Russia’s political crackdown continues to gather pace

The Bell

You may be getting tired of reading about Russia’s political crackdown, but it continues to gather momentum. Last week we wrote about how the authorities branded top independent media outlet Meduza a ‘foreign agent’, and the week before we described the attacks on supporters of opposition leader Navalny. This week — yet again — the headlines were all about pressure on independent journalism, free speech and civil society.

Meduza in battle for survival

As a result of its ‘foreign agent’ designation, advertisers are deserting Meduza. To stop a financial disaster, Meduza asked readers Friday for donations. Since its founding, Meduza has relied on money from advertising: it never had a paywall or crowdfunding. Indeed, Meduza created the Russian market for ‘native advertising’ (quality texts written by professional journalists), which has since become standard media practice.  If you want to help Meduza, you can sign up here. The outlet said Saturday it had raised enough to survive the next few months, but its long-term future remains unclear.

‘Foreign agent’ law broadened

Putin signed a law Friday that imposes fines for re-posting material from ‘foreign agents’ without identifying them as such. These fines can be applied to other media organizations as well as social media users. The law also mandates fines for people who ‘impersonate’ journalists at political rallies (a possible threat to bloggers and foreign reporters who do not have formal media accreditation in Russia).

Restrictions on education

A new law on education was signed off by Putin last month, but the Ministry of Education only published details Saturday of how exactly it would be implemented. The Ministry made clear that no form of educational activity (including lectures, seminars, and round tables) can be undertaken by anyone designated a ‘foreign agent’. And people with less than two years of teaching experience cannot ‘educate’ in scientific or educational institutions (a category that includes libraries). In less formal settings — for example online lectures — things are less clear, according to lawyers. Education sector entrepreneurs guess that they will face more bureaucracy and higher costs. In the worst case scenario, the law will be used as a sword of Damocles, poised to strike anyone who angers the authorities.

Pressure on opposition protesters 

The anti-Kremlin rallies on April 21 were suspiciously peaceful. And it turns out the authorities have just changed tactics: instead of detaining protesters on the street in front of news cameras, they decided to postpone the arrests and turned up at the homes of participants afterwards. In the week after the rally, police visited up to 1,000 people, and hundreds were arrested. Psychologically, this is perhaps scarier than being detained at a protest (police officers came to the home of the author of this text twice on the day of the rally). It creates a feeling of total insecurity.

Such arrests are assisted by video surveillance systems currently working in full force in Moscow and the nearby city of Nizhny Novgorod. Human rights activists have recorded dozens of cases in which police have come to protestors’ homes on the basis of evidence gathered from CCTV footage.

Top lawyer arrested

Pre-trial detention for former journalist Ivan Safronov was extended this week for a fourth time. He has now spent more than six months in detention. Although he is accused of treason, the details of the case remain shrouded in secrecy. Safronov’s lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who also represents opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his supporters, was arrested Friday. Pavlov is a prominent lawyer who has defended dozens of Russians accused of treason. He was charged with disclosing information from an investigation.

No more U.S. visas

The U.S. embassy announced this week that from May 15 it will only process diplomatic visas, and travel documents required in life-or-death situations. Tourist visas will no longer be issued inside Russia. The restrictions follow Russia’s decision to ban Russian citizens from working in the U.S. embassy, which meant the embassy had to shed 75 percent of its staff. U.S. tourist visas have not been available in Russia since March 2020, forcing Russians to travel to U.S. embassies in neighboring countries. Currently, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine are the preferred destinations. Even so, in all of these countries it can take months to get a free slot to submit an application.

Why the world should care

These incidents are not directly related to one another, but they are all part of the same phenomenon. “The Russian authorities are heading towards totalitarianism,” said Meduza editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko in an interview this week. We are reluctant to agree, but the case against is getting weaker by the day. There’s another important aspect to this situation: as well as being pillars of a free society, media and education are also big business. They are becoming more and more dependent on the state.


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