of obscure articles? Why prevent small opposition groups from holding rallies that tend to display their weakness rather than their strength?

Yes, there is a point to it all. The repression mechanism, once launched, is very hard to stop.

As the word “YUKOS” ceases to be the name of a company and becomes part of Russian history, it’s important to remember that the YUKOS affair was a turning-point in the transformation of Russia’s political regime. Of course, I do remember that the persistence and passion displayed by the organizers of that affair stemmed from their wish to gain control of oil assets. However – and this is the real significance of the YUKOS affair – their conduct throughout the case clearly demonstrated the lengths they are prepared to go to in their wish to control those assets.

Some say that the YUKOS affair still remains the exception rather than the rule. Well, you’re entitled to your opinion. The YUKOS “memento mori” is the emblem of our era. All business owners are told: “Look at Khodorkovsky, and ask yourself: could that be you in his place? The answer: yes, it could!” That’s the real, simple, brutal message in the case of Khodorkovsky. “And you, the hired manager – the functionary hiding behind the company’s owner: look at what happened to YUKOS managers, see the fate of Svetlana Bakhmina, and ask yourself whether you really want to stand in the path of a tank. The answer: no, you don’t want to. Remember that.”

Yes, the point of repressive measures is not to punish someone who is guilty (or innocent). The point is to disseminate an ever-present sense of fear throughout our society. But the most striking and paradoxical aspect is that the system which has released the fear-genie from the bottle is also becoming infected with fear. Fear of those whom it keeps in a state of fear. And this agonizing feeling requires an antidote: more repression. A gradual but unrelenting expansion of the fear zone. A continual search for treason and threats, extending to increasingly distant frontiers. That’s how it’s always been.

So when we hear of a newspaper editor being prosecuted for some silly anti-Putin article, we need to understand that this is an extension of the Khodorkovsky case. If Khodorkovsky were free, and if the executive branch concerned itself with a real configuration of political forces, no one would bother going after that editor.