Anne Applebaum says that dissidents against the authoritarian regime, many of them in London, are raising the stakes. The President’s response is to get even tougher — and to target Britain in his new propaganda war
About two years ago, Mikhail Kasyanov, ex-prime minister of Russia, made a private visit to Washington. Off the record, he told a handful of journalists that he was disturbed by the authoritarianism of President Putin. Then, in maybe a dozen or so more ‘off the record’ meetings, he told more journalists, several politicians and a lot of other people in Washington that he was disturbed by the authoritarianism of President Putin. In other words, he might as well have got himself a megaphone and walked down the street, shouting his intention to oppose President Putin. There was no reaction in Russia.
Round about the same time Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, decided to abandon his chess career in order to oppose President Putin. ‘Russia is in a moment of crisis and every decent person must stand up and resist the rise of the Putin dictatorship,’ he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, definitely not off the record. Again, there was no reaction in Russia — though an angry fan did hit him over the head with a chessboard. (‘I’m lucky the national sport of the Soviet Union is chess, not baseball,’ he said afterwards.)
Both men are now vocal opponents of President Putin — though any way you look at it, they don’t have much in common. Kasyanov is a slick talker, a technocrat and a former insider who is, fairly or not, suspected of corruption. Kasparov is a blunt-speaking outsider, half-Armenian and half-Jewish. No one suspects him of corruption, since his chess career made him plenty rich.
But if the two have little in common with one another, they have even less in common with the rest of President Putin’s open opponents. They have little in common, for example, with Anna Politkovskaya, the extraordinary journalist, Chechen war reporter and Kremlin critic who was murdered late last year. They have little in common with Lyudmila Alekseyeva, a former and current leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group — a venerable institution created in 1976 to force the Soviet Union to live up to the international human rights treaties it had signed, now re-organised to protest against the creeping authoritarianism of Putin’s post-Soviet Russia. They have little in common with Eduard Limonov, a writer and ex-punk rocker whose National Bolshevist Party, though best known for thuggishness and stunts, also opposes Putin.
Moreover, none of these opposition figures seems to have anything at all in common with President Putin’s loudest opponent either: Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian oligarch, who told the Guardian last week that ‘we need to use force to change this regime’. Asked if he were plotting a revolution, he said ‘you are absolutely correct’ — thereby inspiring mocking headlines in Moscow about Berezovsky following in the footsteps of Lenin.
Actually, I should rephrase that. It is perhaps possible to imagine a bond between Kasyanov, a politician who knows the value of money, and Berezovsky — though the former denies it. But a political pact between Berezovsky and, say, Alekseyeva? A slick mogul who hungers for media attention, and a ferocious, white-haired lady who hungers for justice? Not a chance.
On the contrary, if there is anything that characterises this new generation of Russian dissidents, it is their deep differences. Some want street demonstrations, some want television time. Some are incensed about the Chechen war, some are interested in personal power. Some live in British country houses, others in grubby Moscow flats. No wonder they have yet to formulate a cohesive movement.
Oddly enough, in their mixed motives and varying backgrounds this new generation of dissidents does resemble its Soviet predecessors. They, too, were unpopular. Peter Reddaway, then the leading scholar on the subject, reckoned that at its zenith in the early 1980s the dissident movement had made ‘little or no headway among the mass of ordinary people’. Today, the mass of ordinary people are probably not merely indifferent but actively hostile to Kasyanov with his liberal economics; to Kasparov with his mixed ethnic origins; to Alekseyeva with her high principles; to Limonov with his madness. Yet despite this — or perhaps because of it — the Putin regime increasingly treats these new dissidents in much the same manner as the Soviet regime once treated its dissidents.
Until recently, the Putin doctrine of managed democracy was relatively mild and rather clever. Although television was entirely Kremlin-controlled, small opposition newspapers were allowed to exist, so long as not too many people read them. Although they would never receive serious airtime, small opposition political parties were also allowed to exist. Anyone who went too far was slapped down, of course: they could receive visits from the tax police or, if they got too powerful, they could be arrested by the tax police, as was the oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Still, this system was mild enough to allow President Putin to go on posing as a ‘reformer’ for many years, and to continue being invited to the G8.
But in the past year or so, that carefully calibrated tolerance for a manifestly weak political opposition has begun to deteriorate. The visits from the tax police are now augmented by visits from the secret police. Independent groups of all kinds — environmentalist, human rights, even educational — find it difficult to register legally. Most of all, two extremely open and brutal murders of two well-known people — Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko — appear to have changed the terms of the game. Politkovskaya was shot in broad daylight, in her apartment building, by a confident killer who left his weapon at the scene of the crime. Litvinenko, as we all know, was murdered in central London with radiation poisoning. These were not murders carried out by people who were anxious to prevent bad publicity, or indeed cared in the least what the rest of the world thinks about Russia.
Most recently, the language used publicly about President Putin’s opponents has begun to change too. No longer tolerated as powerless oddballs, they have begun to appear in the press in a new, more demonic guise. Kasparov is a particular target: last week, the website Pravda.ru called him a ‘political pawn who has sold his soul to the traitors who plot Russia’s demise’ as well as a ‘wild-eyed Azeri Berezovsky supporter’ who ‘sits amidst his Western habits in his millionaire apartment’. The same article called the new dissident organisations a ‘motley army of deviants, criminals, wannabe politicians, fraudsters and gangsters on the fringes of Russian society’. Nice, no?
Embedded in the insults is a deep, Soviet-style paranoia about foreigners, who are suspected of supporting this motley army of deviants with money and asylum. Though America is usually the main target — the claim that the US funds Chechen terrorism comes up regularly — Britain has begun to play a prominent role in this line of public propaganda too. Since agreeing to speak at a small opposition conference, organised by Kasparov and Kasyanov, the British ambassador has been followed and harassed by a group of thuggish nationalist Kremlin supporters, one of whom accused him of assault. (‘When I go out of the house to buy cat food, they follow me and start waving banners,’ he has said.) Now that London has become the residence of choice for exiled oligarchs and ex-KGB dissidents — Berezovsky is wanted by Russian police, after all — it isn’t hard to find headlines referring to the ‘British Bullshit Corporation’ (following a news item on Siberian poll ution: ‘Suppose the BBC tried for once to report the truth about Russia instead of distorting it?’) and articles gloating over the British hostages captured by Iran (Pravda.ru wrote gleefully last week that the hostage incident had ‘humiliated’ Britain, destroying forever the ‘myth of their stoicism’.)
Soon, no doubt, the Russian government will be printing posters of fat British capitalists in bowler hats squashing Russian workers with their shiny boots. A recent survey reported that more than a quarter of Russia’s leaders — in the presidential administration, government and parliament — had served in the KGB or another intelligence service. A whopping 78 per cent appear to have had some relationship with intelligence services, clandestine or otherwise.
Slowly, Russia’s new political class is bringing not just a change in rhetorical tone, but a familiar kind of violence. Last weekend, some 2,000 members of the political opposition — among them Kasyanov, Kasparov and Limonov — organised a march in Moscow. They were met by 9,000 club-wielding riot police. At least 170 people were arrested, among them Kasparov, who was charged with ‘shouting anti-government slogans in the presence of a large group of people’.
Kasparov has deemed these harsh new police tactics evidence that the regime is ‘scared’. Others suspect the Kremlin fears a repeat of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, whose adherents used street protests to change the regime. I am not so sure. The new aggression might, on the contrary, be evidence that the Kremlin is now so self-confident that it no longer needs to make any gestures to Western public sensibilities at all.
There are many reasons why this might be so. That 80 per cent public support — backed up by a television monopoly which gives no time to potential opponents — is part of it. High oil prices are even more important. Soviet dissidents at least knew that even in the darkest times, they could get some attention paid to their cause in the West: in 1980 a group of Russian women political prisoners sent a message to President Ronald Reagan, congratulating him on his election. It arrived within three days, to the President’s delight, infuriating the KGB. But nowadays, the West is so anxious to please President Putin, and so keen to buy his gas and oil, that Kasparov and Kasyanov can’t count on much press coverage. Reagan is not in the White House; it is hard to imagine a letter from a Russian prison raising many eyebrows today.
In the end, though, some of that self-confidence surely comes from a sense of vindication. For a brief period, in the early 1990s, it looked like the KGB was finished. Now it is back, and more important than ever. If nothing else, the past decade has proven to Putin and his colleagues that the values they imbibed during their years in the Soviet secret services were the right ones. They no longer care if others disagree.
Anne Applebaum is a contributing editor of The Spectator and a Washington Post columnist and member of its editorial board.