One year on from the mass demonstrations, Russia is a changed place. Vladimir Putin has chosen repression over reform and it shows in small ways and in remote parts of Russia as well as in the big cities.
As part of her research into palliative care in Russia, Anna Sevortian, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Russia officerecently travelled to a remote Siberian province, where she spent some time at a healthcare institution. Two days into the trip, the director introduced Anna to her boss in the local healthcare ministry. The two of them walked unknowingly into an ambush. “We walked into a room full of officials. They confronted me with questions: “Who invited you here?”, “Who pays your travel costs?”,”Where are your headquarters?”, “Who funds your organisation?”, “Who is the local person arranging your meetings for you?”, “Where is your authorisation [for the visit] from the federal authorities?”, “Where is the proof that you work in Russia legitimately?”
Then they contacted all the healthcare workers in the region and cautioned them to stay away from the Human Rights Watch team, and to exercise caution with these uninvited “foreign agents”. The foreign agents law was one of a host of measures put through the Duma printing machine that were designed to crack down on civil society. All non-government advocacy organisations that accept foreign funding are now required to register with the justice ministry and identify themselves publicly as “foreign agents” – a term equivalent to foreign spies. Refusal to register can result in a criminal prosecution and a term of up to two years in prison for the head of the organisation.
This stick was waved primarily at Golos, an election watchdog that exposed the true scale of the election fraud in last year’s Duma elections. Golos was partly funded by USAID – which has itself been forced to close down in Russia – and money from Germany. The foreign agents law now also applies to some of the most prominent human rights defenders in Russia, including Ludmilla Alexeeva, at 85 the oldest human rights activist around, who leads the Moscow Helsinki Group.
Combined with a new law on treason, which expands the definition to “providing financial, technical, advisory or other assistance to a foreign state or international organisation … directed at harming Russia’s security” the threshold for prosecuting any human rights activist has now been lowered. The prosecutions have not started, but the threat is now there.
The new officially inspired mood of xenophobia has frozen the entire food chain of Russian bureaucracy right to the regional director of health of a remote part of Siberia. Get a foreign visitor who wants to research a good news story about a Russian hospice, and the safest thing to do is to chase her away.
One year on from the mass demonstrations in Moscow that shook the Kremlin to its core, is Russia now a darker place? In one sense, yes. The mass demonstrations in Bolotnaya Ploschad and Prospekt Akadmika Sakharova are a thing of the past, and their leaders are in trouble – the leftist protest leader Sergei Udaltsov is facing prosecution for accepting money from Georgian politicians to organise mass rallies; the anti-corruption whistleblower Alexei Navalny was charged yesterday with fraud and money laundering.
Ksenia Sobchak, an activist and the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, who was Putin’s boss as mayor of St Petersburg, refuses to be daunted. Through these repressive measures, Vladimir Putin has shown his true face and there is not a person in Russia who does not now recognise this, Ksenia argues. “What happened to Navalny, Udaltsov and me when men with guns ran through my house, she says, “all these things are examples of how the system works, and how it does everything it can to protect itself and in a way its a victory. There is no way that people in Russia will go back to loving Putin. This train is only going one way. Its a one-way ticket, or so our victory this year is that many people understand the real situation.”
What happens next? That is far harder to answer. Sobchak herself says that the way forward lies not on the streets, but in the heart of the Kremlin itself. That is where, Sobchak argues, Putin’s achilles heel lies. It is to find politicians and oligarchs who are as turned off by the recent corruption scandals as everyone else is, who realise their own business interests will be affected by the stagnation of the country. Russia’s next perestroika, Sobchak argues, will have nothing to do with human rights but with commercial self-interest.
While this is a compellingly cynical theory, one can wait an awful long time for that to materialise. The opposition’s main tactic, however, is just to stay around. Putin’s main mission in his mammoth end-of-year press conference yesterday was to deny that the end of the world will come about on Friday, but he showed no signs of worrying about his own demise. Nursing a back injury, he is every bit the pugilist – rattling off economic statistics, denying he has ever made a mistake – that he always was. It was a vintage Putin performance. And that is exactly his problem. He only knows how to be himself – but that person is no longer the one that Russia needs.