TIPP Insights: Putin’s war on dissent

By tippinsights Editorial Board, TIPP Insights

Recently, we received a Letter to the Editor regarding our editorial “Punish Russia, Not Russians.” The contents of the letter were such, “Are Russians not responsible for policies and acts of war their country encounter on others? All of Russia must pay for what their leaders do! Was Germany not responsible for Hitler? The people of Russia will have to demand different from their leaders if they want to be part of the remaining civilized world! Sorry Russian citizens, change leadership and government or live with it.”

While these statements are true to an extent, there is much to be considered in the case of Russia. The country is not an actual democracy and hasn’t been one, especially after President Putin came to power. The Russian government can best be described as a “managed democracy,” wherein the basic procedures of democracy are followed, but the outcomes of such processes, like elections, are predetermined.

The Accidental Leader Turned Power-Hungry Autocrat

Vladimir Putin, the former foreign intelligence officer in the KGB, and director of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), was appointed prime minister in 1999 by President Boris Yeltsin. At the time, he was merely considered a placeholder.

At the dawn of the millennium, he was elected for the first time to the president’s office. He served two terms (2000–2004, 2004–2008) before returning to the prime minister’s office in 2008–2012.

In 2012, Putin was again elected as the country’s president and has held office to date. Even though he has always been “elected,” each subsequent election has been mired in allegations of fraud and rigging.

His initial years in office coincided with the Russian economic boom, which is considered primarily responsible for his popularity. Riding high on mass popularity, President Putin consolidated power and established the current ruling party, United Russia.

In the most blatant display of his intentions, he amended the constitution, ostensibly after a fair referendum that allowed him two more terms in office, effectively extending his reign till 2036.

But, President Putin has not stayed in office on the strength of the Russian economy and his popularity numbers alone. He has done so by gagging the media and systematically silencing the opposition.

Doing Away With Critics

Political opponents and critics have been imprisoned, poisoned, and murdered. The murder of the liberal politician and Putin-critic, Boris Nemstov, in 2015, near the Kremlin, shocked the world. For criticizing the government’s links to the mafia, Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Federal Security Service, was poisoned in London in 2006. A British public inquiry went on record implicating President Putin in the case.

Dissent is not tolerated and rarely goes unpunished. Efforts to unseat President Putin have been made, and Russians have protested en masse, but the autocratic ruler has successfully suppressed each of these attempts so far.

The most well-known of President Putin’s critics, Alexei Navalny, a lawyer, and political campaigner, has been speaking out against the autocrat despite attempts on his life. He rose to prominence during the 2011 protests and was arrested for participating. He has been arrested on various occasions for organizing and participating in protests and speaking against the government.

His rising popularity was a clear threat to the establishment, and in August 2019, he was poisoned on a flight from Siberia to Moscow. The potent nerve agent, Novichok, was found in his body. Despite the obvious threat to his life, the anti-corruption activist returned to Russia to continue his crusade for democracy against Putin. He was immediately detained on his return. In January 2021, he was placed in a corrective labor colony, awaiting a new round of trials.

Strongly opposed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Navalny has spoken out against the aggression and called for protests. He stated, “Putin is not Russia, and if there is anything in Russia right now that you can be most proud of, it is those 6,824 people who were detained because – without any call – they took to the streets with placards saying “No War.”

No Scope For Dissent

Due to state polls being highly falsified, the Russian people’s support for the war in Ukraine is estimated to be only at 50%. A week into the invasion, more than 13,000 protesters have been detained across 147 Russian cities, according to the independent monitoring group, OVD-Info. Such protests are gaining steam as the war continues.

Earlier this month, the Kremlin issued a mandate punishing citizens for spreading information not in line with Kremlin propaganda about the military assault on Ukraine. If found guilty, citizens and journalists could face 15 years in prison. Social media platforms have either been banned or asked to toe the line.

Removing President Putin from office is not an easy task, though his folly in invading Ukraine may well end his reign. But, the brave voices of people like Navalny’s have brought to the fore ordinary Russians’ plight and despair. President Putin’s near total control over the government and media ensures that dissenting voices are silenced before they can spread. Russians have few options other than to endure his tyranny.

 

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