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Russia’s violent crackdown sets the tone for Putin’s remaining years, and issues a challenge to the west

This weekend’s arrests were a reminder of the growing gap between the Russian and western governments regarding civil and political liberties

Moritz Pieper
Tuesday 30 July 2019 11:22 BST
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As Russian President Vladimir Putin climbed into a miniature submarine and descended to the seabed in the Gulf of Finland on Saturday, Russian authorities proceeded with a violent and coordinated crackdown on unsanctioned protests in Moscow ahead of the September elections to Moscow’s municipal parliament.

Police officers arrested a record number, some 1,300 Muscovites, who had gathered to protest over ballot restrictions which had disqualified dozens of opposition candidates to run for the Moscow city council elections. According to OVD-Info, an independent monitoring group, the number of detentions had risen to 1,373 by Sunday. This was the largest crackdown on the non-systemic opposition since the 2011-2012 protests against rigged Duma elections and Putin’s announced return to the presidency.

These latest arrests were violent and arbitrary, at least in part. Police were seen beating protesters with truncheons, knocking on apartment doors at night to raid and search properties of disqualified candidates, and searching and arresting pedestrians without always making it clear what criminal charges were brought against them.

Opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who had called Saturday’s protests, was arrested outside his house, and then taken from jail to hospital after an alleged exposure to an “an unknown chemical substance”, according to his lawyer, Olga Mihailova.

The protests were limited to Moscow, and the city council elections are not critical at a federal level. But a localised structure of opposition protests was also characteristic of previous protests of national significance, from the 2011-12 “For Fair Elections” protests to the protests in 2017 and 2018 (over elite corruption, declining living standards and planned retirement age reforms).

The symbolic nature of any such anti-government protests (even if limited to the big cities) cannot be ignored by the Kremlin due to their inherent links to questions about Putin’s continued legitimacy.

The European Union has criticised the disproportionate use of force against peaceful protesters, and European governments have called on Moscow to allow free and fair elections in line with Russia’s OSCE commitments.

The Russian counter-reaction was indicative of the foreign policy implications of Russia’s latest protest wave: “Follow the Vienna Convention (on diplomatic relations)”, the Russian foreign ministry testily cautioned the German government, “and don’t meddle with internal affairs of sovereign governments.”

The arrests took place just a week after the latest Petersburg Dialogue between Russia and Germany, where the atmosphere at a working level was hailed as constructive. Russia and Europe have a lot of foreign policy issues on their plate where policy coordination is needed, from trying to salvage the Iran nuclear deal to discussing arms control and the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

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The arrests also come only a few weeks after Russia’s readmission into the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). The latter is potentially good news for civil rights in Russia, as Russian citizens can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights if human rights violations have no more legal recourse domestically. This (besides Russia’s significant financial contribution to the Council’s budget, which the organisation was loath to renounce) was the main argument for advocates of Russia’s return to PACE.

The cause for which Russia had its voting rights suspended in 2014 (the annexation of Crimea), however, remained entirely unchanged. Therefore, the restoration of its voting rights was hailed as a diplomatic victory by the Russian government: with strategic patience, according to such an interpretation, Russia can get away with breaking international law.

That will be an alarming message for the protestors who were dragged away by the scruffs of their necks, and their theoretical access to the ECHR will be paltry consolation. Clearly, Russian law enforcement agencies do not necessarily operate in compliance with provisions enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Political instability (as defined by the Kremlin and linked to Putin’s remaining years in power until 2024) will be seen by the Russian government as one of its defining challenges for the years ahead. If anything, this weekend’s violent arrests were a reminder of the growing gap between the Russian and western governments regarding civil and political liberties, regardless of Russia’s Council of Europe membership.

They also represented a challenge to the west. Russia believes other nations should set aside disagreements over domestic politics in their pursuit of issue-specific foreign policy cooperation with Moscow.

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