Russia does not have any meaningful political opposition, and the Duma (lower chamber of parliament) is a rubber stamp: Several small official opposition fractions in the Duma do not even pretend to oppose decisions handed down from the Kremlin. The Russian judiciary never managed to develop into a separate independent branch of government after the collapse of Communist rule in 1991 and is now fully under the thumb of the so-called “power vertical”—the all-powerful centralized executive system controlled by President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin administration. The Russian media is almost totally controlled by the Kremlin or by Putin-connected oligarchs, and the few leftover independent news outlets are under constant pressure or direct attack. In mid-October, state TV Rossya-24 aired a program attacking independent radio station Ekho Moskvy. The station was portrayed as an agent of the United States, promoting political instability and insurrection in Russia on the bidding of Washington—“the Echo of the State Department” (YouTube, October 11).
On Monday (October 30), Putin met with members of the Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, known in Russia as the “Soviet Po Pravam Cheloveka” (SPCh). Some of the SPCh members are genuine human rights activists, others are fake ones inserted by the Kremlin. The SPCh produces reports about human rights abuses in Russia that tend to disappear somewhere within the Kremlin bureaucracy. Putin typically meets with the SPCh once a year for several hours, apparently to emphasize his progressive democratic credentials. This week, Putin stated that the SPCh was “a barometer of public opinion”—an institution that may bring attention “to the problems that trouble the masses” (Kremlin.ru, October 30). Having an additional channel to connect Putin with the population makes perfect sense, if all other lines of communication and back channels are essentially clogged up and everything in Russia is controlled from the top–down.
Yet, the October 30, session of the SPCh was short and not particularly pleasant. A couple of Kremlin-appointed human rights activists did talk about Western evildoers plotting against Russia and the need to defend the rights of Russian diplomats and state journalists reportedly harassed by the US. But a number of genuine activists told Putin things he did not like, including about mass violations of human rights and the “growing atmosphere of hatred” being instigated by state propaganda in Russia. The SPCh presented a report describing in detail the suppression of the right of peaceful public demonstrations by opposition activists, in particular the suppression of supporters of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Local authorities in Moscow, St. Petersburg and in the provinces are arbitrarily refusing to allow public opposition rallies or protests. Activists that come to unauthorized gatherings, and sometimes those who attend legal ones, are harassed by the riot police, beaten, treated as violent criminals, and sentenced in kangaroo courts to fines or prison sentences. The authorities openly defy the constitution and the basic human right to express opposing opinions, turning Russia into a police state. Putin promised to look into the matter, but insisted: “Closing streets in city downtowns [because of opposition rallies] is wrong,” while the activists promote violence deliberately and so on (Kremlin.ru, October 30).
The deputy chief editor and leading anchor of Ekho Moskvy Tatyana Felgenhauer, who was singled out as one of the US-controlled agents in the report by Rossya-24, was attacked and stabbed multiple times in the neck, on October 23, by an assailant who sneaked into the radio station’s newsroom. Felgenhauer survived the attack, the assailant was arrested, and this case was presented to Putin at the SPCh meeting as an example of the urgent need to curtail the state-initiated hate propaganda and “hate hysteria” that is overwhelming Russia. Putin pushed back by pointing out “hysteria” is sweeping the US, not Russia and the assailant is “a sick person” who came from Israel (he owns Russian and Israeli passports). Putin insisted, an opposition outlet like Ekho Moskvy would not be tolerated “anywhere in Europe or the US” (Kremlin.ru, October 30).
Russian participation in elections is falling—in some precincts to about 10 percent—because elections have essentially turned into a sham. Putin refuted this observation: A low turnout is a normal phenomenon, and he adamantly refused to allow any non-governmental organizations (NGO) that receive any money from abroad to oversee elections in Russia “because they are doing the bidding of foreign governments.” After this exchange, Putin suddenly went off on a rant about the West (US) supposedly gathering “samples of bio-materials” of Russians “all over the country” (Kremlin.ru, October 30). This odd outburst ended up being practically the only important news item the Russian media reported after the SPCh meeting.
In the following days, other Russian officials and Duma deputies accused the Pentagon of gathering Russian bio-samples to possibly develop germ warfare agents genetically modified to attack only Russians. Moreover, the domestic media reported on an innocent research project financed by the Pentagon that, indeed, required bio-materials from Russia as a genetic control group, but suggested that this was most likely a cover for more sinister developments. The government in Moscow promptly introduced a law on bio-safety, forbidding the export of any bio-materials from Russia. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov announced, “We cannot exclude the use of bioweapons by state or non-state actors that could be disguised as natural epidemics” (Interfax, November 1).
It is essentially impossible to create a germ or virus that would distinguish and attack specifically ethnic-Russians, while sparing, say, Anglo-Saxons. But the Kremlin confirmed: “The intelligence mentioned by Putin during the SPCh meeting about the collection of bio-materials in Russia by foreign emissaries has been reported by our special services (Interfax, October 31). Putin may indeed believe these reports, and this may be a good example of how Russian special services and the military promote fear and paranoia in the Kremlin to increase their influence, keep tensions high with the West and boost defense-related spending. A siege mentality and national paranoia may also turn out to be the main electioneering pitch the Kremlin will use to galvanize the population to massively turn out, on March 18, 2018, to reelect Putin for a de facto fifth term as Russia’s supreme leader.