Putin's Invisible Wall

Rebecca Tinsley and Yulia Andreeva-Freimon

In Russia's upcoming elections, Vladimir Putin could teach Donald Trump a thing or two about building walls and manipulating fear of foreigners.

Since resuming his presidency in 2012, Vladimir Putin has created a siege mentality more potent than any physical wall. As Russia heads to the polls on September 18th, his short-term aim is to prevent a repeat of the protests surrounding 2011's parliamentary election. But in the long term, Putin wants a country where citizens and media are passive, fearful and disempowered. His obliging Duma has legislated to undermine civic society through curbs on non-government organizations (NGOs), the Internet, and by coercing the media into self-censorship.

On becoming president for the first time in 2000, Putin moved rapidly to neutralize the mass media, putting popular TV stations in the hands of pliant cronies, and shutting down non-state media. As a consequence, only 5 percent of Russians now encounter independent media . Putin, a former KGB agent, knows all information is political, that perception matters more than facts, and that he can exploit dismay at Russia's diminished global role by stoking fears of foreign conspiracies. Hence, even as Russia annexes Crimea and threatens sovereign Ukraine, Russians are told they are not aggressors but victims of American scheming. Even as Russia bombs Syrian hospitals, the media echoes Putin's aggrieved narrative that Russia is nobly struggling against Islamism on behalf of Christendom.

Writing about the closure of TV 2, the independent channel in Tomsk, its editor-in-chief, Viktor Muchnik, recalled that soon after Putin was elected the station received a visit from the security services. "You need to understand that your time is over," the journalists were told. "It's our time now". According to the award-winning Moscow TV journalist, Andrei Loshak, "The only indicator of the professionalism of any Russian media outlet today is having it closed down... Moscow just has to drop a hint and everyone in the provinces knows what's expected of them" .

Grigory Tumanov, a correspondent at Moscow's Kommersant, believes media self-censorship works because, "Every publication possesses its own subtle system of checks and balances." Everyone understands and no one says anything out loud. For Ilya Yablokov, an academic at Leeds University, "Intuition is the most important quality for Russian journalists who wants to stay in the profession and make a career." The Kremlin prefers politics based on short-term tactics rather than long term strategy, he says, so journalists must be ready to change the angle of reporting any event at short notice. For example, media praise for independent Russian militias in Ukraine stopped abruptly when the Kremlin realized it had to reassert its monopoly on violence. It disapproves of spontaneous action, even when it is loyal to the Kremlin.

The War on Information

Putin was quick to recognize the power of the internet. In 2002 online "extremism" was criminalized, although its definition was left vague. Thus a Siberian blogger is prosecuted for criticising a local police force for their bad behavior and human rights violations. A blogger in Karelia is indicted for criticising the leadership of the Orthodox church -- and flees to Estonia. And the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, is prosecuted for allegedly calling for "mass disorders" on his website.

In reaction to the 2011 protests against alleged election rigging, the Duma created Roskomnadzor, a media and Internet watchdog empowered to close down sites without a court order. The original intention of its "blacklist" was to block child pornography and sites advocating drug abuse and suicide. However, in 2012 the law expanded to sites advocating "extremism" or other subjects on which there is a gag order. Reporters Without Borders describes its procures as "extremely opaque". It blocks content "suspected in extremism," "calling for illegal meetings," "inciting hatred," and "violating the established order". All this might be acceptable in the "war on terror," were the terms adequately defined. But "extremism" remains nebulous, and generously interpreted.

The so-called Bloggers Law required sites with more than 3000 daily visitors to register with Roskimnadzor. Social media sites must store personal data on domestic servers, thus preventing them from using international networks as a potential backup. As a result, Wikipedia and Reedit have been blocked. The Yarovaya Laws, coming into effect in 2018, will make it a crime to fail to report a crime, or knowing a crime is being planned; and organising an "extremist community." Some non-violent "extremist" crimes will carry twice the length of prison sentence as does murder. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), "No digital communication would be safe from government snooping, no matter how innocuous or unrelated to terrorism." Internet companies must provide the information necessary for decoding, which means encryption keys, since much content is encoded. HRW wonders how it will be possible for companies to operate in Russia without serving as part of the government's surveillance network. It is also alleged that creating a back door weakens security against cybercriminals, making it easier to steal people's financial information.

The media law was also amended to limit foreign ownership of any group to 20 percent of shares. Hence Forbes was sold to a Russian owner who immediately reduced its political coverage. Another business paper, Vedomosti, followed suit . WIFI hotspots must be able to provide personal details of its users whom they have identified by their passports thereby excluding millions of Russians. In practice this legislation has criminalized criticizing a local governor for overspending ("an insult to the authorities") for example. Agora, an NGO, reports a nine-fold increase in censorship between 2014 and 2015. Freedom House highlights physical abuse against bloggers as well as a wave of prosecutions. For instance, in 2015 a blogger was jailed for five years for posting a video criticizing a fares increase on public transport in Tomsk, and a second video said that local authorities help Ukrainian refugees more than local residents. This was judged to have "extremist character". From September 2016 the Kremlin will be able to block any social media network which circulates content not to its liking.

Since 1992, 56 journalists have been killed, 27 of them since 2000. One commentator suggests that perhaps Russians do not value media freedom because it was granted from above, in the Gorbachev era, with no struggle to win it. She adds that journalists have a poor reputation, having been corrupted during the "information wars" between oligarchs during the Yeltsin years.

Stifling Civil Society

During the 2011 elections, citizens filmed and posted 5,000 reports of electoral violations. The Kremlin responded by labelling the NGOs involved as foreign agents, with all the sinister Tsarist-era and Stalinist associations that phrase conjures up. New laws stopped foreign funding of NGOs, a cynical move in a society where people have neither the spare cash nor a tradition of supporting NGOs. Broad definitions cover all aspects of advocacy and human rights work, criminalizing hosting a rally, inciting hatred, abasing human dignity, extremism, violating the established order, calling for illegal meetings, inciting hatred, or challenging the territorial integrity of Russia.

Putin's aim is to demonize and marginalize independent advocacy groups, casting them in the same light as spies or traitors. His campaign is helped by memories of fraudulent NGOS in the chaotic 1990s, and a Soviet-era view that the state should provide, not independent groups of busy-bodies . In the KGB mindset, people only act when they are ordered to do so or frightened. Any protest provokes the Kremlin to search for puppet-masters, not to examine the causes of grievance . In June 2014 the Ministry of Justice designated 137 NGOs as foreign agents, and by July 2016 21 of them had closed. Those gone include advocates defending voters' rights, civic education, human rights, as well as groups against torture and discrimination. Notably, Memorial, an NGO reminding Russian's of Stalin's crimes, has been listed, and its website appears to have been dormant since 2012. The NGO sector had shrunk by a third and those who survive have been reduced to charitable service providers funded by government and thus under its control.

At the root of all this is an insulting view that assumes the Russian people are incapable of formulating an alternative view of how Russia should be governed or of organizing opposition without being directed by foreigners. Putin warns that Russia's foes abroad are preparing to interfere with September's parliamentary elections. Any protests will be "foreign backed," he says, just as any non-governmental organization questioning the system must be part of a foreign conspiracy. Fearing trouble, Putin has created a new National Guard of 400,000 paramilitary police and troops run directly by the Kremlin, equipped by helicopter gunships, led by Putin's former body guard, Viktor Zolotov. Putin says it will fight terrorism, but the Duma has authorized it to fire on civilians in cases of civil unrest, without issuing a warning. Russian spending on security rose from $2.8 billion per annum in 2000 to $36.5 bn in 2010.

And yet....

Despite the assault on media, Internet and NGO freedom, there remain an army of defense lawyers prepared to spring into action to help persecuted bloggers, activists and journalists. Many thousands of brave individuals continue to organize and blog, countering Putin's attempts to divide society into them and us.

It is said that in Soviet times, people knew when they were being told lies about the success of the five-year economic plan because shelves in shops were empty and infrastructure was crumbling. Now, the biggest lies concern matters much harder for citizens to verify, such as the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine; Russian media said it was staged by the CIA which had filled the plane with cadavers.

As the centenary of the October Bolshevik Revolution approaches next year, will Russians reflect on their long journey back to where they started, when they threw off their Tsarist chains?