Russian President Vladimir Putin is no slouch when it comes to geopolitics: This week, he signed a decree suspending implementation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and boasted that his security agencies had thwarted nearly 600 foreign intelligence operators last year.
But with domestic issues now driving the agenda for the Kremlin, Putin’s Russia also appears to be taking a more authoritarian turn.
This week, Russian lawmakers advanced a package of new legislation aimed at curtailing internet freedom. Among the laws awaiting the president’s eventual signature is a measure that would allow authorities to jail individuals for insulting government officials online.
Russia is not China, and the country still has a relatively boisterous online culture. But the proposed laws would widen the definition of restricted speech, calling for penalties of up to 15 days in administrative detention for those found guilty of posting information that shows “disrespect for society, the state, (and) state symbols of the Russian Federation,” – including, presumably, Putin himself.
This latest move to curtail internet freedom in Russia builds on fairly sweeping laws that are already on the books. In 2016, a raft of anti-terrorism legislation known collectively as the Yarovaya Law introduced harsh penalties for endorsing extremism online.
According to Human Rights Watch and other advocacy groups, dozens of Russians have been jailed for simply expressing their views on blogs and social media. And Putin this week signed into law a bill that restricts the digital footprint of military service personnel.
Russian authorities may have wide latitude to restrict speech online, but it’s also worth remembering that the Yarovaya Law had a major impact on religious freedom in Russia.
A 2018 State Department report noted that Russian authorities”prosecuted individuals of many denominations for unauthorized missionary activity under the amendments to antiterrorism laws passed in 2016, known as the Yarovaya Package. Police conducted raids on the private homes and places of worship of religious minorities.
Religious minorities said local authorities used the country’s anti-extremism laws to add to the list of banned religious texts. Local officials continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land and denied them construction permits for houses of worship.”
Those practices continue, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have been some of the hardest hit by the enforcement of such laws. In one of the most high-profile cases, a Russian court last month sentenced Danish Jehovah’s Witness Dennis Christensen to six years in a penal colony on charges of “religious extremism.”
After the conviction of Christensen, allegations also surfaced of torture and ill treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses following the searches of their homes by law enforcement officials in the Siberian city of Surgut.
And earlier this week, the Russian Foreign Ministry and the US State Department confirmed the detention of two US citizens – members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – in the southern city of Novorossiysk.
Putin’s Russia may be authoritarian, but it is not monolithic: The persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses continued even after Putin in December described the inclusion of Jehovah’s Witnesses on a list of extremist organizations as “complete nonsense.”
But the move to curtail internet freedom and the crackdown on religious minorities reflect broader official paranoia about internal threats. Russia’s top leadership has a conspiratorial view of the world, with Russia opposed by foreign adversaries from without and of fifth columnists from within.
In a speech last weekend, Russia’s top military officer, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, pointed to the “aggressive vector” of the foreign policy of the US and its allies, suggesting they were employing technology of “color revolutions” and “soft power” to promote regime change around the globe, including in Russia.
“Their goal is the elimination of the statehood of unwanted countries, the undermining of sovereignty, the change of lawfully elected bodies of state power,” Gerasimov said. “So it was in Iraq, in Libya and in Ukraine. Currently, similar actions are observed in Venezuela.”
Such talk reflects wider worry about internal dissent, particularly in a country where the political opposition has no access to state airwaves and Putin has a monopoly on power.
But there are signs that some Russians resist the country’s continued slide toward authoritarianism. Earlier this week, two activists were detained briefly after interrupting a ceremony to commemorate the 66th anniversary of the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin on Red Square.
One protester, Yevgeny Suchkov, threw broken carnations at a bust of Stalin, shouting, “Burn in hell, executioner of the people, murderer of women and children!”
Video of Suchkov and another protester, Olga Savchenko, went viral. The two were detained but quickly released after being issued a fine of under $8, according to US-funded news outlet Current Time.
And on Sunday at least 29 people were detained at a rally in Moscow against the new laws tightening internet control, according to an independent monitoring group.
OVD-Info, a nonprofit organization that monitors detentions, said that as of around 5:00 p.m. local time Sunday a total of 29 people had been detained before, during and after a protest in Moscow that drew several thousand attendees, according to activists.
Activists held a sanctioned demonstration on Moscow’s Sakharov Prospect to demonstrate against proposed rules that would tighten state control over internet traffic. According to OVD-Info, eight individuals who were preparing to hand out balloons at the rally were detained before the event.