Russia Approaching the Breaking Point
An unusually intense barrage of criticism was fired at Vladimir Putin's Russia last week, which is saying something where he's concerned. Three different highly respected international organizations condemned in the strongest terms his neo-Soviet crackdown on the press. The reason for Putin's anti-press actions is simple: he's failing, and he doesn't want people to know about it -- especially not Russian people.
You might think the toughest words about Putin had come from Reporters without Borders, who in honor of World Press Freedom Day with stunning bluntness called him a "predator" and a "control freak" and stated of Russia: "The country remains marked by a completely unacceptable level impunity for those responsible for violence against journalists. A total of 29 have been murdered since 2000, including Anna Politkovskaya." If you're counting, that's more than two political murders of journalists ever single year of Putin's reign.
But that wasn't the worst of it. The Committee to Protect Journalists upped the ante on RWB and actually called Putin a "murderer." It lumped Russia together with the dozen very worst killers of journalists on the planet, placing Russia on its Impunity Index, which "identifies countries where journalists are murdered regularly and governments fail to solve the crimes." It said Russia has had "one of the world's most deeply entrenched cultures of impunity." If murders are now beginning to subside, it's only because every significant journalist has fled the country, been jailed, or been killed.
Finally there was Freedom House, which published its annual world press freedom index. Russia was classified as "unfree" and ranked a shocking #176 in the world for press freedom, down four spots from its already abysmal score last year. Freedom House stated that "Russia, which adopted additional restrictions on internet content in 2012, set a negative tone for the rest of Eurasia."
These world-famous groups have Russia keeping company with the likes of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia. They say that Putin jails journalists he can't intimidate and kills journalists he can't jail. They say he dominates all mass communications media, particularly television, which is wholly owned and operated by the Kremlin and serves as the dominant source of news for most Russians. And they say Putin's attacks are not limited to traditional media, but rather are increasingly targeted at the internet, choking it off as a source of criticism before even half of the population has been able to access it.
Let's not forget the poster child for this crackdown, under way now for quite some time. Six years ago last November, former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was beginning to report and document his theory that the Kremlin was responsible for the bombs that exploded in Moscow in September 1999 -- bombings which were used as the pretext for Putin's invasion of Chechnya days later. Litvinenko was then murdered in Britain, via highly exotic radioactive toxins, and then the man fingered for the killing, Andrei Lugovoi, was given not just protection by the Kremlin, but a seat in the Russian parliament.
Why is Putin so worried about such reporting? The reason is simple: his economy has always been extremely shaky, as was seen in 2008 when his stock market shed three-quarters of its value in a matter of days. Now it is on the brink of collapse.
Many credible experts are talking about the possibility of recession for Russia, if the country has not already entered one. Russia has seen two consecutive years and two consecutive quarters of declining economic growth. Inflation has doubled in the past year and now hovers above 7%, something that should not be happening during economic decline and which indicates the dire problem of stagflation. The stock market tumbled nearly 15% in the first quarter of this year, and all this is happening for one reason: the price of oil is falling due to declining international demand and increasing exploitation of shale resources. In fact, oil prices recently fell below the critical benchmark of $100 per barrel.
Putin has not done anything to wean Russia off its dependence on crude oil.
In a stunning development, a recent poll by the respected Levada polling institute found that a clear majority of Russians do not want Putin to have unlimited power and do not want him to return to the presidency for a fourth term. Putin has seen rising street protests against his government and open challenges to his authority by figures like Alexei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov. Navalny is now facing an indictment that could send him to prison for ten years. Nemtsov could be next.
Putin knows that if the price of oil continues to fall because the Western economies continue to deteriorate, he will soon face the possibility of widespread social upheaval for the first time since he came to power in 1999. Therefore, it's critical for him to have absolute control over the flow of information to the masses -- the same kind of control the Kremlin had in Soviet times.
With this control, he can not only deny the population negative information about his performance, but also provide them with false information about it. He can blame "foreign enemies," particularly the United States, for undermining the economy and stoke the fires of xenophobia and paranoia in the hopes that Russians will forget who's been running their show for nearly a decade and a half now.
But there's only one way Putin can pull off this neo-Soviet revanchism. That's if Barack Obama goes along for the ride. If Obama rallies international opposition, there will be sufficient pushback within Russia to hold Putin's efforts at bay. If Obama continues to follow his craven policy of appeasement towards Russia, which has Ronald Reagan spinning in his grave, then we will see Russia descend once again into totalitarian darkness.
Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.