The Kremlin’s Theatre of Tyranny
Photo by Pavel Kazachkov.
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Modern Russia is no haven of human rights, but nor is it a “vicious tyranny,” a heavy-handed autocracy, a neo-Stalinism in the remaking or any of the other exercises in horrified hyperbole indulged in by some commentators. The irony, though, is that sometimes it suits the Kremlin to seem so. If in the days when archetypal political technologist Vladislav Surkov was the Kremlin’s choreographer in chief, the name of the dramaturgiya was fake democracy, then today it often appears to be fake tyranny.

Shooting Itself in the Foot?

Consider, for example, the latest, spine-chilling initiative of the Duma, granting the security forces the right to open fire on crowds, on women (so long as they do not appear pregnant, a bizarre humanitarian grace note or a genuflection to the need to reverse demographic decline?), or even on the disabled, if necessary to prevent or defeat a terrorist attack. Between the very subject matter – time to pass some new macabre ordnance on the right way and time to shoot your own citizens – and what it seems to say about the Kremlin’s fear of its own people, it understandably attracted attention and alarm amongst both Russian and Western observers.

And so it should, especially as it coincides with apparent moves to strengthen the very arms of the state most concerned with suppressing the populace. While the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) as a whole, for example, has had to absorb a 10% across the board budget cut, the OMON riot police appear to have been protected from any cuts. Although they represent only a small proportion of the MVD, nonetheless that inevitably means more cuts in regular, front-line policing. Indeed, it emerged that the MVD is investing in, amongst other projects, lots more of a type of grenade launcher called the RGS-50M, increasing its stocks of them five-fold. This is essentially an anti-riot weapon, used to fire rubber bullets and stun and gas grenades, and very much an OMON toy. 

Put together, all this suggests that the Kremlin, perhaps aware that the regime’s standing is rather less secure than those misleading sky-high personal approval ratings for Putin might suggest, is arming itself against some Moscow Maidan. With labor unrest on the rise – the truckers protesting road tolls are just the most visible tip of a disgruntled iceberg – and the 2016 Duma elections bound to focus public attention on promises made and broken, they may have a point. Certainly news that the government, not least the Federal Protection Service (FSO), the Kremlin’s Praetorians, are monitoring opinion in the localities and throwing money at those looking most likely to experience unrest, seems also to suggest this.

The interesting thing, though, is that the news of the RGS-50M purchase was covered by government news outlet TASS. And quite why did the Duma (because let’s face it, while a forum for all kinds of crazies to say all kind of crazy things, it doesn’t go to the bathroom without the nod from the Kremlin, let alone pass a bill) actually feel the need to enshrine the dos and don’t see of massacre in a law? Here, after all, is the dirty little secret of all governments: when they feel they must, they kill, and generally wherever and whenever the circumstances dictate. The Federal Security Service (FSB), the main subject of the new law, would not check the statute books before shooting presumed terrorists regardless of whether they were women or disabled. But then again, neither would any Western security service. This is not, after all, a law encouraging heedless massacres and Bloody Sundays to be held every other month. Nor is the FSB governed by the 2011 Law on Police, which does set definite guidelines on the use of lethal and non-lethal force. So why make a song and dance of what would seem to be expressions of combined viciousness and insecurity?

The Kremlin’s Gold Standard

Increasingly, it is references in the press to First Deputy Interior Minister Viktor Zolotov that seem to represent the gold standard, pun intended, of the Kremlin’s scare tactics. The former head of Putin’s bodyguard and one of his judo sparring partners, Zolotov has the reputation of being a maximalist in waiting, the kind of political policeman eager for the orders to deploy the knout and the iron fist. After years as head of the presidential security detail, in 2013 he was moved to the MVD where he quickly rose from deputy commander of the Interior Troops to first deputy minister in charge of, hardly incidentally, this militarized domestic security force. 

Periodically, rumors float around in the press that he is poised to replace Interior Minister Viktor Kolokoltsev, a career policeman who, despite occasional forays into the kind of aggressive rhetoric seemingly expected of someone in his job, shows every sign of wanting to be a cop rather than a political enforcer. Kolokoltsev succeeded a career political policeman, the former KGB officer Rashid Nurgaliev, and he was greeted with relief and enthusiasm within the MVD. Moving another political policeman into his office would likely be unpopular with the rank and file, as well as being a depressing symbol of a newly-repressive turn from the Kremlin.

However, unless and until the Kremlin feels it needs a tougher hand at the MVD, Zolotov’s greatest value appears to be precisely in his role as the bogeyman. Simply by airing the notion of his ascension, with all that could imply, is a way of signaling both that the Kremlin could empower much more fearsome agents and also that things are by no means as bad as they could be.

The Emperor’s New Armor

So welcome to the theatre of tyranny. A style of governance which actively encourages the appearance of being tougher and nastier than it really is, and at the same time enthusiastically telegraphs that it could be tougher and nastier still. Behind all this posturing, after all, is a regime which can at best be considered a ‘soft’ or maybe ‘parsimonious’ authoritarianism. This is not in any way to whitewash or condone what it does, which ranges from targeted political trials all the way through to condoning a climate in which journalists dissidents and other inconveniences may be harassed, attacked even killed. We need to recognize the very real cases of abuses of individual rights and political repression. However, in many ways and compared with many countries (including, arguably, the West’s uncomfortable NATO ally, Turkey), it is much less profligately abusive than it might be. Its strategy is to deter resistance by making it appear futile and dangerous.

In this respect, there is a striking parallel between the Kremlin’s foreign and domestic policy. Both depend on making Russia appear not only stronger than it is, but more ruthless, unpredictable and downright crazy, so it seems easier to accommodate than challenge it. And it works really well. Until the day that it meets someone more ruthless, unpredictable and crazy (whether Islamic State or Erdogan) or someone happens to wonder just how strong the emperor’s new armor really is.

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