Vienna, November 17 – The recent arrests of opposition leaders Eduard Limonov of the National Bolsheviks and Sergey Udaltsov of the Left Front show that widespread hopes for the liberalization of Russian political life under Dmitry Medvedev are “an illusion,” these opposition leaders and their supporters say.
Instead, they argue, what is being created is “the illusion of democracy” for certain select groups who are prepared to trade genuine freedom for official support and the imposition of “a velvet terror” on all individuals and groups who pose are not willing to do so and thus pose a challenge for the regime.
Dmitry Agranovsky, director of the law firm of Liptser, Stavitsky and Partners, told the Novy region news agency yesterday, said that the powers that be in Moscow view the opposition as “an enemy which they will destroy if it does not surrender,” adding that repressions of this kind have “increased” recently (www.nr2.ru/moskow/257291.html).
In his view, “the opponents of liberalization are those who want to ‘arrange’ everything, an influential group of people who consider that in Russia democracy is impossible and that repression and crackdowns are the path to stability,” a view others suggested was linked less that of Medvedev than by implication of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Udaltsov himself described the current system as “democracy for the elect,” one in which “all the declarations of the powers that be about the adoption of a course toward liberalization are only words directed at creating an image of democrats and liberals.” In fact, he said, Russia’s current course is going in exactly the opposite direction.”
“All who create ‘problems’ for the powers that be are being isolated,” the Left Front leader continued, adding that he “would call this a form of ‘velvet’ terror,” a political approach in which the government uses relatively restrained pressure on the opposition while working hard to create “a negative image” of the opposition in the mass media.
Agranovsky for his part said that this kind of repression was having a boomerang effect with ever more Russians concluding that “liberalization is necessary” and ever fewer of them being afraid of what the regime might do to them if they stand up for that and for other ideas in which they believe.
That situation raises the stakes in the current situation. On the one hand, it may lead the powers that be to conclude that “velvet” repression is not enough and that they must use harsher means to maintain their positions. And on the other, it raises in Russia the dilemma described by Pastor Niemuller 75 years ago.
As that German religious leader pointed out, he failed to protest when the Nazis came for labor union organizers, communists and Jews because he was not a labor union organizer, a communist or a Jew. But when the Nazi police came for him, he noted, there was no one left to protest.
Or put in another and more immediate way: the strategy of the current Russian government, like those of other authoritarian regimes, wins at least a temporary victory if it succeeds in convincing those who should be defenders of democracy and freedom that the only people and groups the powers that be are going after are “dangerous marginals.”
By framing the issue in this way both for their own people and for Western governments and observers, the powers that be in Moscow distract attention from the erosion of the rights and freedoms not just of groups many may find noxious but also of the majority of the population and hence of the political system as a whole.
Tragically, there is plenty of evidence that this is exactly what is going on. Yesterday, for example, the URA.ru independent news agency reported that “political censorship is returning to Russia” in ways that may allow some observers to dismiss that trend until it becomes too difficult to reverse it (www.ura.ru/content/urfo/16-11-2009/articles/1036254405.html).
The agency, which has had its own problems with the government over its reporting, said that Kremlin officials had forced the Russian edition of “Newsweek” to change an ad campaign which, among other things, ironically showed hand praying for a Russian football victory, bureaucrats found that offensive – or, more to the point, thought their bosses would.