President Vladimir Putin’s cruel tyranny is driven by paranoia

The Daily Telegraph

Apologists for the Kremlin are struggling. The Russian regime’s dogged defence of the blood-drenched Syrian dictatorship, and its persecution of the Pussy Riot musicians for their stunt in Moscow’s main cathedral, display its nastiest hallmark: support for repression at home and abroad.

Mr Putin’s return to power has eclipsed the liberal-sounding talk of his predecessor as president, Dmitry Medvedev. Russia’s leader has in recent weeks signed laws that criminalise defamation, introduce £6,000 fines for participants in unauthorised demonstrations, require non-profit outfits financed by grants from abroad to label themselves as “foreign agents”, and create a new blacklist of “harmful” internet sites.

Now comes the prosecution of Pussy Riot, a bunch of feminist performance artists made famous by their imprisonment and show trial. Their “crime” was to record a brief mime show at the altar of the cathedral of Christ the Saviour. They then added anti-Putin “music” (featuring scatological and blasphemous slogans) to suggest that they had actually held a concert there.

Many might find that in bad taste and would accept that police can arrest those using a holy place for political protest. But the three women on trial (who all deny involvement) have been in custody since March. They face up to seven years in prison on a charge of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility”. It all smacks of a grotesque official over-reaction and the growing and sinister influence of the Orthodox hierarchy.

Also a distant memory is Russia’s “reset” with America, which was supposed to herald a new era of cooperation. Since Mr Putin’s return, Russia’s foreign-policy rhetoric has been venomously anti-Western. It recently warned Finland, with startling bluntness, to stop working with Nato. The hostility is still largely a one-way street. Western companies grovel before Mr Putin (he recently kept oil-industry chiefs waiting for hours in an airless room with no chairs; they uttered not a squeak of complaint).

Western governments largely ignore what their intelligence services tell them: that the regime in Moscow is a criminal syndicate, fuelled by a noxious ideology of paranoia and supremacy. But in public, politicians such as David Cameron bow and scrape to Mr Putin, hoping for a few crumbs of trade and investment. The West is far too cash-strapped to stand up to Russia, and the Kremlin knows it.

Yet Russia’s support for Syria can seem almost incomprehensible. Why risk such opprobrium in a doomed cause? The answer is the same as in the case of Pussy Riot. For all its contempt for the West, Russia’s regime also feels cornered by it. It sees the opposition at home, and pro-democracy movements abroad, as part of the same threat. Mr Putin does not want to share the fate of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya – or, closer to home, the Ukrainian leadership toppled by the “Orange revolution” of 2005.

Its policy is not so much support for the regime in Damascus, as opposing Western attempts to overthrow it. Though it may seem ludicrous, many in Moscow believe that if Syria falls, Russia is the next target.
The policies that follow from this paranoia make Mr Putin’s plight worse, not better. Repression undermines the regime’s legitimacy. In the early years of Mr Putin’s first reign, many Russians were tolerant of its authoritarianism (and corruption). They welcomed the stability brought by his ex-KGB colleagues and their business cronies and the new-found sense of national pride.

But that has given way first to apathy and then alienation. Arbitrary behaviour increasingly infuriates the urban middle classes. The death in prison of a whistle-blowing lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in 2009 has become a cause célèbre for the smart, English-speaking professional classes who used to affect disdain for politics.

The persecution of Pussy Riot may do the same for a younger and grungier generation. Scorn and mockery of Mr Putin and his cronies is rife. Political humour – a mainstay of resistance in the Soviet era – is back.

But the more the regime denounces its foes as foreign puppets, the less persuasive its propaganda appears. Its business model is in trouble too: the gas price has plummeted thanks to the rise of America’s shale-gas industry. The oil market may be heading in the same direction. For a regime that survives by collecting and distributing the windfall gains of its mining industries, that is ominous news.

It is hard to see a way out for Mr Putin. Many of those around him know that change is needed: more openness, more legality, more choice. But they fear what it would mean. Opposition politicians, media and prosecutors, if unleashed, would feast on the regime’s past misdeeds. Tens of billions of dollars have disappeared into offshore bank accounts. Dozens of people have died mysterious deaths. The cupboards are packed with skeletons. Opening up Russia’s political system risks them falling into public view.

The regime is dropping even the pretence of liberalisation. Instead – as the Pussy Riot trial exemplifies – it appeals to ignorance, prejudice and superstition. The Russian Orthodox Church, far from offering an alternative to the greed and bullying, complements it.

Russia’s neighbours are right to worry about the country’s direction. But as so often in the past, it is Russians themselves who will suffer most at their rulers’ hands.

Edward Lucas is the author of ‘Deception: Spies, Lies and how Russia dupes the West’ (Bloomsbury) займ на карту срочно без отказа hairy woman https://zp-pdl.com/best-payday-loans.php zp-pdl.com срочный займ

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