Updating Russia’s repressive software


The massive street protests, which started in December 2011, have proved a very considerable stress-test for Russia’s autocratic political system, built and steered by Putin for over a decade. Russia-watchers in Europe and the US debated how the Kremlin would respond. A few months ago the usual cohort of useful wishful thinkers argued that Putin, swayed by the rising middle classes, would accelerate Russia’s modernisation. In a sense they were right. Putin is modernising, but his efforts are directed at the repressive apparatus of laws and, possibly, institutions, rather than at the economy or the political system.

Tightening the screws

During 2005 and 2006 Russia adopted swaths of legislation designed to prevent events like the 2004 Orange revolution in Ukraine or the 2003 Rose revolution in Georgia. Electoral laws were toughened in ways that strengthened the pro-Kremlin ‘United Russia’ and weakened potential alternatives; thuggish pro-Kremlin youth groups such as Nashi (‘Ours’) were established; new restrictions were introduced, seriously complicating NGO activities and election monitoring; and vaguely defined legislative provisions against ‘extremism’ that could then be used against opposition activists were adopted.

Under Medvedev’s presidency the bulldozer of state repression was used with less enthusiasm. Sometimes it actually receded. Earlier this year it even seemed that the authorities might actually embark on liberalising the political system in response to the street protests. Instead, the protests seemed to have sparked a new round of attempts to tighten the screws and refurbish the repressive apparatus.

It started with the legislative software. As president, Medevedev last autumn decriminalised libel; as head of ‘United Russia’ he has just overseen its re-criminalisation. A humiliating volte-face. On this front, Russia now lags behind even the Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which have both decriminalised libel in the last couple of years.

The authorities also introduced huge fines ranging from €13,000 to €39,000 for unauthorised protests. The law is said to be a copy of the French riot act, but the French law applies to rioters, whereas the Russian law has much wider application and could be used to target peaceful demonstrators.

In mid-July the authorities adopted a new law designed to discredit and undermine NGOs. Under this law all NGOs that receive any funding from abroad and are, no matter how indirectly, involved in politics should declare themselves publicly as ‘foreign agents.’ So anti-corruption and environmental groups, or charities calling for some legislative changes (which presupposes interference with the political process) to address the needs of, say, disabled children or orphans, would all be labeled ‘foreign agents.’ In Russian this is a synonym for ‘spy.’ The law is currently formulated so vaguely that it could apply to any organisation with the slightest trace of foreign funding.

The law claims to mirror the US Foreign Agents Registration Act. But the claim is spurious at best. The US law applies to a very limited number of US-based organisations acting on behalf, and in the direct interests, of some foreign governments, whereas in Russia the law applies to all recipients of foreign funds.

These legislative changes are not something new in the Russian political system. They are just upgrades of the authoritarian software designed earlier in the last decade, and now adapted to Russia’s new circumstances.

DDOS-ing the opposition

In information technology, the most widespread type of attacks on websites takes the form of distributed denial-of-service (DDOS). This involves sending so many fake requests to a website that it cannot process them all and collapses under the weight. The so-called server overload makes it difficult or impossible for a website to provide its normal services.

This is largely what the Russian state is doing to the opposition – keeping it under a DDOS-like siege of bureaucratic harassment. The authorities are trying to overload the protest movement with requests: in the last few months these have come in the form of arrests, criminal investigations, apartment searches, bureaucratic harassment, and other forms of keeping the opposition on its toes dealing with law-enforcement agencies and courts, rather than continuing to strengthen its power base, self-organise and hold the government to account.

Alegedly, a group of 160 persons from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation is working full time on the political opposition. The aim is to keep any potential political leaders busy dealing with harassment and thus to reduce the time they are able to dedicate to building an opposition.

Forcing them to constantly be on the defensive is designed to make sure they cannot expand their base either in the regions or by institution building.

But, like DDOS attacks, what the authorities are doing is not just harmless harassment. A dozen protesters are already in jail. Three girls from Pussy Riot, the punk-group accused of hooliganism for having performed an anti-Putin song in the main Russian cathedral, might be sentenced to as much as 3 years in jail. A criminal investigation against Alexei Navalny, anti-corruption activist, blogger and probably the most popular opposition leader, has been re-opened and he too might face jail. This is all targeted and not very harsh repression. It is, nonetheless, a signal that the economic and political modernisation, much discussed during the past few years, has turned into a refurbishment of the authoritarian apparatus.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

The opposition was already facing several dilemmas before the Russian state went all out with its strategy of DDOS-ing the opposition. The key questions were how to transform protests into institutions, street presence into political power and online dissatisfaction into offline action. There are no clear solutions to that. Yet, for all the dilemmas, the opposition activists seem to realise that the only growth strategy is to build institutions, be it parties or networks of activists.

And the authorities are doing everything to help. They seem to be trying to push the genie back into the bottle, instead of dealing with it. This is not only impossible. It is also counter-productive for the authorities themselves. The soft crackdown deepens the rift between the authorities and the middle classes. If repression turns nastier, a witch-hunt among oligarchs might follow, which would chip away at even more of Putin’s supporters.

The attempts to discredit and undermine the NGOs are also a mixed blessing for the authorities. Previous attempts to restrict foreign funding in Russia have been successful. But this had unintended consequences, one of which was the emergence of genuine, home-grown, grassroots, self-financed (through crowd sourcing) civil society organisations, much stronger and more sustainable than the foreign-funded, elitist, top-down and donor-driven NGOs typical of most other post-Soviet states. This is how some of the leaders of the protest movement actually emerged.

The anti-Putin euphoria of the Russian middle-classes earlier this year and the excited European commentary on the topic have now gone. Russia is embarking on a protracted tug-of-war between the authorities and the active parts of its society. Whatever happens in Russia next, it will be a long drawn-out process.

Open Democracy, 16 August 2012