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Pavel Chikov: The authorities are now at a loss about how to keep the law enforcers busy. Unfortunately, any answer to this question is bad news

Pavel Chikov has a foreboding that a new reality will set in. The head of the Agora International Human Rights Group spells out the dilemma facing the Russian government: to downsize the huge enforcement apparatus, which is idled by the lack of tangible threats to the regime, or to build a new enemy image ("MediaZona").

In order to talk about politically motivated cases, a comparison should first be drawn between the present situation and the 2011-2012 period. The dispersing of the protest action in the Chistye Prudy Park, the Pussy Riot Trial, the searches at the homes of Navalny, Sobchak, the Bolotnaya Square case. The whole package of repressive laws, the switching on of the ‘rabid printer’. Speaking in stock exchange terms, there was a bull market for repressions, the Investigative Committee, the Centre for Combating Extremism and the rest of the law enforcement agencies functioned at a steady high gear. This went on until mid-2016.

Over the last three years, the situation has changed radically. True, this change has not always been for the better. Overall, the market for repressions has been bearish over the last three years. However, some segments have been bullish.

The unjustified politically motivated criminal cases have substantially decreased. Until 2016, the pressure was evenly exerted in all areas. Roughly speaking, radical Muslims were persecuted in the same way as the Right and liberal opposition activists. Whether you were a Salafist from Dagestan, a member of Navalny’s team in Moscow, or a right-winger from Saint Petersburg, whether you were an opposition structure, a human rights organisation or an ecologist organisation – you came under a crackdown all the same. With hindsight from 2019, the repressions between 2012 and 2016, which peaked in 2014 and 2015, were practised on a massive scale.

The situation has changed now. Non-governmental organisations, mass media, and even the political opposition do not come under sustained pressure. As to the mass protest actions, it is a different story. The number of those brought to responsibility is growing, and so is the number of arrests. Administrative pressure is mounting, new substantive elements are added in the Code of Administrative Offences, and new precedent-setting cases are instituted.

On the other hand, politically motivated criminal cases have become fewer. At that, they have concentrated in particular sectors and against particular groups. Where they do exist, the response and the consequences are more stringent than before. Political repressions have intensified in particular areas. Examples include radical Muslims and the Hizb Ut-Tahrir cases. Their members have been re-categorised from extremists to terrorists. The terms of imprisonment have increased absurdly – they reach 20 years in cases without anybody having been killed or injured. Moreover, this is not happening in the North Caucasus, where Hizb Ut-Tahrir are practically non-existent. The main target area is Crimea. The idea is purposeful persecution of Crimean Tatars, whereas Hizb Ut-Tahrir is merely a pretext. The Bashkir groups are there too, but this is just a reflex reaction. Were it not for the Crimean Hizbs, the Bashkir ones would not have been there either.

Hence, the onslaught against extremist and terrorist associations: Artpodgotovka [Artillery Preparation], Novoe Velichie [New Greatness], Set [Network], the neo-Nazi groups. They, too, are not to blame for any casualties, deaths, real actions. All these cases are about talks, intentions, plans, and values – good or bad, defensible or indefensible. Nevertheless, the bulk of this is nothing more than words and thoughtcrimes. Moreover, when people are sentenced to deprivation of liberty from 4-5 to 20 years for this, this is a completely new phenomenon.

Then, there is also the zeal of the local generals. A new Federal Security Service (FSB) chief, coming from Komi, was appointed in Krasnoyarsk as a reward for the detection of Gayzer’s gang, and he is eager to distinguish himself yet again. So there you are, the Artpodgotovka Case (it was precisely in Krasnoyarsk where it was identified as an extremist organisation). The Set Case from Penza is in the same order. Such “local level initiatives”, in the style of Stalin’s minions asking him to increase the quota for purging ‘first category suspects’ (particularly active and vicious counter-revolutionaries subject to summary execution), which are vigorously encouraged by career promotions, a higher rank ceiling and lucrative prospects opening up, sustain the existence of the repressive apparatus at present.

The situation in the North Caucasus remains tense, but here they switched from the second Chechen campaign to a Syrian campaign. Combating Daesh gave law enforcers a welcome occasion to track down cases of terrorism. All this is epitomised by Varvara Karaulova. Understandably, there are hundreds of such cases in the North Caucasus. This facilitates continued police harassment in its most terrible forms. The persons involved in such cases are not treated as humans, which is why all violent actions taken against them by the law enforcers are justified. Hence the ongoing abductions, torture and killings.

A distinguishing feature of the last year and a half is the start of criminal cases against police officers. The Centre for Combating Extremism case in Ingushetia, there are several cases in Dagestan, and ten police officers are standing trial in North Ossetia on torture and murder charges. This has not happened before. The Kadet (Lapin) Case, which was conducted by Stas Markelov, had been for years all but the only example of criminal prosecution of a law enforcer for torture throughout the North Caucasus. Certainly, this is a positive trend, but local repressions in the North Caucasus are still fuelled under the veil of the Syrian campaign.

Anyway, we are facing a new situation. For some reason, a political decision has been made to leave mainstreamers alone. One indication of this is the partial decriminalisation of Article 282 of the Criminal Code. That is to say, students like Mariya Motuznaya are off limits, the public no longer tolerates their prosecution. This trend is irreversible. Now you cannot be held responsible for extremism because of trifles: without calls for violence, without strong language, without flagrant incitement. However, those for whom the general public does not intercede, that is to say conventionally marginalised people of every stripe, can continue to be crushed with redoubled energy. Salafists in the North Caucasus, Nursists, Crimean Tatars in Crimea, Scientologists in Saint Petersburg, Aum Shinrikyo followers, supporters of Vyacheslav Maltsev, anarchists, forest runners carrying tree trunks. This is not a mainstream activity. Which certainly does not make it necessarily unlawful.

Therefore, Jehovah’s Witnesses came in just handy. As many as 150,000 members of the banned organisation countrywide. This is just heaven for all operational services, any quantity of solved cases, chances of infiltration and recruitment. In other words, a bonanza. Largely invented. Everybody is perfectly well aware that Jehovah’s Witnesses obviously do not pose any threat at all either to the State or to society or to the Russian Orthodox Church. And they are victimised by the regime simply because a large army of law enforcers has nothing else, which to keep them busy!

Russia’s Ministry of Justice registered the first Witnesses chapter back in 1991. Starting from 1995, they have been under attack. In 2002, the Moscow group lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights. The first court judgment recognising a local chapter of Jehovah’s Witnesses was rendered in Rostov as long as 10 years ago. Approximately, at that time, the European Court of Human Rights granted the application and found that the persecution of the religious group was groundless. All of a sudden, in 2017, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, approached by the Prosecutor General’s Office and with the assistance of the FSB, pronounced extremist a thousand and a half Jehovah’s Witnesses chapters countrywide. Massive-scale searches and detentions, accompanied by reports of torture, followed almost immediately.

Anti-extremism cops went so far as to start going through the accounts of ordinary VKontakte users with a fine-tooth comb. The public did not like that. Now an extremism charge no longer sounds like something dangerous, unpleasant or discrediting. The danger of extremism has depreciated. This term had entirely different connotations seven or eight years ago. Before, “extremist” used to conjure up the image of a bearded militant, armed to the teeth and wearing khakis. The reference now is to a bespectacled botanist sitting in front of a computer.

The law enforcers now target the detection of marginalised groups. Objectively, though, such groups are simply non-existent! This is precisely why the law enforcers have to invent them from beginning to end. People may just be discussing something over a glass of craft beer in the pub.

At this point, I can see that the law enforcers’ work and scope of activity is clearly deficient. Quietly, they are depleting Crimea, too, since they have already detained and convicted whomever they could. The Syrian campaign is ending, Daesh has been routed. Until the emergence of a new structure of radical Muslims, this field is narrowing, too. For a long time now, there has been no fighting and terrorist activity in the North Caucasus.

They will probably stifle Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, eventually this affair will end. They have a network and lobbyists, I am certain that this is a very wealthy organisation. And it is clearly capable of influencing political decisions in any country, including Russia. The European Court of Human Rights has long finalised its stand. In addition to that, the Witnesses are apparently prepared to adjust their practices. Moreover, the claims laid to them do not rest on sound reason. This is pure exploitation of stereotypes.

How to keep the law enforcers busy? That is the main question. I can see that the number of politically motivated criminal cases is decreasing. At Agora, this has been our main area of activity over the last ten years. The point now is how to rearrange and adjust the format of work. This is a major task for us. And I can imagine what an issue this is for the authorities. Because the huge armies of law enforcers imply huge amounts of money, huge political influence and rivalry between them. They struggle for a place in the sun and for influence on political decisions.

The present political regime rests on groups of law enforcers, which are in an intricate relationship with each other. The balance of interests is delicate and difficult to attune. Accordingly, they are no longer needed. Hence the erosion of their power and, inevitably, a new struggle. This is already in evidence, as new favourites have appeared in recent years – the National Guard of Russia (Rosgvardiya), which is burgeoning.

Weakening and reducing the law enforcers’ numerical strength implies an erosion of their political influence. This entails serious risks to the regime, considering the problem of 2024. The big question arises as to whether the regime will be in a position to be propped up by the law enforcers for four or five more years in order to hand over power. The major question is whether the present law enforcers will have enough political power to cling on during that period. Because there is no enemy within! And, as is known, a non-fighting army tends to disintegrate! Mobilisation is crucial; this is the key to political power. Power is wielded by those who fight the enemy here and now.

The authorities are now at a loss about how to keep the law enforcers busy. Unfortunately, any answer to this question is bad news. Therefore, the right solution would be to slash the law enforcers’ power and numerical strength. However, this will hardly happen – simply because there is not much room for renewal of a political regime that has been in power for 20 years. The regime will rather reproduce itself and do what it is used of doing and what has worked for it before.

This means that a new enemy will suddenly emerge. Some new campaign may possibly be launched. Conventionally speaking, Gomel and Northern Kazakhstan should stand ready. Alternatively, tensions will flare up somewhere in the North Caucasus. Not in Chechnya, it is off limits. And not in Dagestan, where Vasilyev is firmly set to clear the region and demonstrate a new style of governance. Ingushetia is a possibility.

Is it possible to revert to the old type of repressions against the opposition and civil society? The trouble is that nothing much has been left to persecute now. The Kremlin must take a realistic view. The foreign agents, the liberals and the mass media are already finished. Nothing poses a threat in this area, and this is largely true. They realised that even the most massive protest actions of Navalny in 100 cities do not pose a threat and are not even destabilising. Each protest action in this country is a monstration. They never reach a phase that endangers even the local authorities. Theoretically, Navalny and his 100 supporters can be locked up. However, after all, there must be a real enemy, aggressive, armed and adequately resourced! Which is in a position to do something, even if the threat itself is bogus.

After all, living in the spring of 2019 is far better than in the spring of 2015. Things have improved. The main point is how things will be changing from now on. The authorities need them to get worse. If they are worse, the law enforcers will have legal grounds for their operations. If the law enforcers are busy, the regime will be stable. The authorities are now objectively trying to find out how to downsize dramatically the enforcement apparatus, which is prompted by economic reasons, while at the same time retaining overcontrol on the eve of the power transition in the coming years.

In the absence of an enemy without, the authorities are in search of an enemy within. We can see how the system gradually starts to devour itself. What is the reason that all those high-ranking FSB staffers make headline news? Without mobilisation in the face of a common enemy, they get demoralised and shift the focus to themselves. I am convinced that the dragon feeds on governors, vice governors, senators, FSB agents. It all began with the weakest links in the system: with the Federal Penitentiary Service. Reimer was ruined, then one deputy director and then another one. This process is gaining momentum, the appetites are growing. Among other things because of the quota system for crimes committed by special offenders. Therefore, we are already seeing ministers, governors, and senior officers of the Investigative Committee and even of the FSB behind bars.

The crackdown on marginalised people is an important point. This is an attempt to find an enemy, to take it out on somebody, to throw a bone to the faithful dogs. In this case, anybody risks becoming marginalised. Open Russia suddenly became marginalised. Khodorkovsky projects the perfect image of an enemy to the political regime. He has hundreds of millions of dollars, he is in London, and he is conspiring. He has a network, which he finances; he is engaged in political activity, which attempts to subvert the political regime. Nevertheless, even in their case the decisions are not particularly harsh. Some 50 of their people are known to be under two administrative penalties for participating in the activity of an undesirable organisation. Ahead of the Ninth of May, an order was circulated to the police departments to watch out for forbidden symbols. The order lists, in the same category, swastika images, SS, and Open Russia.

The system is just a step away – what was that catchphrase? Vladimir Vladimirovich, just give us the order, and 50 criminal cases will be launched countrywide. Complete with arrests and detention in custody. The enemy within could not be a more perfect target.

However, in my opinion, they are still not sufficiently marginalised. On the other hand, the possible reason is that they are not handled by that department. One more important point: there is the ambit of the FSB and of the Domestic Policy Directorate of the Presidential Administration. It is rather difficult to say where the boundary between them lies, but it does lie somewhere. Understandably, the quasi Maltsev and Khodorkovsky stand on the boundary between the ambits of Sergey Kiriyenko and Alexander Bortnikov. At some point, Bortnikov contrived to drag the Maltsev case over to his territory and immediately squeezed what was left of him together with all his followers. The hunt for a quasi victim never ends.

However, I have a feeling that Sergey Kiriyenko does not favour massive-scale political repressions. It seems to me that way, this is the opinion of an observer involved in all those criminal cases. I do not know how influential he is and how this works. Perhaps somebody calls Lubyanka from the Domestic Policy Directorate of the Presidential Administration and says: look, this one is yours, but this one is ours? And they argue over the telephone as to whether that one is yours or not, can he be ruined or not? I do not know how they go about it.

However, this is precisely the picture that we are seeing for the time being. So where is the bad news here? Such a situation cannot last long; it is a balancing act in which the balance can be tipped any time now. In all likelihood, it will be tipped towards some new spiral of repressions. We already had the Right Sector, the Ukrainian affairs. Nevertheless, whom does the system fight now? No one can say.

What happened in Magnitogorsk? Nobody knows. Is some new threat coming from Central Asia? No one can say. So what was that thing about Belarus with Northern Kazakhstan? There are no Crimean Tatars there, and then who is the enemy there? The Belarus nationalists were stifled back by Lukashenko. And if there is such a scenario, the implications are on a global scale. It is clear what the price of the Ukrainian conflict would be.

They will probably now try to install a Russian firewall on Chinese hardware and start hunting down the users that will bypass the security. However, no one can yet say whether they will be able to build that fence, and how they will monitor the Left traffic. For the time being I doubt it that they will manage to do it as fast as they want.

It seems to me that various options are being weighed and one of them will be adopted.

This option may be a swing towards massive-scale administrative offence cases for insulting Putin. However, I do not think this is quite feasible. It may happen if the Kremlin issues an instruction to crack down on all critics and insulters of the authorities. Then, a hunt will be launched for profanity targeting [Putin], as was the case with the pictures before that. Who wrote that phrase in Yaroslavl? Some fringe type and swindler rather than Navalny's chief of staff. Because the cultural level is different, Navalny’s supporters would not fall that low. Most of them, at least. Moreover, the financing is not so substantial; it does not pose a threat. Not half a billion dollars, which is supposed to be available to Khodorkovsky.

Now the situation is calm, but this is a lull. Rosgvardiya is a half a million strong army, and the amount of financing it gets is overwhelming. Who are their opponents? The protests in Arkhangelsk against the shipping of garbage from Moscow? Come on! Those people need to meet their match. And such a match is nowhere in sight. Where should they be sent to, Venezuela? They are prepared to leave for wherever they are told. Nevertheless, there is nothing in reality.

As a result, the law enforcers’ quasi opponents may gain an advantage. “Good job, boys, you put the house in order, now let’s tackle the economy”.” I would rather not discuss the liberal towers of the Kremlin, this sounds ridiculous. However, this is how things stand, more or less.

Is it possible for the law enforcers to work based on provocations? In principle, yes, but people learn very fast. First, information can be obtained from the media practically in real time. That is why not all those provocations can be massive. Secondly, this approach is expensive and complicated in terms of preparation. Novoe Velichie and Set require a long-term investigation. Certain investigations are under way even at this point, and new extremist associations will continue to emerge. However, overall, people are learning and yield to provocations ever less frequently.

Despite the Chekists’ feverish activity, are there any underground forces that pose a threat in this country? Of course, there are not. However, once there are neither underground nor aboveground forces, why are so many officers detecting them? If there are no mushrooms, why so many mushroom pickers? That is the question! I do not have an answer to this question. If they would ask me, I would say that the law enforcement apparatus must be axed. I think we are nearing a radical decision at the federal level. What is the need of half a million Rosgvardiya troops, why have a prosecutor’s office alongside an Investigative Committee, why are there so many police officers now?

Even Stalin’s repressions in the 1930s mowed down an enormous number of people but gradually started to subside. Repressions cannot be long on the rise. Perhaps repressions in this country under Putin have already peaked, and now they are declining. We are on the threshold of a new reality, and this is their prime concern.

MediaZona (May 2019)



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More than 50 lawyers work for Agora International Human Rights Group
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Andrey Lepehin
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Ilnur Sharapov
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Alexander Popkov
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