Russia’s Civil Society Crackdown Should Raise Concerns

This post is adapted from UN Dispatch.

One week ago, Russian journalist Mikhail Beketov died from heart failure while choking on a piece of food during lunch. He was badly traumatized five years ago when assailants beat him so badly that several fingers and one of his legs had to be amputated. He was confined to a wheelchair. He could not speak.

In man ways, Beketov died because of that beating. Like many other crusading journalists, Beketov was punished for exposing local corruption when thugs broke into his yard and beat him to a pulp.

Beketov had been harassed and threatened for years: his dog was beaten to death in 2007 and set his car on fire after he called for the resignation of the city leadership in Khimki, a city near Moscow. When he suggested the mayor of Khimki, Vladimir Strelchenko, was complicit in blowing up his car, a Russian court convicted him of slander.

Sadly, Beketov’s plight is not unusual. In Russia, violence against journalists is not directed by the state per se, but rather is enabled by the state. In her 2004 book Putin’s Russia, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya explained in detail how this system worked: when a journalist criticizes an official or rich person too strongly, they are first threatened, then hurt a little bit, and then, eventually, killed. The killers are never brought to justice.

Politkovskaya faced this system: after reporting on atrocities against civilians in Chechnya, she was first detained, then harassed, then threatened (including by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov), then poisoned, and, in October of 2006, shot to death in the elevator of her apartment building. The Russian government indicted three men in her murder, but in 2009 acquittedthem all.

In 2011, Russian authorities decided to blame Politkovskaya’s murder on disgraced and exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. There is no proof to substantiate the claim, and the mastermind of her murder remains unknown.

Vladimir Putin promised to investigate the beating of Mikhail Beketov last year. He never did. In all likelihood, he never will. Journalist murders in Russia rarely get investigated – they’re seen almost as a favor to the establishment. It is a sadly common phenomenon: crossing the establishment, or not kowtowing to their power, can be a violent, even dangerous proposition.

This isn’t limited to Russians. Paul Khlebnikov, an American investigative journalist working for Forbes Russia, was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2004. Like other journalists murdered in Russia, the Kremlin identified three Chechen men as the killers, and acquitted them. Recently, the US Treasury Department identified a 30-year-old Chechen man named Kazbek Dukuzov as a prime suspect in Khlebnikov’s murder, and added him to the list of Russians blacklisted from entering the United States under the Magnitsky Act.

Russia is also cracking down on NGOs that have western ties — Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, even US government-run aid and democracy promotion organizations.

So what does this mean for people who don’t care about politics? For one, the Kremlin has sent the very clear signal that you should never, ever cross the establishment. That means if you’re looking to invest there, you have to fluff a lot of officials to make sure you’re not going out on a limb. You also have to make sure you maintain those relationships over time — over the last decade, Russian state-owned energy companies have seized chunks of oil and gas ventures (or otherwise pressured western companies into selling their stakes) across the Far East.

In all, Russia’s complete disregard for any sort of civil society or international political opinion bodes poorly for its future as a sound partner for investment or even for engagement. Russia’s economy is rapidly slowing down and the Kremlin doesn’t have many options to reverse it. This week, too, Russian authorities are beginning the first (stalled) phase of a trial for opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny, on trumped up embezzlement allegations. While Navalny is no angel, this trial has clear political motivations — a sign that opposing the Kremlin for any reason will have damaging consequences.

No matter its promise or its money, Russia does not look very promising.

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