NY Dispatches: Fragile sovereignism

The State Duma adopted, in the first reading, a bill expanding the defition of “foreign agents”, a discriminatory law first adopted in 2012. It appears that the updated law will be approved in the final reading in early 2021, opening what seems to be a tough political season for the Kremlin. The law fits into a series of legislative changes that were adopted recently and reflect the Kremlin’s fears and concerns about the years ahead.

Continuing a trend that started in Putin’s third presidential term it seems that the amendments will significantly broaden the Kremlin’s set of tools to crack down on any kind of undesired activity: the law may allow arbitrary actions against any kind of non-profit organisations and individuals; it may make it significantly riskier to participate in protests; and it may be used to take down critical articles.

If one is really keen on giving the Russian government the benefit of doubt, it’s not impossible that the law will be used against anti-vaccination groups – especially given that more than half of Russians don’t trust COVID vaccines – but it is clear that its main purpose is to nip political activism and investigative journalism in the bud. While it seems unlikely that people will be prosecuted for “kitchen talk”, a spectre raised by Vladimir Slivyak in an article on VTimes, the purpose of the law seems to be precisely to keep people on their toes, guessing what kind of activity is too risky and therefore discouraging both citizens and politicians from taking part in initiatives such as Navalny’s smart voting (as some representatives of the “systemic” opposition are already doing).

The Russian state is not omnipotent and omnipresent: it is questionable whether it would be able to enforce restrictive laws all the time and across the country – likely one of the main reasons why there hasn’t been a nation-wide lockdown during the pandemic – but its stability relies on being able to enforce these laws when and where the leaders of the state want to. Whether the amendments achieve the desired chilling effect will depend on whether this threat is credible.

These and other recent amendments also highlight fairly straightforwardly what the Kremlin sees as emerging threats in 2021 and beyond.

First, there is a flurry of a new, bold and slick investigative reporting in the vein of Navalny’s videos about political corruption, but now directly targeting Putin. It remains to be seen whether any of these reports will bring people to the streets – as Navalny’s now-famous report on Dmitry Medvedev did in 2018 – but they are certainly contributing to the demystification of Putin, the exact opposite of what Putin likely planned to achieve this year, and therefore irritate the Kremlin.

Second, there is Navalny himself and his “smart voting” initiative that made headway over the past year and risked exposing the widening gap between voters’ expectations and the political outcomes that the system is being engineered to produce. Opposition deputies elected to municipal councils in Moscow, Novosibirsk and Tomsk have not been able to change these institutions substantially (so far), however using their platform of publicity they have helped to expose irregularities in policymaking and budgeting, presented amendments and (in Moscow) forced a public hearing on the budget, therefore raising the degree of transparency on them and adding uncontrolled risks to the system. The attempt to poison Navalny has been followed by a relentless campaign to prevent his return to Russia and no doubt the amendments to the “foreign agents” law will be used to discredit Navalny’s associates.

Third, the Kremlin and seemingly especially the security elite is growing wary of the return of regional politics, triggered by two broad concurrent developments, a conflict between national and regional elites over rent (political influence and market access) and, in certain regions, growing animosity between local residents and the federal government. Beyond affirming the annexation of Crimea, the constitutional amendment that made it a crime to question Russia’s territorial integrity also tries to discourage any activity that the authorities may label separatist; and this definition may and, if needed, will be stretched. Some, such as Nikolay Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council, are already linking it to the “foreign agents” narrative. The federal government will likely have to bail out several regions struggling with falling budgetary receipts and ballooning costs next year, which in turn will provide an excuse for the government to tighten its control over regional spending. An upcoming law on federally administered territories will serve a similar purpose.  

Fourth, the Kremlin looks increasingly determined to decouple its legal system from international structures that it deems meddlesome. Last week Putin backed a proposal for Russia to establish its own “human rights court”. This, together with a constitutional amendment that placed the Russian constitution above international law is a pretty straightforward proposal to supersede the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, a Strasbourg-based court under the Council of Europe. Ironically, when in 2019 the Russian government used financial blackmail to make the Council of Europe weaken its own powers to sanction its members, proponents of the “deal”, including the French and the German government, argued that this was a price worth paying to keep Russian citizens and civil organizations under the jurisdiction of the court (even as Russia’s track record of implementing its rulings had been patchy, to say the least). It appears that they were wrong. We see a similar attempt to decouple Russia from foreign and international standards in the field of digital technology. This will be more difficult, but the direction is clear.

Thus the amendments to the legislation on “foreign agents” seem to symbolize a principle of governance that I would call “fragile sovereignism”: a government that feels a growing need to legislate for the sake of maintaining the status quo, even if this blocks development; one which uses an increasingly radical definition of sovereignty to justify domestic political moves, even if this blocks international cooperation; one that depends on increasingly elastic language and repeated demonstrations of its willingness and ability to use force, in order to maintain the understanding that underpins the system.

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