MOSCOW - Apparently persuaded by groundless conspiracy theories of foreign meddling, the Kremlin and Russia’s security agencies seem impervious to calls for them to adopt a more relaxed approach to their critics and opposition groups.
The Kremlin is continuing a campaign of harassment against opposition leaders and their followers, say analysts and government critics, even though recent anti-government protests have not weakened Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.
Activities by Russia's security agencies
“Hundreds of officers with salaries, bonuses and state-funded apartments are carrying out ridiculous work: on orders from the very top, they are searching the apartments of ordinary people, going through their personal belongings, photographs, rifling through documents, confiscating computers and other electronics, and then carrying out lengthy interrogations that can last hours,” complained Fedor Krasheninnikov in the Moscow Times newspaper.
“They are sent on a pointless search for evidence to confirm conspiracy theories thought up by their superiors,” added Krasheninnikov, a political commentator for the independent radio station Echo of Moscow and an organizer of environmental and political protests.
Search for foreign influence in Russia's protests
Among those conspiracy theories is that protests are fomented by conspiratorial foreign interests — from Western democracy-promotion NGOs and international public broadcasters. On Friday, pro-Kremlin lawmakers accused Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Britain’s BBC among other broadcasters of violating Russian law in how they covered last month’s local and regional elections.
The lawmakers are members of a parliamentary commission established earlier in the year to explore whether international broadcasters and internet services, including Germany’s Deutsche Welle news service and Google, meddled in Russia's internal affairs by allegedly promoting anti-Kremlin protests and encouraging people to attend them.
“Representatives of the department which oversees the implementation of media law confirmed that those outlets violated the law during the election campaign and on election day,” said the commission’s chairman Vasily Piskarev. He warned the commission would propose “reactive measures” for the violations, which he failed to detail. Lawmakers from Putin’s United Russia are drafting laws that would penalize media outlets tens of thousands of dollars for violations in the future.
Piskarev’s remarks are in line with a Kremlin drumbeat blaming foreign interference for anti-government protests. Some analysts see the fresh blame-game as a propaganda effort to turn the tables on Western countries, which have accused Russia of sophisticated meddling in their elections with online ‘fake news’ and disinformation campaigns.
Others say the accusations of foreign interference are part of the long-running Kremlin perception of so-called ‘color revolutions,’ whether in Georgia or Ukraine, or the Middle East as being the handiwork of the West. Putin has made clear his view that hundreds of thousands of protesters are somehow taking instructions from the West. That view was only deepened by the 2014 ouster in Ukraine of Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych.
The Kremlin’s hardline approach to Russian opponents has rekindled a prolonged debate among Western officials and analysts as to whether the Russian leader really is color-blind and does believe anti-Kremlin protests are engineered by the West or whether it is just a convenient trope allowing him to convince Russians they’re under siege by hostile powers and to discredit opponents.
What does Putin truly believe?
Political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya says “the authorities have no doubts” about Western meddling. “Putin believes this,” she said.
Writing in his book “From Cold War to Hot Peace,” former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, who served as President Barack Obama’s envoy in Moscow, said there were often discussions about Putin’s color-blindness during his tenure. “Those of us in the U.S. government debated internally — sometimes with Obama — about whether Putin truly believed these tall tales of American subversive activities in Russia, or whether he just deployed these arguments to mobilize domestic support,” he wrote.
McFaul says initially he leaned to the latter interpretation. “Kremlin spin doctors were a cynical bunch, but they weren’t stupid. Surely they knew precisely what we did and did not do in Russia.” But he changed his position subsequently. “I came to believe that Putin and some of his closest advisers genuinely believed that we were seeking to subvert his regime.”
That despite the fact the U.S. government wasn’t funding political opposition groups and as envoy McFaul didn’t hold any meetings with Navalny, for example, during his time in the Russian capital.
Rights groups on Monday were alarmed to learn of a Kremlin shakeup of the the country’s Presidential Human Rights Council, shifting the membership to loyalists. The consultative body has no official powers but has in the past tried to mediate between Russia’s human rights community and the Kremlin and has been seen as the one place dialogue could take place between Putin aides and critics.
Putin has appointed as chairman a former state TV host and United Russia member Valery Fadeyev, and removed from it several well-known liberals, including human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov.