Russia: Putin's War on Democracy

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(289)

Widely billed as 'Russia's 9/11', the Beslan hostage tragedy in September, and the downing of two passenger aircraft by Chechen suicide bombers the same month, have seen the Kremlin do its best to ape Bush and Blair's 'war on terror'.

President Vladimir Putin threatened 'pre-emptive action' against terrorist bases. His remarks raised new fears that Russia would lash out at Georgia, which it accuses of harbouring the Chechen resistance. Putin also clamped down on democracy, announcing that the elected leaders of Russia's 89 regions would now be appointed from Moscow. Local government elections will be restricted, making it almost impossible for independent candidates to stand.

Russia's parliament is debating 40 new 'anti-terrorist' laws, lashing out at immigrants and curbing civil rights. Restrictions on the media, already a pale imitation of a free press, are also to be stepped up. Media censorship has been a key feature of Putin's rule. His first priority has been hiding the truth about Chechnya, where Russian forces have slaughtered some 200,000 civilians since 1994, including 35,000 children. NTV, a channel well known for its critical reporting of Chechnya, was the first to be crushed four years ago and its owner forced into exile. Last summer the government closed down TVS, the only national station still critical of the Kremlin.

All dissent has been stamped out. When Svoboda Slova, a current affairs programme, was scrapped this summer, Yevgeny Kisilyev, Russia's equivalent to Jeremy Paxman, said, 'It looks like a pogrom. Svoboda Slova was the last remaining arena on Russian television for critical debates.'

The Kremlin kept a vice-like grip on reporting of the Beslan tragedy. Two journalists well known for their exposure of Russian war crimes were prevented from even travelling to Beslan. It was alleged that Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya Gazeta was seriously poisoned on board her flight - she is currently recovering from kidney and liver damage. Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky was detained at the airport and jailed for five days for 'hooliganism'. Two editors have lost their jobs over Beslan. The government ordered the resignation of Raf Shakirov, editor of the daily paper Izvestia, after he published harrowing photographs from the siege.

Putin is attempting a Russian version of the Chinese model, strengthening central control while opening the country up to market forces. But for ordinary Russians, the gloss is clearly wearing off. 'Russia's 9/11' comes five years into a second calamitous war in Chechnya, where officials say 5,000 Russian troops have died. A survey by a pro-Kremlin organisation revealed that 61 percent of Russians oppose Putin's scrapping of elections. His popularity rating fell to 66 percent after Beslan from 68 percent in August. In February it stood at 82 percent.

Putin's war can become as unpopular as Blair's on Iraq. One Russian commentator described Putin's response like this: 'The deeper an ostrich sticks its head in the sand, the more it leaves its backside exposed.'


Russians speak out against the war in Chechnya at seminar W17 at the European Social Forum, Sunday 17 October, 9am.

Anna Politkovskaya will be speaking at the ESF and presenting her new book, Putin's Russia.