The posthumous conviction of Sergei Magnitsky on fraud charges and the impending conviction of anti-corruption champion Alexei Navalny of similar offenses shows Russian President Vladimir Putin’s purging of his enemies reach a new level.
Never one to be bound by the constraints of the judiciary, Putin is single-handedly arranging and adjudicating on trials, making a mockery of the Russian court system. The fact that Magnitsky, an anti-Kremlin agitator who suspiciously died in custody, has been convicted posthumously is a sign that Putin has no moral boundaries in his attempts to smear and discredit any individual opposed to his rule. The heavy-handed response to the Pussy Riot singers is another case in point.
Putin is starting to look a lot like a modern-day Stalin in that he believes himself above any legal constrictions and free to act with impunity. Whilst Stalin’s purges of the 1930s were far more bloody, and focused on members of his own inner circle as much as his opponents, Putin’s actions undermine Russian society in a similar way. He is creating a culture of fear, determined to suppress any anti-government agitation with threats of imprisonment and violence.
Putin’s success is obvious. The fact that he acts with blatant disregard to any kind of civil liberties or human rights is well-known within and outside Russia. Yet, despite sporadic protests on the streets of Moscow by crowds numbering over 100,000, these demonstrations only represent a tiny minority of the population. In essence, they are not mass movements as such a number would represent in smaller countries.
Maintaining control over a country as vast as Russia is no easy feat and entrenching democracy and equal rights, should any leader have the inclination to do so, is a major challenge. Perhaps then it is understandable that its leaders have tended to veer towards authoritarianism and brutality, knowing that only by imbuing their rule with a culture of fear can they control the outlying provinces and quell popular uprisings.
From the Romanov Tsars who first controlled such vast tracts of land, to the communist leaders and subsequently Yeltsin and Putin, authoritarian rule has predominated. Opponents have been quashed ruthlessly, freedom of expression has been curtailed and divide-and-rule tactics have been employed to prevent unity between Russia’s disparate social, ethnic and religious groups.
An abundance of oil and a relatively stable economy make such an existence of trepidation palatable for many Russians. It is easy to turn a blind eye to the fate of others when one is concerned with survival and prosperity. Putin also values loyalty, as his predecessors did (although in Stalin’s case such perceptions of loyalty was often counterbalanced by the dictator’s paranoid delusions). Pork-barrel politics remain a useful tool to hush dissent in the outlying provinces, where disproportionate funding has helped raise living standards.
In the big cities, where high educational standards and exposure to Western media threaten to infuse people with ‘rebellious’ ideas, the tried-and-tested methods of repression remain in use. Because of Russia’s geostrategic importance, its political clout in major international institutions (it has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council) and its large military, foreign powers find it hard to press Moscow for reform.
Whilst we may remain outraged by what we read of Putin’s antics in our newspapers, and Russian critics of the Kremlin remain subjected to arbitrary law, the likelihood is that little will change in the near future. Putin’s grip on power is stronger than ever before, his resolve reinforced. He truly is a modern dictator.