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The Week In Russia: The Kremlin Circles Its Wagons Around The 'Sovereign' Internet, A Chechen Strongman, And A Soldier's Shooting Rampage

According to one critic, the Kremlin's Internet clampdown "imitates" the Soviet government. (file photo)
According to one critic, the Kremlin's Internet clampdown "imitates" the Soviet government. (file photo)

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Russia's controversial "sovereign Internet" law comes into force, with critics saying its real aim is to quash dissent inside the country. The Kremlin shrugs off a chilling comment that deepens concerns about the latitude given to Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. And a conscript kills eight fellow servicemen in a shooting blamed by some in Moscow on violent video games.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Blame Game

When attackers from nearby regions inside Russia stormed a school in North Ossetia on the first day of classes in 2004, starting a hostage crisis that ended with more than 330 pupils, parents, and teachers dead, President Vladimir Putin "pointed the finger outward," as a report for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee put it last year.

Portraying Russia as a state weakened in the wake of the Soviet collapse and struggling to stay together in the face of aggression from outsiders slavering for a "tasty morsel," Putin called for cohesion among Russians and took steps he said were aimed at consolidating society -- mainly electoral reforms including scrapping elections of regional governors in favor of appointments.

Critics charged that Putin's real motive was the desire to consolidate power, not society, and that the moves dealt democracy a severe blow. According to the report to the Senate committee, it was one of several "punctuating moments" when Putin "has used…hardships befalling the Russian people as justification for tightening his grip on power."

Another such moment may be at hand, judging from critiques of the so-called Sovereign Internet law that entered into force on November 1, six months after Putin signed it.

One of the main stated purposes of the law is to give Russia the ability to essentially detach the Internet in Russia from the rest of the World Wide Web in the event of a cyberattack from abroad.

A note explaining the bill when it was submitted to the State Duma in December 2018 cited what it said was "the aggressive nature" of a U.S. national cybersecurity strategy issued that September.

The note claimed that the U.S. document "directly and without any evidence" accused Russia of carrying out cyberattacks -- presumably a reference to what U.S. officials say was an extensive state-backed campaign of interference in the 2016 presidential election -- but did not otherwise explain its assertion that the strategy was aggressive.

'Unabated Attack'

But analysts and government critics doubt that protection from external forces is the main reason for the law. Andrei Soldatov, an author and expert on Russian security issues, tweeted that "it's not so much about the isolation of the country as it's about [the] Kremlin's fears of an internal crisis."

"After six years of unabated attack on Internet freedoms in Russia, the Kremlin is making another bold step," Soldatov wrote in a recent article.

He wrote that the effort to restrict free speech on the Internet is rooted in the response to the street protests that erupted in 2011-12, when tens of thousands of people came out into the streets to voice anger over and dismay at Putin's return to the presidency -- where he remains today -- after four years as prime minister.

The Kremlin's Internet clampdown "imitates" the Soviet government, which "curtailed technologies that the KGB suspected were used for the uncensored dissemination and sharing of information," Soldatov added. "It put the country at a disadvantage for decades, but it helped the Politburo to buy the country's political regime some time. Is that all the Kremlin wants now?"

Three Tolstoys, Four Pushkins

The Internet is not the only arena in which the Kremlin says it is anticipating an attack from abroad – or claiming one is already under way.

"A war on the Russian language has been declared," Putin told a Kremlin meeting of his Council on the Russian Language on November 5, asserting that the aggressors included "Neanderthal Russophobes" as well as "all kinds of fringe groups" and "active and aggressive nationalists."

The best defense? A strong Russia, Putin said, asserting that if the country is not prosperous and influential foreigners will not study the language – "even if two or three more Tolstoys emerge, and four Pushkins."

"If the country is powerful and strong…people will learn Russian," he added.

Meanwhile, many in Moscow looked for culprits outside the Russian military, and outside Russia, after a private allegedly opened fire at his unit in eastern Siberia, killing eight military personnel and wounding two others on October 25.

The culprit they found: computer games.

The head of the Union of Russian Officers, an organization that often takes Kremlin-friendly positions, asserted that suspect Ramil Shamsutdinov may have been influenced by violent video games – an assessment that was echoed by the head of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, Flera Salikhovskaya, who was quoted as saying that the Internet should be "shut down."

History Of Hazing

Salikhovskaya's remarks were sharply criticized in a statement on the committee's page on the social network VK in which colleagues said that they strongly disagreed and that hazing – a problem that has plagued the military since Soviet times -- might have helped cause the rampage.

That was in line with remarks from the private's father, Salimzhan Shamsutdinov, who said his son told him after the shooting that "he could not forgive them for what they did to him. They drove him to that point."

Without identifying a source, online news site quoted the private as telling law enforcement authorities that he carried out the shooting because superiors had abused him and threatened to rape him.

Private Ramil Shamsutdinov who went on a deadly shooting spree at a military base in Siberia. (file photo)
Private Ramil Shamsutdinov who went on a deadly shooting spree at a military base in Siberia. (file photo)

Electoral laws have gone through several permutations since 2004, and governors are now elected again -- though Kremlin critics say the authorities use a vetting process and other levers to seek to ensure the playing field is not level.

Putin has taken numerous additional steps to consolidate power over the years, and parliament has been devoid of liberal opposition figures for years. the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party holds a large majority in legislatures nationwide, a September setback in Moscow notwithstanding.

But while some media reports have suggested otherwise, Putin is by no means all-powerful.

In the eyes of observers, rights groups, and critics concerned about the state of affairs in Chechnya, chilling remarks this week by Ramzan Kadyrov -- the former separatist fighter Putin appointed to rule the region in 2007 -- served as a glaring reminder of the limits of his authority.

Kadyrov Speaks, The Kremlin Shrugs

In comments aired on a state-run channel in Chechnya on November 5, Kadyrov advocated killing, jailing, and intimidating people who offend the "honor" of others online – apparently a rococo reference to recent legislation that enables the Russian state to punish people (but with fines, not death or prison) who are deemed to have disrespected officials or state symbols in any form of communication on the Internet.

"Those who bring discord between people with gossip or quarrels should be stopped. Unless we kill them, put them in prison, scare them, we'll get nowhere," said Kadyrov, adding that he would accept any punishment including death if he had to break the law to restore his own honor.

"I'm 45 already," said Kadyrov, 43. "What else do I have to do in this world?"

Chechen Leader Threatens Killing For Online 'Gossip'
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While even some people inured to Kadyrov's pugnacious language were startled, the Kremlin shrugged.

Asked whether Putin's administration would look into Kadyrov's comments, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that it would not.

Rights activists say that Kadyrov rules through repressive measures and has created a climate of impunity for security forces in Chechnya. They assert that he is directly or ultimately responsible for abuses that include abductions, torture, and killings.

Putin has rarely punished or publicly admonished Kadyrov for what activists say are numerous illegal and unconstitutional actions and words. Analysts say he turns a blind eye to the alleged abuses because he relies on Kadyrov to control separatist sentiment and violence in Chechnya, the site of two devastating post-Soviet wars and an Islamist insurgency that spread to other mostly Muslim regions in the North Caucasus.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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