PRIO Director Henrik Urdal included Russian NGOs standing against the rise of autocracy, and personally Alexei Navalny, in his short-list of candidates for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. Last week, Russian opposition remembered Boris Nemtsov, murdered five years ago, by a march in downtown Moscow, which gathered some 25.000 people. This article reflects on the shifts in Russian society.
The Kremlin did not utter even one word to mark the fifth anniversary of the high-profile murder that happened right under the walls of the seat of power in Russia. Boris Nemtsov, a joyful and charismatic leader of the democratic opposition, was shot as he walked along a bridge connected to Red Square.
Since then, activists have maintained an impromptu memorial on the site where Nemtsov was struck down, despite persistent efforts by the authorities to erase all traces of the crime. According to a report recently presented to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the murder was never properly investigated and the organization of the contract killing remains covered up. At the mass protest rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg last Saturday (February 29), Nemtsov’s comrades bitterly reflected that he had been the strongest voice of condemnation of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, so the hired guns had every reason to believe that the authorities would approve the murder.
The trail of evidence leads directly to Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal maverick ruler of Chechnya. President Vladimir Putin values the personal loyalty of the Chechen strongman so highly that generous funding keeps coming from the federal budget to reward services like the deployment of a para-military battalion of “kadyrovtsy” to patrol Kurdish areas in Syria. Kadyrov feels empowered to dispatch covert or criminal operatives to silence his opponents seeking refuge in France or Poland. His daughter Aishat, meanwhile, has been free to stage a fashion show of her collection in Paris.
Putin increasingly has to rely on similar methods of brutal suppression of dissent, granting the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the National Guard (Rosgvardia) every liberty to disregard what legal protection of human rights still exists. The harsh verdict handed down by the military court in Pensa on the seven young men accused of building a “terrorist” organization purportedly called “Set” (Russian for “Network”) astonished even the most pessimistic observers. Public indignation at these crudely fabricated cases reached such intensity that the “competent organs” rushed to orchestrate a “leak” connecting the accused with an unresolved murder case. The falsity of the alleged involvement was quickly exposed, but the damage to the resistance campaign had been done. The follow-up trial in a St. Petersburg military court might, however, generate a new wave of protests, particularly against the practice of extracting confessions by torture.
“Show trials” have become focal points of discontent in Russia, steadily eroding popular trust in Putin’s leadership. Seeking to reassert his authority, the Kremlin leader recently initiated a public discussion on revising Russia’s constitution. But discord about the need for and content of the various proposed amendments has acquired such an unruly character that only 25 percent of the population now expresses any readiness to vote for the package of revisions. The authorities have many dirty tricks at their disposal to manipulate vote outcomes, but they have already failed to procure levels of popular support that would be perceived as meaningful and impactful. Seeking to boost his profile, Putin has resorted to personal propaganda; however, the recent series of choreographed interviews has attracted scant interest from the Internet audience.
The fear of showing weakness is a key motivator of Putin’s persistent effort to project strength not only through domestic repressions but also international tests. The situation in Syria is the most dangerous such test of Putin’s resolve, and he is worried that the escalation of hostilities in the rebel-controlled Idlib province will escalate beyond his control. Unlike his Turkish counterpart President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Putin has abstained from any assertive statements. However, the frequent conversations between them have little impact on the course of on-the-ground battles. Many Russian experts try to pin the blame for the tense situation with Turkey on Bashar al-Assad’s regime and on Iranian intrigues, but it is impossible to deny that Russian planes have repeatedly hit Turkish troops. Erdoğan has pushed the stakes high, and Putin has several times called his bluff; but now, Moscow must calculate the risks of a real clash.
The calamity in Syria attracts remarkably little attention from Russians, who have grown tired of this war of choice and disapprove of its costs. The issue that more fully captures their attention is the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic, and Russians are perfectly aware that their country’s degraded healthcare system is not ready to deal with it. Putin has expressed concern about the impact on the oil sector, but local authorities are executing all sorts of (sometimes questionable) preventative measures, including the extermination of stray dogs. The Chinese embassy recently expressed concern about “Chinese-looking” passengers being forcibly removed from public transit in Moscow; yet, detentions of such “suspects” continue. Official reassurances about the absence of confirmed cases in Russia are hardly convincing given the lack of proper diagnostics. Meanwhile, the Kremlin is worried primarily about the possibility of low voter turnout for the constitutional amendments.
In monitoring various public anxieties and discontent, Putin’s subordinates count on civil society fragmentation and lack of leadership in the opposition, which together have prevented local flashes of anger from sparking a mass protest movement. Boris Nemtsov could have been a natural leader for all disappointed in and outraged by Putin’s oppressive and corrupt rule; and the thousands of people who marched in Moscow last Saturday are determined to keep his fight going. Blogger and former Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny, the daring champion of the struggle against corruption, comes close to uniting the discordant opposition, and every attempt by the Kremlin to shut him down only swells the ranks of his supporters. The machine of repression may appear omnipotent, but Nemtsov shrugged off that impression and his smile gives courage to the new generation of freedom-upholders. The choice to take a stand against official lies and corrupt norms is no easier today than five years ago, but Nemtsov’s memory continues to encourage many Russians to overcome their fears.
A version of this article is published in Eurasia Daily Monitor.