Is the Kremlin Losing Touch with Reality?

April 29, 2017

Over the last few months it has become increasingly clear that the Kremlin may have lost touch with changing realities and shifting public mood across Russia.

A few facts stand to prove that notion. First, it seems that Aleksey Navalny’s latest documentary exposed Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s “secret empire” that includes yachts, vineyards, and extensive mansion complexes. As public discontent has been latently accumulating for some time due to a lingering economic crisis and deterioration of living standards, the film may have triggered a new wave of protest activity in Russia, which took the Kremlin by surprise.

Secondly, on March 26, thousands took to the streets in almost 100 cities across the country to protest against government corruption. What came as an even bigger surprise to the Kremlin was the high percentage of young people who showed up to protest, despite the fact that they were considered politically passive and have known no other system of government, with Vladimir Putin enjoying power for over 17 years.

The Kremlin’s reaction was classic—a belligerent and indiscriminate crackdown on peaceful participants, as thousands were detained, including underage schoolchildren. Once again it showed the unflinching readiness of the authorities to resort to heavy-handed punishment of any political dissent.

Third, despite the crackdown, opposition groups proceeded to call for further protests. Following the March 26 protests, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia movement launched its #ENOUGH (#НАДОЕЛО) campaign to highlight issues caused by the Kremlin’s policies both inside and outside the country.

As Vladimir Putin heads to his fourth term as Russia’s president in 2018, Open Russia believes it is time for the Russian people to realize that “enough is #ENOUGH.”

The key idea behind the campaign is for Russian citizens to personally deliver letters to the Presidential Administration, calling for Vladimir Putin to refrain from running for a fourth presidential term. According to the Russian Constitution, citizens have the right to submit letters to the president, and by law the Administration must accept, register and reply to them within a month. As part of the #ENOUGH campaign, Open Russia called for such letters to be collectively delivered on April 29 in about 30 cities across Russia.

Furthermore, it would not be Putin’s Russia if a conflict had not erupted between the organisers of the demonstrations and the local authorities. In some cities, demonstrators were allowed to go ahead on “approved” routes. In Moscow, however, mayor Sergey Sobyanin categorically refused to endorse the demonstrations, citing public safety concerns.

As the campaign entered its final stages, this Wednesday, April 26, the Russian Prosecutor General officially ruled that Open Russia (an entity registered in the UK) an “undesirable organization.” Included in the wide sweep of the Prosecutor’s clumsy ruling were the Open Russia Civic Movement and the Institute of Modern Russia, a US-based think tank run by Khodorkovsky’s son, Pavel. The Prosecutor’s ruling cited “destabilisation of the country’s internal political situation” through seeking to “discredit the results of the 2018 elections by declaring them illegitimate.”

It needs to be stressed that the ruling only applies to Open Russia’s foreign entities, and not the Open Russia movement which is a Russian organization and therefore cannot be declared “undesirable.” (This fact was later officially confirmed).

Coincidentally, the ruling came out the same day as Open Russia’s vice chairman Vladimir Kara-Murza testified at the hearing on democracy and human rights abuses in Russia at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Kara-Murza highlighted the “high mortality rate” of those who oppose Vladimir Putin, drawing attention to the 115 people who are currently in jail on politicised charges—the highest number since the late Soviet period.

But the Kremlin didn’t stop there. The following day, April 27, the Open Russia headquarters in Moscow was raided by a group of 25 investigators from OMON, Russia’s elite police unit. The officers, who apparently represented the anti-extremism department (though their badges and insignia were concealed), descended on the scene without a warrant under the suspicion that the premises contained so-called “extremist material.” During the raid, all access to the office building was blocked and everyone present was denied access to lawyers who were physically prevented from entering the premises.   Meanwhile, OMON officers aggressively ripped laptops and phones from people’s hands and confiscated with without producing an official inventory. As a result, Open Russia’s Human Rights coordinator Maria Baronova received a sprained wrist.

Despite all these intimidations by the Kremlin, which, of course, don’t come as entirely surprising, Open Russia prepares to go ahead with its April 29 demonstrations. It is not clear, what exactly the Kremlin will do this time to suppress the dissent, but over the last 17 years we have seen all of its repressive tools in action, so one can take an accurate guess. What is clear, however, is that the number of those Russians who oppose Putin’s corrupt regime and who are willing to stand up for their rights, is growing, whether the Kremlin wants to acknowledge it or not.