THE U.S. and its Western allies must remain outspoken about the deterioration of Russia’s civil freedoms and its aggression toward Ukraine, both as a matter of principle and to ensure that they are not forced into a corner by a resurgent Russia.
Foreign policy aggression and a greatly constricted civil society are linked, according to recent interviews with Russian civil-society leaders in Moscow. Western governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) concerned about the direction of post-Soviet Russia need to find meaningful ways to support their democratically inclined colleagues — before they end up behind a second Iron Curtain.
“We’re still alive. We have no intention of giving up.” So says Arseny Roginsky, outspoken historian of the Moscow-based human rights NGO Memorial, an organization established in the late Soviet era and still active today. “While legal maneuvers and attacks in the press are worsening, we still believe in our role in society.”
On May 23, a Russian court declared Memorial to be a “foreign agent” for accepting Western dollars, part of a widespread government-led demonizing of civil-society groups working on issues deemed too sensitive for the Putin regime. These issues include free elections, independent media and, in Memorial’s case, exposing the crimes of the Soviet era. NGOs have been besieged and harassed by government agents.
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Maria Lipman, a longtime analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, predicted that the Putin government’s repression of the civil sector would be long-lasting. “The Kremlin has shifted gears,” she said. “Suddenly it is impossible to know how far and how fast restrictions will go.”
Lipman pointed to 2012 as the watershed year when the pace of anti-civil-society legislation accelerated after Putin’s re-election. Street demonstrations that filled the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2011 enraged Putin, who sought to silence any opposition voices. “Now, anyone who faces West is accused of being a national traitor,” Lipman continued, adding that Putin and the circle of elites surrounding him have zero tolerance for opposition today.
Recent Ukraine events and the seizing of the Crimean peninsula by Russia accelerated pressure on any remaining free media outlets, as well as NGOs. While Putin’s popularity is at an all-time high, an economy on the brink will eventually erode that euphoria.
A surefire way to retain control when people get restless is to maintain a tight hold on civil society and a continued dominance of the airwaves by the state propaganda machine. The average citizen gets a very one-sided view of today’s Russia and its role in the world. This will likely only worsen. “There’s no opportunity to reverse course,” Lipman concluded. “Putin would look weak.”
Unfortunately, the West doesn’t hold much leverage over Russia today, as evidenced by Putin’s ability to seize the Crimea. Rhetoric is heated, relations are sour, but business ties, particularly with a Russian-gas dependent Europe, will remain. Major energy, technology and aerospace companies, among others, that have invested heavily in Russia are globally interdependent.
This complicates what governments can and can’t do. However, the U.S. government, which is more economically and politically independent, must recognize that the vaunted “reset” is history. Relations between the two countries have moved into an icier phase, one that will endure until Putin and his cronies move from the scene.
Russia, for its part, has painted the U.S. and the West as enemies once again and is content to use Russian nationalist fervor to bolster Putin’s popularity.
Maintain no illusions as to Putin’s worldview. Economic sanctions are limited in impact. The West needs to speak out, in one voice, and condemn the freeze on civic life in Russia.
Lara Iglitzin is executive director of the Seattle-based Henry M. Jackson Foundation, which supports human rights and civil society in Russia in the post-Soviet era.