Putin’s Repressive Policies Prompting Regions, Some Post-Soviet States to Overfulfill the Plan

May 30, 2014
Leyla Yunus. Photo by Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

Staunton, May 30 -Putin’s repressive policies in Crimea and in Moscow have distracted attention from two other disturbing developments: the tendency of regional leaders to curry favor by going beyond what the center has required and attempts by some post-Soviet regimes to use Moscow’s actions as a guide or cover for crackdowns of their own.

Both these patterns recall what happened in Soviet times. As Robert Conquest documented in The Great Terror and as Victor Serge showed in The Case of Comrade Tulayev, regional leaders not only took their orders from Moscow but cues as well – and often went far beyond what the center had required as a means of demonstrating loyalty.

And as various historians and writers on Eastern Europe have demonstrated, when Stalin launched a new wave of repression, most of the leaders of the Soviet bloc countries followed suit, sometimes because Moscow had given them specific orders but often because they had their own scores to settle and/or wanted to show they were enthusiastic followers.

The situation now is somewhat different, of course, but an understanding of the ways in which Putin’s system is metasticizing is critical. On the hand, it underscores how important it is to be very clear in public about how wrong Putin’s actions are. And on the other, it highlights the need to track what is going on beyond the Ring Road and beyond the Russian Federation border.

The size of this problem is large and growing. In the course of the last 48 hours alone, in addition to the always useful monitoring of groups like SOVA, there have been major surveys of how bad the situation in Karelia and in Aygeya.

In each case, it appears, local officials like their Stalinist predecessors have taken Moscow’s demands not as an order that must be fulfilled exactly as stated but as an occasion for local initiative, with the powers that be deciding that as long as they do what Moscow asks, they can exceed them, thus serving their own ends and currying favor in the center.

This is an especially unfortunate development because it effectively destroys the “common legal space” Moscow has claimed it has secured in the Russian Federation and because many regional leaders are confident that they can act with little risk to themselves given that there are fewer independent journalists, human rights activists, and Western diplomats in their regions to report on what they are doing.

But as tragic as these developments are for Russian citizens, the spread of Putin’s method of governance with its routine repression and violation of human rights to neighboring countries may be even more so. Many of these countries have had not a good record in the past, but now their rulers seem convinced that given what Putin is doing, they too can act with impunity.

The number of such cases in what the Kremlin is pleased to call “the near abroad” is if anything greater than in the regions and republics of the Russian Federation. And such abuses have increased either because the regimes involved are allying themselves with Moscow or because they believe the West will restrain criticism out of geopolitical considerations.

One such case involves rights activist Leyla Yunus in Azerbaijan. Yesterday, she sent the following appeal to human rights groups in the West:

“An accusation has been brought against the leaders of NGOs regularly cooperating with European and American sponsors. Today on May 29th at 10:05 in the morning I received a call on a mobile phone from Ibragim Lemberanski, the investigator of High Crimes at the Public Prosecutor General’s Office. He told me: ‘You need to come to us to the Public Prosecutor’s Office today.’ To which I answered: ‘Return our illegally-confiscated passports, and after that I will come to the interrogation.’ He pretended that he did not hear anything and again repeated that he is waiting for me in two hours for the interrogation.

I replied to him, if after an hour he or anyone else from the Public Prosecutor’s Office will bring to our house our illegally-confiscated passports, then after two hours, I shall come to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. In the event the passports are not brought and returned to us, then they can send even numerous numbers of policemen to attack my apartment, I still won’t go anywhere. And I hung up.

A big request to all of my friends, and like-minded persons: Spread this information everywhere. Be ready for a possible police attack on our apartment at the address Narminan Narimanov Ave, No. 125 (I hope that I will manage to call Turan and others), come and be the witnesses to the next lawless practices of our law-enforcement authorities.

No step backwards! The enemy won’t pass!

Dr. Leyla Yunus
Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour, Winner of the International Theodor-Haecker-Prize and Director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy”

It is easy to see why many would see this as “just another case and that we can’t get involved in all of them.” But there are three reasons why that is not so. First, here as elsewhere, the Azerbaijani authorities are copying a measure that the Putin regime pioneered: using any foreign ties as a justification for a crackdown.

Second, Leyla Yunus is seeking to stay within the boundaries of the legal system to defend herself. She is only asking for international attention so that she and others like her will have that opportunity and be able to make use of the rights enshrined in the Azerbaijani constitution and laws rather than having those rights ignored as the Putin government is doing.

And third, Yunus’ efforts are about keeping Azerbaijan from sliding into the kind of system Putin supports so that Azerbaijanis will be able to live in freedom. If the past few months have taught us anything, it should be that it is difficult if not impossible for the West to have a stable partnership for long with regimes that don’t share those values, however compelling geopolitical or geo-economic arguments may appear.