The Crisis of Putinism

PARIS – Why is Russian President Vladimir Putin resorting to increasingly repressive measures against his opponents? After all, the Putin regime, in place for nearly 14 years, controls most public institutions and the entire security apparatus, including the public prosecutors, and can close or censor any media outlet at any time without notice. So why target journalists, small entrepreneurs, and NGOs – an approach that inevitably stifles social and economic life and condemns the country to stagnation? Is the lion scared of the mouse? Or is the mouse actually not that small and harmless?

The government’s recent record is depressing: in just a few months, the authorities have imposed several new repressive laws, forced influential journalists out of their jobs, and prosecuted human-rights defenders, mayors, lawyers, and prominent politicians. Political leaders, government officials, and judges do not even pretend that the judicial system is independent and fair. Kompromaty – fake, compromising charges – are used liberally and openly. The closure of the United States Agency for International Development’s operations in Russia, and of Radio Svoboda, are emblematic of efforts to restrict freedom of opinion and limit foreign cooperation.

But the recent clampdown has not deterred the opposition or silenced criticism. The Internet remains vibrant, and street protests continue to be held in major cities. Even prosecuted opponents, like Sergei Udaltsov and Alexei Navalny, have managed to “remain in the game.” The Opposition Coordination Council was chosen in an online election in October, with tens of thousands participating in the vote, notwithstanding threats and hacking.

This is the first sign of institutionalization of organizations and movements outside Putin’s orbit, and outside captive public institutions, like the State Duma and government-controlled television. Alternative modes of action remain limited and vulnerable, but they exist and will not disappear; in an authoritarian regime, that is already a significant achievement. The Internet cannot be fully controlled, and will thus develop into Russia’s main sphere of communication and free speech.