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The Week In Russia: A Poisonous August

Belarusian police officers detain a demonstrator in Minsk during a protest on August 10, 2020, the day after a widely disputed presidential election.
Belarusian police officers detain a demonstrator in Minsk during a protest on August 10, 2020, the day after a widely disputed presidential election.

For a year now, since a deeply disputed August 2020 election in Belarus and a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning in Russia less than two weeks later, crackdowns on government opponents, civil society, and independent media outlets have been broadening in both Russia and Belarus.

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

August Events

On August 9, 2020, when unprecedented protests erupted in Belarus after Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory and a sixth term in an election that millions of voters said he stole, Russia’s response was the subject of substantial guesswork.

Would Moscow robustly back the embattled authoritarian or seek to escort him out of power in favor of a figure who could enjoy the support of the Belarusian people but enable the Kremlin to keep the country of 9.4 million -- a buffer state between Russia and the West -- in its orbit?

In those early days, betting on Lukashenka seemed like a big risk. So would Putin, perhaps, see a chance to rid Russia of an ornery, often irritating ally and improve ties with the West?

Some even hoped that the fate of Belarus could become a uniting factor, rather than one that would aggravate already severe tensions in Moscow's relationship with the United States and the European Union.

That was, emphatically, not to be.

As events unfolded quickly, Russia appeared to adjust its actions in the service of a singular goal: maintaining or even gaining influence in Belarus. As the days and weeks passed, Lukashenka held onto power and his crackdown on dissent intensified -- a process that seemed to be both a driver of Russian policy and its result.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, pose on a boat during trip on the Black Sea earlier this year.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, pose on a boat during trip on the Black Sea earlier this year.

Russia has backed Lukashenka with money as well as diplomatic support. Moscow has been supportive or silent amid Western outrage over the actions of the Lukashenka's apparatus of oppression -- and the list of those actions is long, from reportedly commonplace torture in the jails of Belarus to the arrest of a blogger whose commercial flight was forced to land in Minsk to the pressure on an Olympic sprinter who criticized sports officials to pack her bags in Tokyo and return to an uncertain fate in her home country.

Meanwhile, in Russia, Putin's government has stepped up and widened its own clampdown, applying increasing pressure on opponents real and perceived, civil society groups, and independent media -- the same wide range of targets in the crosshairs in Belarus.

In It Together?

One year after the election in Belarus on August 9, 2020, repressions are broadening in both countries, with no obvious end in sight.

The twin crackdowns may, in fact, be feeding and fueling one another. And while people who challenge the state or are perceived by the government as a threat have been under pressure in both countries for years, the current stage of both campaigns to wipe out dissent can be traced, to some extent, to August 2020.

Jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (file photo)
Jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (file photo)

Eleven days after the Belarusian election, Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny -- who was in Siberia rallying allies for regional elections the following month -- was poisoned with a weapons-grade nerve agent in what he asserts was an assassination attempt carried out, on Putin's behalf, by the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Airlifted to Germany for treatment two days after nearly dying when the poison took effect during a flight bound from Tomsk to Moscow, Navalny survived -- and returned to Russia less than five months later, hoping to galvanize opposition to Putin ahead of the September 17-19 elections for the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

Russian Opposition Leader Navalny Fights For His Life After Suspected Poisoning
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Instead, he is in prison on a charge he contends is absurd and his political network across Russia has been gutted by the government, which has used an array of tools in an effort to neutralize Navalny and his supporters -- as well as many others -- before the Duma elections.

For Putin, the parliamentary elections are widely seen as a way -- despite the ruling United Russia party's unpopularity and his own ratings problems -- to tighten his grip on power and the people ahead of 2024, when he must decide whether to seek a new term or step aside after a quarter-century as Russia's president or prime minister.

'Undesirable' And 'Foreign': How Russia Is Muzzling The Media In An Escalating Crackdown
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A glimpse of the extent to which Navalny's network has been dismantled was available in a report by Russian media outlet RBC on August 4. It said that, of the leaders of the 37 offices he oversaw, eight have left Russia, 11 are under investigation, and three are behind bars or under house arrest -- though in some cases those numbers overlap.

In the last few weeks, Belarus may have been in the spotlight -- with exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya's U.S. visit, the ordeal of Olympic contestant Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, and a migrant crisis on the Lithuanian border making headlines. But the crackdown in Russia continued.

Back In Russia

Two media outlets and a legal aid group backed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Putin foe and former oil tycoon who was imprisoned for a decade on charges he contends were fabricated by the Kremlin and now lives abroad, announced that they were shutting on August 5 after the sites were blocked by Russian authorities.

Also on August 5, American investor Michael Calvey and six co-defendants were convicted of large-scale embezzlement, a charge they deny. And assert was trumped up as the result of a business dispute.

On August 4, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it will not send observers to monitor the September elections, citing "major limitations" imposed by the Russian authorities. It will be the first time since the Soviet collapse of 1991 that the OSCE will have no monitoring mission for a Duma vote.

"I am very disappointed that limitations imposed by the national authorities prevent the OSCE from providing the Russian voters with a transparent and authoritative assessment of their elections, as we have been doing consistently since 1993," OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Margareta Cederfelt said.

On August 3, attorney, activist, and Navalny associate Lyubov Sobol was sentenced to 18 months of "limitations on freedom" -- including a curfew, a ban on attending public gatherings, and an order that she remain in Moscow -- after being convicted in connection with a protest over Navalny's jailing in January.

And on July 30, Roman Badanin, the chief editor of Proyekt, an independent investigative journalism outfit registered in the United States, said he had left Russia and was trying to evacuate his staff after the group was declared an "undesirable" organization.

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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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