Few would argue with the propositions that Russia is an authoritarian, personalized, and centralized state managed through corroded and changeable structures. If, as again most observers, Russian or not, suppose, President Putin secures a further term in the Kremlin in March 2018 and therefore in principle remains the linchpin of the present order of government until 2024, how might the Russian state change?
Whatever happens over the next half a dozen years, the issue of who or what is to succeed Putin and/or Putinism will come increasingly to the fore. It has been argued that he has already taken some steps to put at least some new and effective persons of the next generation in place.1 It is often suggested that whoever comes next will be cast from the same mold as Putin himself, for better or worse. The apparent implication of that would seem to be that the transfer of a new person to the center of a system like the one now prevailing would probably be carried off relatively smoothly.
There is a certain comfort for the West in making such assumptions. The abrupt turn away from the possibility of reform on Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May 2012 in favor of domestic repression and foreign adventure ought, however, to remind us that what we may imagine to be in the interests of the Russian state will not necessarily turn out to be seen that way by the directors of its fortunes. A relatively smooth trajectory towards a reasonably stable outcome over 2018–24 would depend above all on the way that the central authorities manage their relationship with Russian society as a whole.
Dispensing justice is a central duty of the rulers towards the ruled. My conversation with the wife of Ildar Dadin at the beginning of this year formed a vivid reminder of the failure of the Russian state to provide it. There is a difference between a foreigner knowing something as a mental construct and a sudden sense of its reality by an unexpected encounter of its meaning at a personal level.
Dadin was convicted in December 2015 of what the court held to be repeated violations of public assembly rules under a law introduced in 2014 designed to punish even one-person protestors such as him. He has so far been the only person so charged and found guilty. The fact of such a law being introduced and then used against him was yet further proof of the determination of the Russian state to suppress all opposition. But it was the regular, brutal, and life-threatening beatings Dadin received at penal colony IK-7 in the Republic of Karelia from the moment of his arrival on September 16, 2016 that caught public attention and drove home the lesson that once a person is trapped in the Russian penitential system he or she can expect to lose all rights to be treated as anything other than a defenseless victim.
Other examples of the refusal of the Prosecutor General’s Investigative Committee as well as the Courts to deal with cruelty amounting to torture of prisoners in a significant number of Russian penal colonies2 led President Putin to instruct the State Office of the Public Prosecutor on January 11, 2017 to ensure that access to health care and other rights of prisoners are fully respected throughout the Russian Federation. The evidence suggests that if the Prosecutor General is meant to take this instruction seriously, he will have his work cut out for him.
Dadin was released from prison on February 26 with his sentence quashed, but has since been detained and charged with violating laws on taking part in rallies. There is no evidence that prisoners’ rights are now being respected, or that those in charge of prisons or centers where persons held for interrogation are from now on to be accountable for their treatment. Former Governor Nikita Belykh for example, arrested on charges of accepting a bribe and duly photographed on June 24, 2016, with an open suitcase of money in what looked like a setup, is still being held in Moscow with very limited outside contact and inadequate attention to his serious medical condition. He is reported to be under pressure to give evidence against Navalny, whose organization dedicated to exposing corruption (including some corruption tied to the Prosecutor General), and whose role as a major opposition figure, could trouble Putin’s plans for re-election next year.
Whatever the formal legal provisions may be, the wider truth is that Russia’s judicial system is, as those involved in its execution well know, to ensure the survival of the present regime. That does not mean that justice is always denied, only that, when the interests of the powerful are involved, it will be. It also means that those responsible for investigating alleged wrongdoing or punishing those convicted of it will know not just what it is that they must achieve but also that excess on their part will not be held against them. Such factors have a damaging dynamic. Reports of police beatings, and the threat of prosecution being used to persuade successful business figures to fork over their assets to state figures whose duty it is to enforce law and order (raiderstvo) are regular occurrences. The abuse of the law against extremism is notorious, Jehovah’s Witnesses being a recent addition to the list of official targets. Non-governmental organizations without state backing are routinely classified and subsequently penalized as foreign agents. Russia’s Courts can be relied upon to sentence anyone deemed inconvenient by the authorities. Virtually all of the reported 1,720 persons arrested on June 12 for participation in the marches against corruption, for example, were sentenced to punishment of one sort or another, without even the pretense of adequate trials.
These and other instances of the abuse of power at all levels of the Russian Federation by those charged with the enforcement of law and order are familiar to many. But their corrosive effect on the state itself, and its agents, has increased over the past five or six years and is likely to intensify over the next Presidential term.
The Kremlin’s Extra-Legal Forces
One of the difficulties inherent in writing about Russia for any foreign observer is the inadequacy of the terms that the effort entails. There are laws—lots of them, and often enough both mutually contradictory and intentionally vague enough to be open to different interpretations. There are constitutionally established institutions—but their power and meaning are shifting phantoms. We speak of a state—but cannot say where it begins or ends, or even how far Putin and his closest associates are part of it, or to whom or what they are in reality answerable, if they are answerable to anyone. The establishment of a National Guard responsible to the President through its commander Zolotov is governed by a set of formal rules but its purpose is essentially to act as Putin’s personal enforcer, and probably to balance competing security organizations. It is not hard to imagine circumstances in which it would be used in an effort to compel obedience to the President or a successor congenial to the Guard, irrespective of the rest of the Russian “state.”
The sheer variety of unofficial and unacknowledged enforcement agencies and groups acting on behalf of the Kremlin, if not always on the instructions of President Putin, or on behalf of regional power structures, is striking. Donald Jensen’s analysis of the way that Russian armed forces operate in eastern Ukraine and the effects of that in Russia itself is a prime example of a reality still denied by official Russia, and the association with that campaign of quasi-independent Russian and Donbas groupings. The role of Chechnya in the Russian Federation is similar in its range and ambiguity. Chechens were duly found guilty3 of the murders of for example Politkovskaya and Nemtsov but despite Putin’s promises of full investigations and just punishment no answers have been given as to who gave the orders or how those or other executions may have been linked up with other government agencies. Ramzan Kadyrov remains free to enforce brutalities in Chechnya itself without effective control from the center, pretty much regardless of the hostility of for example the FSB, something its KGB predecessor would not have tolerated. President Putin promised, for example, Chancellor Merkel that reports of violent action against homosexuals in Chechnya would be investigated with determination. The capable officer charged with the task was reassigned after two weeks in an apparent attempt to push the question to the side. The Novaya Gazeta paper has since reported that some 55 Chechens were executed without trial on various pretexts during the night of January 25-26, and published the personal details of 27 of them, to help, it said, the investigation team.
The Russian Orthodox Church is a key Kremlin ally with its own share of vigilantes. A Popular Front has been set up with a wide membership . It claims to pursue officially supported purposes as an expression of Russia-wide solidarity, but, it seems to me at least, it lacks significant concrete political or propaganda effect. Cossack groups are active in some areas of the country in trying to enforce conservative values as the center would see them. There have been Putin endorsed youth groups engaged in similar intimidation in the past. Groups like the Night Riders and anti-Maidan, together now with individuals using green disinfectant spray—mixed sometimes with dangerous chemicals—have also benefited from the (presumably) centrally directed tolerance of the FSB freely to target particular occasions or individuals. The offices of Navalny’s anti-Corruption organization have been under such pressure recently. One in the Krasnodar region was recently demolished by a group calling itself Putin’s Babushki (Grandmothers).
A state which allows non-state actors to use violence under its state umbrella should generally be regarded as showing symptoms of degradation.
Stable Order or Frozen Anarchy?
If there is one principal expression of the Putin system, it is the FSB, the successor of the Soviet era KGB. The FSB has recreated what the KGB was unable to maintain: a network of repression, blackmail, and cooptation. It is not alone as prosecutor of what the Putinist system sees as misdeeds: the Ministries of the Interior and Justice, together with the Investigation Committee, for example, share responsibility for that. There are clashes between the FSB and other security agencies. But the FSB, together with the Patrushev-chaired Security Council, is the main instrument of central control. Unlike its KGB predecessor, which answered to the Communist Party in Soviet times, the FSB works outside the formal political structures of Russia. The FSB also shares the features of the institutions sketched out above: Its purpose is to suppress potential as well as actual opposition to the regime; and it is not in practice bound by legal niceties. Its growing role in trying to police the internet is a clear instance of both characteristics. The FSB has developed a fruitful relationship with cyber criminals, who have developed their trade on an industrial scale in Russia—an ironic example of the benefits of free enterprise, if you like.
Putin has been consistent from the start of his rule in asserting the role and right of the state over the roles and rights of individual citizens.4 His conception of what the state may be has, equally consistently, narrowed in practice to equating it with the will of its ruler, articulated through the loyal support of his—or her—instruments of power. There is much in Russian history to support such a view of what the country demands, and Putin has overseen a long campaign to sanctify tyrants of the Russian past. The view that the state, not its citizens, must be seen to be the deciding factor in governing Russia also goes with a fear of what can and has happened when central control has eased. Putin returned to the Kremlin in May 2012 after a period of unrest as the Medvedev presidency neared its end, despite the leadership role that Putin, too, played in it. It has not therefore been surprising that he opted for tightening the screws from the start.
If justice is, however, a central duty of the rulers towards the ruled, then the question is now whether Putin and his followers have provided for it in a sustainable fashion. The system is arbitrary, particularly in matters that touch on political order. The range of such politically charged issues is now wider than it was even during the Medvedev interlude, and the private space of Russian citizens has been eroded. Government by “understandings” (ponyatie) instead of clear and accountable law has a pathology of its own which could well progress more clearly into a contest between Russia’s institutions of power and her broader society over the course of 2018 to 2024. Putin and his colleagues understand that moving beyond what they have built could have uncontrollable consequences, as might, for that matter, tightening repression still further.
1For instance, see Andrew Monaghan, “Putin’s Removal of Ivanov as Chief of Staff Is More About Rejuvenation,” Chatham House, August 15, 2016.
2Details available at zaprava.ru
3The accused of course pleaded “not guilty.” To paraphrase the Vichy Police Chief in the 1942 film Casablanca, there is always a slight flavor of “Round up the usual Chechens” on such occasions. It also however seems to be the case that Chechens are regularly recruited when deniable dirty work is to be done.
4Russia on the Eve of the New Millennium, published in the run up to his election as President in succession to Yeltsin, asserts: “For Russia, a strong state…is the source and guarantee of order, the initiator and the main driving force of any change…. In Russia, a collective form of life has always dominated over individualism…. The majority of Russians associate the improvement in their lives not so much with their own endeavours, initiative, or entrepreneurship but with the help and support of the state.” (Translation taken from Chapter 1 of Russian World Views recording the highlights a workshop organized by the Academic Outreach program of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service on March 20).