President Vladimir Putin is getting primed for Russia's parliamentary elections in September by tightening the safety valve provided by independent critical media and the political opposition. Journalists are now afraid of being locked up for posting coments on Facebook, but it remains to be seen whether the pressure points caused by these actions will eventually blow up.
Under Putin, the Kremlin has always tried to silence, co-opt, jail or expel opposition leaders, as well as impose restrictions and control over the most influential mass media. Up until now, a safety valve has always been provided for the disaffected to let off steam via independent newspapers, free radio and the internet's social networks.
With Russia's economy struggling to emerge from a two-year recession, Putin seems set on choking off any dissension and criticism before the elections to the State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament. He has a precedent to avoid: Moscow saw the biggest anti-government protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 2011 and 2012 as hundreds of thousands of liberals, communists and nationalists set aside their differences and marched to condemn alleged ballot-rigging in the last round of elections. The protests came a year after Russia, under then President Dmitry Medvedev, had experienced a softening in media oppression and the arrival of several niche outlets critical of the government, including TV Rain and Kommersant Radio.
But the return of Putin to the Kremlin in 2012 marked an end of the thaw. Ranked 142nd out of 180 countries worldwide on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Russia has fallen six places in the past four years as media freedom regressed with the former Soviet KGB officer back in the saddle.
Russia's annexation of Crimea in early 2014 and its fuelling of the conflict in East Ukraine exacerbated the trend. "The TV networks have been turned into raw propaganda machines, and dissenting voices condemned as national traitors," wrote political analyst Maria Lipman.
This time around for the Duma elections Putin is taking no chances with the opposition, and the free media are taking a hammering. New laws capping foreign media ownership forced the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times to sell their holding in the respected financial daily Vedomosti in November to a Russian businessman said to be a proxy for a Kremlin holding.
Novaya Gazeta, the opposition newspaper where fearless reporter Anna Politkovskaya worked before she was gunned down near her Moscow apartment in 2006, had its St Petersburg office raided on June 23 as part of "a major fraud investigation". Alexei Venediktov, the station chief at liberal Ekho Moskvy radio, said in early July on Twitter that website chief editor Vitaly Ruvinskiy, journalist Andrei Piontkovsky, and two other members of the editorial staff were being interrogated by the FSB.
Accusing Ekho Moskvy of broadcasting information "steeped in hatred for Russia", Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader and Putin's attack dog, earlier this year called for a crackdown on Western mouthpieces in Russia who seek to "destroy our country".
Most recently, two journalists from the state-owned TASS news agency were on July 7 given top editorial roles at RBC, the media group owned by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Reports suggest Prokhorov is having to sell off his assets after RBC reported on the business dealings of Putin's daughter Ekaterina and her husband Kirill Shamalov.
In a meeting with RBC's staff, newly hired editor Igor Trosnikov told them that restrictions apply to what they can report. "I can't tell you there are no restrictions whatsover," Trosnikov said, according to a transcript published by Meduza media. "They do exist. If people here think there aren't any restrictions, then they're better off writing on Facebook. You can still get away with that there." To which an unnamed RBC staffer piped up: "They're locking people up for that now, too."
Mouse a "criminal weapon"
Many of the protests about the last Duma elections were organised through social media networks. The Kremlin is now also stepping up measures to control these networks, with state internet regulator Roskomnadzor announcing on July 8 that it had blocked four sites that contained calls to boycott the elections.
Persecution of people for making seemingly mild comments online has been on the increase for the past few years. Yekaterina Vologzheninova, a 46-year-old mother from Yekaterinburg, was sentenced to 320 hours of community service for "inciting hatred and animosity", and her VKontakte social network page was scrubbed. Her crime was sharing a cartoon that showed Putin bending over a map of war-shattered East Ukraine with a knife in his hand. Vologzheninova's plight made national headlines when the judge ordered the destruction of her laptop and mouse as "criminal weapons".
Darya Polyudova, a political activist from the southern Krasnodar region, was convicted to two years in a penal colony for three posts supportive of Ukraine on VKontakte. "One of them was a picture of me standing at a rally with a sign that says 'No to a war in Ukraine, yes to a revolution in Russia,'" Polyudova told the Moscow Times.
Enter the 'Big Brother law'
Like television, the internet is something that authoritarian rulers realise that they must try to control. The viral zeitgeist of social networks is increasingly worrying regimes in Russia, China and Iran. In order to get a handle on it, they are turning to methods that have proven useful in the management of traditional media.
Two years ago, Putin gave a pretty good indication where he stands on the worldwide web, calling it a "CIA project". This June, the president ratcheted up the pressure with the signing of the so-called Yarovaya law, a package of repressive measures reminiscent of Soviet-era surveillance. The final version of the legislation, championed by Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya and which has been passed by both chambers of parliament and signed by Putin, obliges Russian internet and telecom companies to keep messages and voice calls on their servers in Russia for six months or more, starting January 1, 2018.
All metadata must be stored for three years, although websites must store only one year's metadata. Companies will be required to provide the Federal Security Service (FSB) with encryption keys, and the FSB will soon have access to any user's messaging data without needing a court order.
"Putin has signed a repressive new law that violates not only human rights, but common sense. Dark day for Russia," Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower in a self-imposed exile in Rusia, tweeted on July 7 after three years of exile in Russia. "Signing the Big Brother law must be condemned. Beyond political and constitution consequences, it is also a $33bn tax on Russia's Internet."
Equally ominously, the law also introduces criminal liability for "failure to report a crime" that someone "has been planning, is perpetrating, or has perpetrated". Under the legislation, children as young as 14 can face up to a year in prison for such a "failure" and for other reasons related to extremism, terrorism and participation in mass demonstration.
"Hello, it's a brave new world for the internet, with jails for children, with global surveillance and prison terms for non-snitching," Dmitry Gudkov, one of the few genuine opposition politicians in the Duma, wrote on his Facebook page about what critics dub the Big Brother law.
While the Kremlin continues to tighten the vice on the media, the opposition continues to flounder, either unable to unite amid their bickering, or deliberately hamstrung from outside. Alexei Navalny, the Putin critic who masterminded the protests four years ago, has been sidelined after being found guilty of fraud and laundering funds from French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher. In a cruel twist, Navalny was given a three-year suspended sentence while his brother Oleg was imprisoned.
Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister and head of Russia's Parnas opposition party, was smeared by a sex video in April while Boris Nemtsov, a reformer under former president Boris Yeltsin, was assassinated near the Kremlin walls last year. Nikita Belykh, a key liberal figure who actually holds office as governor of Kirov, was implicated in a corruption scandal in June.
But for all their fragmentation, the opposition haven't thrown their hands up either. Activists can be heard decrying the Big Brother legislation, and have now applied for a protest permit, according to a Facebook post by liberal politican Ilya Yashin.