Putin Keeps Building His Back-to-the-Future Dictatorship

Vladimir Putin’s inclination to crush any perceived opposition has taken aim at one of Russia’s most courageous and effective human rights organizations. The state’s Prosecutor General’s office says that Memorial, an organization that for almost a quarter century has relentlessly exposed both Soviet and post-USSR rights abuses, must be shut down for “justifying extremism and terrorism.”

File:Moscow Russia KGB Headquarters.jpg

Headquarters of Federal Security Service, the KGB heir that’s back in charge.

One Memorial branch, the International Memorial Society, was accused of being a “foreign agent,” a label that is used with increasing frequency to erase any and all effective opposition to Putin’s long rein in power. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), heir to the Soviet KGB, can make such a designation and keep it secret.

In addition, Memorial’s Human Rights Center was charged not only for failing to register as a foreign agent but for issuing statements in support of terrorists and extremists. A hearing for both entities will be held this month.

Human rights organizations in and out of Russia lambasted the steps. “We consider this assault by the prosecutor’s office to be just one of many actions by the authorities in recent times that are systematically intended to suppress the institutions of civil society, among which Memorial occupies a leading position,” wrote Moscow’s Sakharov Center, a Moscow cultural organization dedicated to human rights.

Human Rights Watch called the effort to shut down Memorial an “outrageous assault on the jugular of Russia’s civil society.”

The Memorial case continues a recent, relentless campaign by the Kremlin to snuff out any nests of opposition to his autocratic rule. The crackdown’s signature event was the August 2020 effort to kill opposition leader Alexei Navalny via nerve agent poisoning. Navalny survived and after convalescing in Germany, returned home in January, only to be thrown in jail.

Pro-Navalny demonstrations broke out. His online dissident organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, prepared to run candidates in last summer’s legislative elections to undo dominance of Putin’s United Russia party.

But in April, a Moscow court declared the Foundation an extremist organization and shut it down. Another court banned all symbols and financing of it; activists could be liable to 15 years in jail while simple members could face six years imprisonment. The foundation disbanded.

Putin also strong armed both Apple and Google to eliminate from their services reference to opposition tactics meant to deny Putin candidates victory. Failure could earn the arrest of the tech giants’ Russian employees.

Putin-backed candidates swept the elections.

Yet, the beat went on: Russian regulators threatened to fine Facebook if it permitted undefined “extremist” information on its site.

“Even against this grim backdrop, the attack on Memorial is shocking,” wrote Human Rights Watch. “Throughout Russia’s contemporary history, Memorial has been the backbone of the country’s human rights community. It has been the epicenter of Russian civil society, the protector of memory about Soviet repression and post-Soviet human rights abuses.”

Putin has all but ended Russia’s experiment in electoral democracy. It began under President Boris Yeltsin after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. After Putin took power in the year 2,000, he set out to weaken early liberal reforms put in place by his predecessor. Regional elections ended, independent media was crushed, potential rivals fled into exile, and occasional assassinations reminded dissidents of the cost of opposing his or his cronies’ rule.

What Putin called “managed democracy” turned into a juggernaut of dictatorship. Memorial’s downfall will become his latest trophy.

From its origins in 1987, Memorial grew to some 60 branches across Russia and others in former Soviet republics. Nobel Peace laurate Andrei Sakharov was a founder. Until coronavirus swept into Russia last year, Memorial organized a yearly remembrance of victims of Soviet homegrown terror, which was held in front of KGB—now FSB—headquarters in central Moscow.

Memorial exposed numerous war crimes and human rights abuses during a pair of armed conflicts in Chechnya. In 2009, Memorial researcher, Natalia Estemirova, who ventured into Chechnya to document possible war crimes, was kidnapped in the Chechen capital of Grozny and murdered in next door Ingushetia.

One of Memorial’s most recent reports listed some 420 political prisoners currently in Russian jails, including Alexei Navalny.

Memorial’s oversight board slammed the anti-extremism laws that are being employed to shut down the organization: “This is a political decision…We have repeatedly stated that the law was originally conceived as a tool to crack down on independent organizations, and insisted that it should be abolished,” the board wrote.

The election-monitoring group NGO Golos—which the Kremlin has  labeled a foreign agent–called on Russians who are not “indifferent to the future of this country….to convene an emergency civic conference to work out collective measures to resist this targeted attack on civil rights and liberties.”

The chances of public pressure to reverse the assault on Memorial seem slim. Last winter and early spring, nationwide protests over Navalny’s arrest led to hundreds of arrests. The last pro-Navalny demonstration took place in April. Organized opposition is either quiescent; leaders are in exile.

The only outstanding question is which rights group will be next of Putin’s apparently infinite chopping block.

Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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