By Alex Shkurko
Since Russia’s controversial annexation of Crimea last March, Western observers have debated issues ranging from the extent of Russia’s territorial ambitions to the question of arming Ukraine. Less ubiquitous, but equally concerning is the return of Soviet-style authoritarianism in the age of Putin. Though this is not a new development, the crisis in Ukraine has opened up a new chapter in Russia’s retreat from liberal democracy, unleashing a fresh torrent of media controls and political intimidation.
Under Putin, the media reshapes and redirects events in Ukraine, placing blame on the West for inciting regional conflict in an attempt to economically isolate the Russian people. Russian media is immensely powerful in the shaping of Russian public opinion. This is especially true for older generations, whom receive 90 percent of their news from state-controlled television stations. Anti-Western antagonism is hardly new, but its resurgence is notable both for its scope and effectiveness. While the impact of sanctions has been dubious from the perspective of the West, they have only fervently reinforced the disdain already present in Russian citizens for the United States and its Western allies
Redirecting blame for Russia’s economic woes to the United States has proven to be an effective course of action. The process takes place on the television sets of every citizen in the Russian Federation on channels such as Perviy Kanal. In between pop ballads by Soviet-era singers, Putin appears on screen standing tall and proud, declaring with his body language that Russia’s power has yet to be seen by the world. Putin is first and foremost a nationalist and a populist. However misdirected his criticisms of Obama are, the Russian people are listening and are standing tall with him.
The control of information by Putin and his allies is not limited to traditional media outlets. Restrictions on expression have been given a new life and form by the Internet. Though Twitter and Facebook are accessible, the Russian social media site VKontakte, which translates to “in touch”, eclipses them in popularity and usage. But with constant oversight and monitoring by the Russian government, users are dissuaded from organizing together and from sharing politically damaging news. In 2011, authorities pressured VKontakte to limit opposition posts over concerns about protest organization. After reports divulged that VKontakte shared user information with the government, two major shareholders sold nearly half of the company to suspected Kremlin allies.
In 2013, VKontakte founder Pavel Durov posted Federal Security Service (FSB) requests for information on Ukrainian activists who frequently criticized the Kremlin. Russian social media does not allow anonymous registration and requires users to provide phone numbers, which are linked to passports in Russia. To shield themselves from the eyes of the state, younger and more progressive activists have taken to Western social networks with false names to voice their critiques of Putin’s state. However, their impact at home is negligible given the aforementioned limited reach of Western social media.
For years, the liberal opposition in Russia has experienced a disturbing trend of murders and disappearances among its prominent figures. Victims such as former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Alexander Litvinenko and noted journalists Anne Politkovskaya were known for their outspoken criticism of Putin’s regime. Now, the crisis in Ukraine has added yet another prominent opposition figure to the list of victims. The recent murder of former deputy prime minister and noted Putin critic Boris Nemtsov mere steps away from the Kremlin shook Russian society and served as a stark reminder that in today’s Russia, those who voice opposition to Putin do so at considerable risk. Nemstov was once a contender to succeed Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s president. That a Jew nearly ascended the highest echelons of Russian power is an incredible thought. However, it was not to be. Yeltsin eventually handpicked Putin to succeed him. Nemtsov instead became a passionate Putin critic and a symbol for human rights and democracy in a gradually authoritarian Russia. Some believe his murder, carried out shortly before he was slated to lead a pro-Maidan rally, was an attempt to conceal and suppress information pointing Russia’s involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukrainian. Though the links between Nemstov’s murderers and Putin is unsubstantiated, the slaying of such a prominent anti-Putin figure further squeezes a hard-pressed opposition.
Russia is heading, or has already arrived, at a point of no return as a result of the Ukraine crisis. The ever-tightening control of information and the murder of a prominent former deputy prime minister within walking distance of the Kremlin, poses an important question: what’s in store for Russia’s future? If current trends continue, little will remain of the hopes some in the country had at the collapse of the Soviet Union for a flourishing liberal democracy. This is no accident and is a progression of Putin’s policies and leadership. That is in itself troubling.
Image by Vladimir Varfolomeev