Sometimes, the headlines dance.
Which, do you suppose, of today’s Russian news stories is most striking? The passage of the Law on Undesirable Organizations, threatening to ban NGOs and jail their activists? Or maybe the decision to bring the next parliamentary elections up from December to September 2016, pulling the rug out from under an already discombobulated opposition? What about the bill working its way through the Duma that will bar abortions in private clinics and allow them in state hospitals only for those who can pay full cost? How about Putin’s call to purify the Russian language of foreign influence and classify the study of Russian as a separate discipline, apart from normal philology? Maybe its the new computer system being launched to identify and track opposition activity on online social networks?
Russia has an odd way of surprising you with news that is not quite new, and not truly surprising. So it is today: the Duma passed, on third and final reading, the new Law on Undesirable Organizations, allowing it to ban any Russian or foreign NGO (or even corporation) the prosecutors (without court review) deem to be threatening to state security, stability or even general policy, while fining and/or jailing organizers, volunteers and even hangers on.
We knew that was going to happen. Even a few weeks ago, when civil society activists visiting London for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum wondered aloud whether it would be passed, no one really wondered. It all seemed just a matter of time. And yet now that the inevitable has occurred, the world seems that much darker. Now, we wait for the next inevitable headline: who will be first on the list?
The rest of the news was, in some ways, more surprising. No one saw the shift of the Duma election date coming (including, by most accounts, the Duma deputies themselves). Patriarch Kirill implored the Duma to combat abortions back in January, but no one expected much action. Calls to defend the Russian language have been heard before – but from the likes of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, not the (usually) more level-headed Putin.
And yet, while all of this is unsettling, none of it is really surprising. The Kremlin has locked itself into an escalation spiral of repression, coercion and ideology from which there is no off-ramp. While the Kremlin has opponents, it has no real opposition: there is no force in Russian society currently mobilized against it, none strong enough to topple it or even to weaken it significantly. There is no Russian maidan against which the Kremlin can fruitfully tilt, no fifth column ready to undermine the state. There are only shadows and hints, the demons of a regime that evidently fails to believe in its own legitimacy.
This is shadow-boxing taken to the extreme, then. Fearing an opponent it can neither see nor even imagine, but which it knows must exist, the Kremlin goes to greater and greater depths of exertion. The result is fear, frustration and a manic determination to keep throwing ever stronger and ever wilder punches, because to do otherwise, to stop and take a breath, would be to admit idiocy and irrationality. To admit that the Kremlin is alone in the ring would, in fact, be to admit defeat.
And so the dance continues. Here we go ’round the mulberry bush…