The Week In Russia: (Still) Working For The Clampdown

File Photo of Kremlin Tower, St. Basil's, Red Square at Night

(Article text ©2021 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Steve Gutterman – Oct. 1, 2021 – article text also appeared at rferl.org/a/week-in-russia-gutterman-elections/31487289.html)

The elections are over, but the state keeps piling pressure on Kremlin opponents, independent media, and civil society. Aleksei Navalny and his associates are targeted again, along with several outlets and organizations that have chronicled the persistent clampdown. Meanwhile, the government warns of a “difficult period” ahead as COVID-19 cases rise and deaths from the virus hit record levels.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Predictable Putin?

Kremlinology is said to be a fool’s game, or at least a guessing game, and that is often the case: Mapping out a land where motives are often hidden from view and the truth buried beneath shifting strata of obfuscation can be daunting, particularly if you’re standing on the other side of a high brick wall.

But it’s not always so complex: Sometimes, the riddle is easily answered even if the mystery and the enigma remain, and the contours of the bulldogs are not hard to make out as they battle under the rug.

For example, heading into the State Duma elections on September 17-19, there were plenty of forecasts that the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party would preserve its constitutional two-thirds majority in the lower parliament house despite ratings that, never high, have fallen below 30 percent. Those forecasts were accurate.

In 2020, there were those who predicted that once President Vladimir Putin completed the elaborate process of securing a constitutional amendment that gives him the option of seeking reelection in 2024 and 2030, the Russian state’s pressure on dissenting voices — on enemies real, perceived, and conjured from thin air, or from the most well-meaning corners of civil society — would intensify. They were right.

A year later, observers guessed that there would be no let-up in the clampdown after the Duma elections, which were marred by the campaign to keep genuine opposition politicians out and by evidence of fraud. So far, that has turned out to be a good guess.

In the short time elapsed since the elections, the authorities have taken aim at the same type of targets they had in their sights before the balloting: independent media, civil society, and the already badly beleaguered political opposition.

As he has been since he returned to Russia from Germany in January following treatment for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin, one of those in the crosshairs, along with his allies and associates, is imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

Supporters of Navalny were kept out of the Duma elections — and some chased out of the country — with a one-two punch in June, when a court declared three organizations he founded “extremist” five days after Putin signed a law barring people with ties to groups deemed extremist from running for public office.

Now — on September 28, nine days after the Duma elections ended — the Investigative Committee announced it has opened a new criminal probe accusing Navalny of creating an “extremist network” and accusing several top allies of running or participating in it.

Free By ’51

Navalny is currently serving a 2 1/2 year prison term on a parole violation that he calls absurd and is due for release in 2023. But in a bitterly wry reaction to the new investigation, he said there are now a total of four cases against him that could lead to a total of 30 years in prison.

“So don’t worry, I’ll walk free no later than the spring of 2051,” Navalny wrote in an Instagram post punctuated with a wink-face emoji.

Media outlets and civil society groups have not been spared since the elections, either: On September 29, the news outlet Mediazona and protest-and-police monitor OVD-Info were among 22 organizations to be designated “foreign agents” by the government.

Both OVD-Info and Mediazona have played key roles in chronicling the clampdown on dissent in recent months and years –and have now become its victims.

The former, whose name is derived from the acronym for a police precinct, has provided detailed information about public demonstrations and the law enforcement response, counting crowd sizes and tracking the progress of detainees to police stations and lockups.

The latter has reported doggedly and in detail about the court cases that put people behind bars and their treatment as inmates in jails and prisons across Russia. Its name comes from zona, or zone, as the myriad prisons of the sprawling Soviet gulag were known both individually and collectively.

‘Sucked Out’

The clampdown has put a number of Russians in prison, branded others with a Soviet-style moniker that contains threatening echoes of the term “enemy of the state,” and pushed many who simply seek peaceful change to the political margins.

Some have been pushed from the country altogether.

On September 30, Federal Security Service (FSB) officers searched the apartment of investigative journalist Roman Dobrokhotov, where his wife and small children live, as well as his parents’ apartment next door.

The searches came after the authorities opened a fresh criminal investigation accusing the editor of the media outlet The Insider of crossing the border illegally when he left Russia in the summer, days after the online publication was labelled a foreign agent.

Law enforcement officers raided both Dobrokhotov’s and his parents’ apartments at that time, as well. This time, according to The Insider, the operatives arrived at 6 a.m. and “six hours later led Dobrokhotov’s wife out onto the stairwell in secret, without granting her lawyer access, and took her to the FSB for questioning.”

Then they took his father, 71, while his mother stayed with her grandchildren — but she will face FSB questioning another day.

In a statement published by The Insider, Dobrokhotov said he believes the September 30 searches were aimed at putting pressure on his family and discovering his whereabouts, which he has not disclosed.

Hard Times

He called the illegal border-crossing accusation absurd — or rather “sucked out of the finger,” a colorful Russian term for fabricated — contending that the authorities had illegally confiscated his passport and were now accusing him of leaving the country without using it.

Like others who have fled Russia under pressure, Dobrokhotov said he had not wanted to leave but eventually felt he had no choice.

“I remained in Russia until the last moment. Since 2018 everyone had been telling me that to stay…was madness and suicide,” he said. “I ignored their warnings, and it was only when FSB officers knocked out my apartment door and took the computers and telephones that I realized they wouldn’t let me work in Russia.”

Another phenomenon that has persisted past the elections, and in some ways gotten worse, is Russia’s COVID-19 epidemic.

On September 30, the government recorded 867 deaths over the previous 24 hours, a record high for the third straight day, and two regions — Perm and Udmurtia — plan to reimpose restrictions on access to restaurants, movie theaters, and public events next week as case numbers and fatalities rise.

“A difficult period is approaching once again,” Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said.