The empty Kremlin

The Economist

Vladimir Putin’s regime has run out of ideas, but not of nasty tactics.

Every country has laws that constrain political freedom. Anti-capitalist protesters get moved on in London and New York. The Canadian province of Quebec, beset by student unrest, has passed a law that imposes daily fines of up to $35,000 on the organisers. Lawmakers try to stop online piracy and jihadist propaganda. Defamation, at least in theory, is a criminal offence in many democracies. American law says the activity of foreign agents must be registered and disclosed.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is taking what looks, superficially, a similar approach. Four new laws are passed or pending (see article). One introduces big fines for participants and organisers of illegal protests. Another creates a blacklist—as yet unpublished—of “harmful” websites. A third recriminalises defamation. A fourth makes non-profit groups declare any funding from abroad and, if they accept it, label themselves as “foreign agents”. That chimes with Mr Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric, portraying Russia as a besieged fortress, and his opponents as the puppets of its foreign enemies.

Even if Russia had the rule of law and a vigorous free press, these laws would be cause for concern—because they are loosely worded and have been rushed through with much official venom. What makes them worse is the way Russia’s state agencies and public institutions work. They chiefly serve their own interests, acting with impunity and taking political orders from the top. That stokes corruption. It also explains the feebleness of the investigations into the many abuses that have marked Mr Putin’s time in power, such as the death in prison of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing lawyer (see article). Russians have every reason to fear that the new laws will be interpreted selectively and vindictively.

The fist is a sign of weakness

Mr Putin is trying simultaneously to deter his opponents and to show his hardline supporters that he still has the will to crack down and can get the Duma to do his bidding. But he is also signalling weakness.

In the past, buoyed by huge popularity and surging oil and gas revenues, he could afford to ignore the opposition’s sparsely attended demonstrations. He could discount pinpricks of media criticism: favourable coverage on national television easily outweighed it. Now the regime’s business model, based on gathering and sharing the spoils of power (chiefly natural-resource rents), is under strain. For the urban middle classes, official lawlessness is a big irritant. The media’s fawning coverage of Mr Putin grates. So do signs of their rulers’ arrogance, such as endemic vote-rigging, and the casual job-swap between Mr Putin and his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev.

The Russian authorities’ inability to respond to the new mood is debilitating. Many inside the regime know it needs to change, but many also fear the implications: a free press or independent prosecutors would ask dangerous questions about the corruption and violence of the past 12 years.

As a result, Russia is heading fast in the wrong direction: one that takes it closer to the Soviet past, and away from the European mainstream where it belongs. This is unlikely to work for very long. Harsh measures, such as jailing opposition leaders, risk sparking more protests. A full-scale crackdown, for example using violence to disperse large numbers of demonstrators, is still a long way off. Indeed it may well be beyond the powers of Russia’s corrupt, incompetent and demoralised police and interior-ministry forces. But even partial repression at home (perhaps matched by aggression or mischief-making abroad) would be nasty while it lasted. Outsiders are right to worry—but the biggest victims are inside the country. Russians want dignity, justice and truth; Mr Putin’s ill-considered laws and bullying words are a poor substitute. займ онлайн онлайн займ https://zp-pdl.com/get-a-next-business-day-payday-loan.php https://zp-pdl.com/apply-for-payday-loan-online.php онлайн займы

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