On February 10th , 2020 a longstanding “terrorism” case involving seven men reached a verdict in Penza, Russia. Arrested in October 2017, these men were accused of founding and participating in a terrorist organization named “Set” or “Network” that aimed to “overthrow the government” along with possession of arms and drugs (“Russia jails…”). However, there is evidence that these are false charges, that the terrorism organization does not in fact exist, and that these men were tortured. This is concerning to the international community especially given the verdict of the trial- all of the men were sentenced to 6 to 18-year terms in a penal colony.
In order to understand the importance of this case and its implications, one must consider who these seven men are and the national context. They are self-admitted anarchists and anti-fascists, liberal views which oppose the authoritarian regime in Russia. In addition to their shared political beliefs, they played airsoft together- which is cited as evidence of the “Network’s” violent plans (“Russia jails…”). The arrests are explicitly connected by authorities to two events which would occur that following year in Russia- the 2018 World Cup and presidential election (“Russia jails…”). When viewing the arrests within the context of the election especially, they can be connected to a national climate of political attacks and repression.
During the election of 2018, there was a resurgence in persecution against Putin’s political enemies- namely Alexei Navalny. Navalny is a long-time opponent of Putin’s and ran an anti-corruption blog on LiveJournal. He has been jailed multiple times since 2011, but his 2013 conviction of embezzlement was reaffirmed ahead of the 2018 election- which not only discredited his platform but banned him from running as a candidate. Given the timing and selectivity of such persecution it is widely believed that the charges are falsified and represent a calculated political move. Despite key differences which I will discuss later, strong comparisons can be made between Navalny’s situation and the arrests of the seven men. Both hold political beliefs which oppose Putin and both have occurred at times in which political support is especially crucial to maintaining power. Targeted political attacks are just one of the many ways in which institutional, media, and legislative advantages are used to maintain an uneven playing field in Russia’s authoritarian regime.
But attacks such as these are also risky. Increasing the cost of opposition by arresting those that attempt takes resources and comes with a high degree of scrutiny. Yet amidst protests and international concerns, Putin remains in power and the regime survives. In Russia, crowds gathered in support at the trial and shouted in protest after the verdict. More vehement opposition is present internationally, and back in 2018 Amnesty International published a statement regarding evidence of torture and general procedure of the investigation. Putin offsets the risks of such stronghanded tactics by creating a narrative of peace and order around himself that maximizes his pragmatic appeal. Regarding the trial of the accused “terrorists”, he has left the situation to the authorities and simply ordered that the situation remain “in line with the law” (“Russia Jails…”). Most obviously, Putin’s delegation of responsibility to the authorities could be an attempt to avoid feeling the full weight of the ensuing criticism and protest- mitigating the risk by maintaining a degree of distance. If he does not intervene but leaves it to the designated channels, he avoids appearing like he is manipulating events in his self-interest. A closer look at his language suggests further nuance. By referencing “the law” and making it the primary focus, he associates himself with stability and order. This illusion of peace functions as a strong pragmatic appeal which keeps the population in check- citizens believe his government will at least ensure a degree of stability. This can be compared to tactics employed with Navalny- his image of fighting corruption by convicting such a prominent figure as Navalny sends the message that he is fighting for a less corrupt Russia. Thus, the utility of high-profile cases such as these are two-fold- to impede and demoralize opposition and to promote his image as the law and order candidate. If people buy into his narrative of stability, it also sheds positive light on his stronger handed tactics by reinforcing that his opponents are opponents of stability- making them enemies whose persecution is celebrated.
What remains unclear is why these seven more or less ordinary men are targeted specifically. They aren’t high profile figures- we can hardly even call them opposition unless they were to mount protests and campaigns against the government. Navalny could have been a real threat to Putin’s re-election, so the it makes sense that such costly measures were taken against him. But attacks on people for the ideas they hold becomes an issue of freedom of expression. Russia certainly does not claim to protect this, and has a long history of persecution in the Caucus region. More recently, any Islamic beliefs have been enough to gain the label of terrorist in the region. But these men are from Penza and St.Petersburg, not the contested Chechnya area. Why were these seven men worth the risk? Is Putin expanding his institutional and propagandistic wars to a new front? It is unclear to me whether this is a result of a certain sense of security or whether it is a response to feeling increasingly threatened. Perhaps a global context has also held influence. Either way, the handling of these sentences and possible appeals, as well as the state treatment of political opposition in general, have much to tell us about Putin’s evolving control and the Russian national climate.
“Alexei Navalny: Russia’s Vociferous Putin Critic.” BBC News, BBC, 30 July 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-16057045.
“Russian federation: The Network Case, Shrouded in Secrecy and Marred By Numerous Torture Allegations.” Amnesty International, Amnesty International, 24 Decemeber 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur46/9625/2018/en/
“Russia jails members of ‘non-existent’ terror group Set.” BBC News, BBC, 10 February 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51443169?intlink_from_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.com%2Fnews%2Ftopics%2Fce1qrvlegnyt%2Frussia&link_location=live-reporting-story
“Russia: Prosecution for membership of a non-existent “terrorist” organization must stop.”Amnesty International, Amnesty International, 7 February 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/02/russia-prosecution-for-membership-of-a-non-existent-terrorist-organization-must-stop/
Sokolov, Denis. “Putin Is Waging a Savage War against Russia’s ‘New Muslims’.” Newsweek, NEWSWEEK, 20 Aug. 2016, 12:00 AM, www.newsweek.com/putin-savage-war-against-russia-new-muslims-490783.