If President Vladimir Putin is not engaged in a systematic effort to suppress dissent, maybe he’s running a disinformation campaign to make people think he is. Take the case of Igor Sutyagin. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested Sutyagin in October 1999, put him in jail and charged him with passing secrets about nuclear subs and nuclear weapons to Washington and London through a British firm that the FSB calls a CIA front. Passing secrets, but not stealing them. In 1999 the FSB told a court that Sutyagin, then a 33-year-old analyst with the elite USA-Canada Institute, developed his “secrets” from a too-clever analysis of public information. Sutyagin sat for over two years in jail while the court mulled this over. Now the court has ruled that that the FSB erred in failing to identify the secrets Sutyagin allegedly revealed. The court told the FSB to do its investigation over, and get it right. Meanwhile, Sutyagin, now 36, remains in jail.
Or take the case of Captain Grigory Pasko, a 39-year-old naval officer arrested in 1997 after publishing an article in the newspaper of the Pacific Fleet on the dumping of nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan. In July 1999 a military court acquitted him of treason, convicted him of abuse of authority, sentenced him to three years including the twenty months he had already served, and watched him leave prison under a general amnesty. But Pasko appealed his conviction–a risky move. A military collegium of the Supreme Court in a closed hearing threw out the original verdict, and on December 27 a court in Vladivostok convicted Pasko of the original charge of treason and sentenced him to four years less time served. Pasko says he will appeal the verdict and the prosecution says it will appeal the sentence, which is below the twelve-year minimum set for the crime.
Or take the case of TV-6. The Moscow station that is all that remains of the independent television network built by now fugitive banking baron Vladimir Gusinsky. After private security forces hired by energy monopoly Gazprom threw the NTV staff out in April of last year, managing director Yevgeny Kiselev took his mustache, his baritone, his fierce criticism of Kremlin policies, and several of his colleagues to TV-6, a channel owned 75 percent by defrocked oligarch Boris Berezovsky and 15 percent by Lukoil, Russia’s largest oil company.
For Kiselev it was a deal with the devil. Berezovsky helped bring Vladimir Putin to Moscow in 1999, but Putin purged Berezovsky in 2000, as part of his ongoing campaign against Boris Yeltsin’s political cronies who (like Berezovsky) enriched themselves at the state’s expense. From his self-imposed exile in Western Europe, Berezovsky has been happy to needle Putin by embracing liberal causes like free speech, for example by giving Kiselev a platform.
Lukoil, always eager to turn political favors for the Kremlin, sued to close down TV-6 as a bankrupt and mismanaged enterprise. On January 11, the Moscow Arbitration Court is expected to rule–for the second time–in Lukoil’s favor. That will force shareholders at their January 14 meeting to liquidate the company and close the station.
Putin will tolerate media criticism of corruption, malfeasance and disorder, but not of presidential reforms or presidential prestige or Russian state power and authority. Individuals and organizations that elevate “elite” concerns like freedom of speech and human rights will be squeezed and harassed until their money is gone, their audiences dispersed, their voices silent.