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Putin’s Regime, from Despotic to Kafkaesque

When Vladimir Putin’s government set out to mute public criticism, its censorship primarily targeted large television networks: NTV, TV-6, TVS were successively shut down or seized by the state. The squeezing of influential newspapers soon followed. Today, it seems, even talking to people on the streets or in their homes has become a censored activity.

Earlier this week, Russia’s opposition leader and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov was arrested twice by St. Petersburg police on charges of “illegal agitation,” which consisted of campaigning against the incumbent St. Petersburg governor, Valentina Matviyenko, in Sunday’s municipal election. The now-infamous “secret election” was called without anyone’s knowledge, so that only Matviyenko and a handful of puppet “competitors” could register for the vote (the governor needs the municipal seat in order to move to the upper house of Parliament and become its speaker—the third-ranking position in the state). In the absence of opposition or independent candidates, the only course for Matviyenko’s (and Putin’s) opponents on August 21 is to vote “against all” by spoiling their ballots: placing crosses next to the names of all candidates, and then crossing out the entire ballot paper. By law, spoiled ballots must be counted and entered into the final vote tally.

Opposition activists, including Nemtsov, launched a door-to-door campaign (the only course available to them in the absence of media access) in the two St. Petersburg districts where Matviyenko is on the ballot. Thousands of leaflets urging local residents to “Vote for St. Petersburg—Vote against All” were printed for distribution. But the authorities had other ideas. Having scarcely begun speaking with voters, Nemtsov was dragged away to a police car and taken to the local precinct to be formally charged. This, in fact, happened twice: on Sunday and Monday. For good measure, he was also attacked by pro-Kremlin youth groups, while police stood idly by. The former deputy prime minister will now face trial in a magistrate court.

As police officers explained to Nemtsov, his actions were “illegal” because the leaflets he was distributing had not been paid for from an official campaign bank account—presumably, from the account of Valentina Matviyenko or her hand-picked “competitors.”

Last week, Vladimir Putin, dressed in diving gear and flanked by cameras from state television, descended to the bottom of the Taman Bay on Russia’s southern coast and “came across” two sixth-century Byzantine amphorae, almost fully preserved—a remarkable achievement, considering that last year a professional archeological team from the Russian Academy of Sciences only managed to find fragments on the same site.

These seemingly unrelated episodes—Putin’s archeological “discovery” and Nemtsov’s arrest on the charge of not paying for anti-Matviyenko leaflets from Matviyenko’s bank account—show, as have other instances in recent months, that Russia’s regime is past the control-freak and authoritarian stages, and is becoming plainly Kafkaesque: a government system defined by absurdity. Such systems rarely survive for long.

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