Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia: Culture Of Fear Back With A Vengeance

A British activist is detained by police during the May 17 gay-rights demonstration in Moscow (ITAR-TASS) June 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Fear, intimidation, and coercion are back in vogue as tools of Russian policy, both at home and abroad.

For evidence, one need look no further than the events of the past month.

In the southwestern Russian city of Voronezh, opposition activists tried to gather for a small demonstration on May 29. Within minutes, police moved in, violently breaking up the protest and arresting the participants.

Two days earlier in Moscow, Marco Cappato, an Italian member of the European Parliament, was beaten by Russian nationalists in full view of police as he took part in a gay-rights march.

Television cameras captured Cappato struggling and shouting, "Why you don't protect us? Where are the police? Why you don't protect us? I am a member of parliament!"

The police finally did move in. But instead of arresting the attackers, the police detained Cappato -- reportedly for his own safety. A German lawmaker, Volker Beck, was likewise detained.

Earlier in the month, on May 2, members of the Kremlin-backed youth group Nashi loudly protesting "fascism" broke up a press conference by Marina Kaljurand, the Estonian ambassador to Russia, who was trying to defuse mounting anger over her country's relocation of a Soviet-era monument from central Tallinn.

Three Incidents, One Pattern

Whether suppressing domestic dissent, cracking down on troublesome neighbors, or flouting the disapproval of the West, the Kremlin's message is loud and clear -- mess with us at your own risk.

Marshall Goldman, a Russian expert and senior scholar at Wellesley College, says Russia -- flush with cash and influence from its energy resources -- is simply telling the world it's back as a major player.

"There is this lingering perception that in the 1990s the West somehow took advantage of Russia. [This] explains a lot of the assertiveness that you see."

"Russia is now beginning to reassert its muscles and say, 'Look, we were a superpower, for a time we ceased to be a superpower, but we're back on that road again. At the present time we're not a military superpower, but we certainly are an economic superpower with our oil, gas, and our accumulated reserves. And don't tread on me,'" he says.

Many Russians, at their leadership's cue, are adopting an increasingly anti-Western stance.

Nashi activists chase the car of Estonia's ambassador to Russia in Moscow during a demonstration last month (TASS)

Particular venom is reserved for the United States, which has aggravated Moscow with its pursuit of a missile-defense shield in former Soviet satellites like Poland and the Czech Republic.

In a speech before top international officials at the Munich Security Conference in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of "an almost uncontained use of force in the world."

This week, he accused Western countries of a democracy double standard, saying it was not as if there were "white, pure, and furry" countries on once side and "monsters who have just come out of the woods" on the other.

Within Russia, from the television news to popular culture, the theme is of an ascendant and unified nation under attack from the West.

David Satter is a former Moscow correspondent with the London-based "Financial Times" and the author of a recent book on the rise of the Russian criminal state. He says the Kremlin is trying to foster an artificial crisis with the West in order to justify its own clampdown on civic rights at home.

"I think there is method to this madness," Satter says. "I think it's a situation in which the small group of people who not only rule Russia, but in effect own the country, are seeking to create an atmosphere of tension with the outside world which will further justify the limitations of liberty."

Brute Force

The Kremlin's crackdown on its opponents has at times been almost shockingly severe.

"Russia is now beginning to reassert its muscles and say, 'Look, we were a superpower, for a time we ceased to be a superpower, but we're back on that road again.'"

Media outlets have come under repeated crackdowns, and outspoken Kremlin critics like journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko have been killed in horrifying and unexplained circumstances.

Holding street protests has become a test of courage, with police and security forces far outnumbering demonstrators.

Moscow's combative stance is widely seen as a reaction to the humiliation many Russians felt in the 1990s, when the country was emerging from the Soviet collapse.

Largely dependent on Western aid, Russia was also subject to frequent Western lectures about how best to rebuild its society and government.

Russian President Putin has stepped up his aggressive rhetoric as his term in office approaches its end (TASS)

"There is this lingering perception that in the 1990s the West somehow took advantage of Russia," says Steven Pifer, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

"So this comes together and explains a lot of the assertiveness that you see. That assertiveness, sort of standing up for Russia, seems to play well domestically. And I think part of this is tied to the message that the Kremlin wants to send to its domestic audience."

Another message that the Kremlin wants to send Russians is that the political dissent that emerged in the 1990s had a destabilizing effect on society. Goldman says many Russians emerged from the decade, and Boris Yeltsin's tumultuous presidency, with a sense that social stability was far more valuable than Western-style political freedoms.

"In the Yeltsin years, there was a widespread feeling in Russia that the system had gotten out of control and that those who were eager for dissent ended up discovering that there was too much dissent, there was too much opposition, there was too much spontaneity, there was too much chaos," he says.

Fear Of Revolution?

Still, the fear of public dissent remains high among the political elite. Pifer suggests the Kremlin's bluster and frequent crackdowns on the opposition, rather than representing a show of strength, masks a deep insecurity -- fueled by popular uprisings in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004 -- that their hold on power could be tenuous.

"The message at home seems to be almost one motivated by just this concern that things might get out of hand," he says. "I would look at it in the context, if you go back to the Orange Revolution and the Rose Revolution, there seems to be real concern in some parts of Russia that if we're not careful, this can happen here."

That possibility seems remote. But with a presidential transition looming in 2008, the Kremlin isn't taking any chances. And with energy issues high on many foreign-policy agendas, analysts say, there is little the West can do to stop Russia's campaign of fear and intimidation.

Russian Sanctions On Georgia

Russian Sanctions On Georgia

Georgian deportees arriving in Tbilisi on October 6 (epa)

RUSSIA DEPORTING GEORGIANS. Despite Georgia's release of four military officers accused of spying on October 2, Russia has continued its transport and postal blockade of Georgia, and has also deported hundreds of Georgians.... (more)


Council Of Europe Head 'Concerned' About Reports Of Russian Sanctions

EU Criticizes Russian Actions

'No Time To Send Ambiguous Messages'

Ethnic Russians Feel Insulated From Tensions

Explaining West's Muted Response To Crisis

MORE: Coverage of the situation in Georgian from RFE/RL's Georgian Service and in Russian from RFE/RL's Russian Service.


RFE/RL's English-language coverage of Georgia and Russia.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.