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The Week In Russia: The Strong-Arming Of The Law And A Siberian Sojourn


Russian President Vladimir Putin is shown spending his vacation in the Siberian taiga on October 7.

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Russian authorities piled pressure on opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, branding his Anti-Corruption Foundation a "foreign agent" based on alleged donations from abroad totaling less than $2,200. And President Vladimir Putin appeared with his defense chief in what looked like a painstakingly informal 67th-birthday photo shoot in Siberia.

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

Letter And Spirit

When Vladimir Putin promised a "dictatorship of law" if voters would take the "acting" out of his title in the March 2000 presidential vote, this is probably not the kind of thing that people had in mind: On October 9, the Russian Justice Ministry declared opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) a "foreign agent" based on a pair of donations from abroad.

The two donations to the FBK -- which has irked the Kremlin by producing evidence that high officials, state media figures, and other stars in constellation Putin own multimillion-dollar homes and other extravagantly costly assets, in some cases abroad -- totaled about 140,000 rubles ($2,150), according to a ministry official.

Aleksei Navalny, Vladimir Putin's most prominent opponent in recent years, attends a protest rally on September 29 in Moscow.
Aleksei Navalny, Vladimir Putin's most prominent opponent in recent years, attends a protest rally on September 29 in Moscow.

One of the donations appears to have come from a Russian citizen living in Florida who told RFE/RL he sent $50 to FBK's director, Ivan Zhdanov, and paid a $2.50 PayPal transaction fee.

The bulk of what the Justice Ministry characterized as foreign funding was a donation from Spain that Zhdanov dismissed as an "obvious provocation" with the express purpose of stamping the foreign-agent label on FBK, saying it was sent to a bank account that is frozen due to a politically charged money-laundering probe into the organization.

The point of Putin's campaign promise was to play to the public's big appetite for the rule of law, and for a leader tough enough to enforce it, after the chaotic upheaval of the late Soviet period and the 1990s. The mechanics of FBK's foreign-agent designation suggest something else entirely: a system in which laws are made to suit the Kremlin and are then enforced in a selective and manipulative fashion -- but with technical accuracy, arguably -- for the same purpose.

Candidates Lyubov Sobol (center) and Ivan Zhdanov (right) attend a rally against efforts to stop opposition candidates from registering for elections to the Moscow City Duma in central Moscow on July 14.
Candidates Lyubov Sobol (center) and Ivan Zhdanov (right) attend a rally against efforts to stop opposition candidates from registering for elections to the Moscow City Duma in central Moscow on July 14.

In terms of the letter of the law, it might be hard to make a case against the Justice Ministry's move: Legislation on the books for seven years lets the government brand a group a "foreign agent" if it receives funding from abroad and is deemed to be involved in political activity. (Exposing corruption is not necessarily political activity, but the state -- while it made no such statement in the designation -- might argue that since Navalny and some of his targets are involved in politics, FBK is, too.)

Like many others enacted under Putin, Kremlin critics say the foreign-agent law was designed as a tool to enable the Kremlin to suppress civil society at will and silence dissent -- or perceived dissent.

Putin signed it in July 2012, two months after he came back for a third presidential term after four years out of the Kremlin.

The story of his absence and return, of course, is perhaps the most prominent example of the way Putin has stuck to the letter of the law while violating its spirit -- at least, in the eyes of opponents -- and also adjusting it on the fly to fit his aims.

After the campaign in which Putin vowed to impose a "dictatorship of law," Putin won a four-year term in 2000, though doubts were cast on the official result, and he won reelection in 2004.

Back To The Future

Facing a constitutional bar on a third consecutive term, Putin tapped former chief of staff Dmitry Medvedev as his favored successor and then served for four years as prime minister, a role in which he was technically subordinate to his protege but was clearly calling the shots in many cases. He then traded places with Medvedev, a move that -- combined with anger over evidence of widespread fraud on the ruling party's behalf in parliamentary elections, sparked large protests in 2011-12.

Leaders of those demonstrations included Navalny and Boris Nemtsov, who would have been 60 years old on October 9 but was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin in February 2015 -- a victim, friends and former colleagues suspect, of the far less legal methods that are sometimes used to eliminate perceived threats to Putin and his allies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visit the Black Sea town of Anapa in August.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visit the Black Sea town of Anapa in August.

The "castling" maneuver that put Putin back in the Kremlin was the main element of the machinations that meant to keep him in power longer, but there have been others. One of Medvedev's earliest and biggest moves as president was his swiftly implemented proposal to extend the Russian presidential term to six years -- starting after his own term.

At the time, some wondered whether Medvedev might be making the change with his own future in mind. Others didn't.

"This is being prepared so that Putin can return for 12 years, so two six-year terms," Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a political analyst who is now a State Duma member from United Russia, told Reuters in 2008. "The next presidential election is in 2012 so we could start speaking about the project Putin-2024."

Sure enough, that's what people close to Putin are speaking about now -- if not always in so many words.

Since Putin has so far been careful to abide by the Russian Constitution, chances are he will do so again in 2024: While analysts say he may push through changes in the document in order to keep a hand or two on the reins of power, few predict he will seek to stay on as president when his current term expires.

That means that most of Putin's options for staying in power would involve anointing a favored successor as president -- someone he thinks he can trust.

'A Bouquet Of Moss'

It's tough to read the tea leaves on this matter, and Putin presumably does not want to tip his hand too soon, but one potential candidate for the mantle may have gotten a boost this week: On Putin's 67th birthday, October 7, the Kremlin released images of him hiking and hanging out in a ruggedly idyllic Siberian landscape with Sergei Shoigu, his defense minister since 2012.

Regardless of whether, when, and how Putin decides to maintain power, one of the issues that he may feel the need to deal with in the meantime is the challenge posed by Navalny, who has been his most prominent foe for the past eight years or so.

The foreign-agent designation adds to mounting government pressure on FBK following a series of summertime protests in Moscow that were promoted by Navalny after electoral authorities barred several independent candidates -- including FBK director Zhdanov and others affiliated with Navalny -- from the ballot in the September 8 election of the Moscow city legislature.

On August 3, Russian authorities opened an investigation into the FBK on suspicion of money laundering, freezing its bank accounts and those of staffers. On September 12, law enforcement officers conducted more than 200 searches targeting Navalny and his organization, raising 43 of the 45 offices run by his supporters nationwide as well as many of their homes.

Most of Vladimir Putin's options for staying in power would involve anointing a favored successor as president -- someone he thinks he can trust.
Most of Vladimir Putin's options for staying in power would involve anointing a favored successor as president -- someone he thinks he can trust.

Leonid Volkov, a Navalny ally who headed the opposition politician's unofficial campaign to challenge Putin for the presidency in 2018, contends that the elaborate investigation is costing the Russian state far more than the 75 million rubles ($1.2 million) it says it suspects the FBK laundered -- let alone the much smaller sum the Justice Ministry based the foreign-agent designation on.

Meanwhile, in an Instagram post on October 11, Navalny said that prosecutors and the National Guard want the courts to confiscate his Moscow apartment in connection with financial claims against him as a result of the protests he helped organize.

About

Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by RFE/RL's News Editor Steve Gutterman.

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