How the Siloviki Has Helped Putin Consolidate His Dictatorship

An Interview with Marcus Kolga

 

Can you explain the terms “securocrat” and “repression trap”? Why has political power been shifting from civilian technocrats to so-called securocrats?

The first thing we need to understand when we talk about Putin’s Russia is that much of the current regime in Russia—the executive and decision-making elite—are part of what is known as the siloviki, or the securocrats. Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has systematically purged the government of Yeltsin-era reformers and democrats. Those who continue to advocate for transparency, democracy, and rule of law, and who criticize, and challenge Putin’s policies have faced growing repression. Today, their voices are simply no longer tolerated in Putin’s Russia.

Putin’s current wave of repression began around 2006 when Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in the elevator of her apartment, and former KGB and FSB whistle-blower Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium in a London restaurant by FSB agents. Both were targeted because they were exposing the truth behind Vladimir Putin’s war in Chechnya—a war which Putin helped manufacture so that he could consolidate his power and place members of the siloviki in his government.

Part of the deal that Putin made with the siloviki and the oligarchs who helped maintain Putin’s repressive kleptocracy is that those who support Putin are allowed to enrich themselves in the process. Through corruption, Putin rewards and protects those who are loyal to him. This is an important part of Putin’s repression trap. Bill Browder, who I have worked with over the past decade to advocate for Magnitsky human rights, sanctions, and anti-corruption sanctions, witnessed this first-hand in 2008 when Russian authorities raided and stole his company in Moscow. They used it to commit a $230 million tax fraud. The authorities, who stole this money from the Russian government, pinned the crime on Bill Browder and his attorney, Sergei Magnitsky. When Magnitsky investigated and expose the crime, he was detained and imprisoned for nearly a year. He was neglected, beaten, and eventually died.

After the 2012 Russian presidential election when Putin reclaimed the presidency for his third term, mass pro-democracy protests in major Russian cities were violently repressed. Opposition leaders were forced to flee—those who did not faced incarceration, or worse. In 2015, leading opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot several times just steps from the Kremlin. His colleague and protege Vladimir Kara-Murza was poisoned twice and barely survived. The same Russian security services assassination team that targeted Kara-Murza was assigned to kill Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny back in August 2020.

In the last eighteen months, the siloviki’s control over Russia has increased. A foreign agents registry law has further codified Putin’s repression. All free media has now been eliminated or forced into exile and long-standing NGOs like Andrei Sakharov’s Memorial, which catalogued Soviet era oppression, have been shut down. Foreign governments, like the United States and Canada, are blamed by the Kremlin for trying to interfere in Russian affairs, deflecting the attention of Russians away from the failures of the Putin regime and onto scapegoats in the democratic West. There is little near-term hope for a democratic future for Russia. The opportunity for a legitimate, peaceful, and democratic exit for Putin passed for the last time in 2018. He’s since moved to extend his regime to 2036 through a constitutional amendment, and the siloviki and kleptocrats who kept him in power are deeply motivated to maintain that status quo.

Has Russia’s sovereign internet law contributed to the Putin regime’s consolidation of power?

The primary aim of Putin’s internet law is to isolate Russian citizens from the world and to assert complete control over the information that Russians receive. To achieve this, the Kremlin is in the process of creating an internet network that is disconnected and independent from the World Wide Web. The Kremlin is calling it the RuNet. It was preceded by the 2019 sovereign internet law which requires internet service providers to install equipment that would allow the Kremlin to block any content and websites without the need to contact service providers. In addition, any companies that provide tools to circumvent government censors such as VPNs are subject to fines.

Laws have also been enacted to limit and silence debate on topics that the Putin regime deems to be threatening. These include LGBTQ rights, COVID related topics, and, more broadly, anything related to political freedom. This control that the Kremlin will have over the Russian information environment will be much the same as it was in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Since 2000, Vladimir Putin and the siloviki have been actively re-establishing government control over all traditional media. Independent platforms could still be accessed online—until recently. Putin’s new controls, in addition to the foreign agents registry, have virtually eliminated and silenced independent media in Russia.

I think it is important to note that the Kremlin has managed to export the repressive internet laws to control Western tech firms as well. During the 2021 Russian Duma elections, Apple and Google removed a smart voting app that was developed by Alexei Navalny’s team. The app was intended to help Russian voters who are unhappy with Putin to vote strategically to help candidates who were opposing those from Putin’s United Russia party.

What is Russia’s foreign agent law, and how is it being used to repress political opposition, activists, organizations, and freedom of speech more generally?

The impact of foreign agents law in the media has been significant. As I mentioned, most independent media has been forced to declare themselves as foreign agents. When the Kremlin designates an individual organization as a foreign agent, they are required to label themselves and their content with a warning or face criminal fines for not doing so. This has forced several independent Russian media platforms to just shut down as advertisers simply flee these platforms. The law is also being used to apply repressive pressure on several NGOs and individual pro-democracy, human rights, and anti-corruption activists like Alexei Navalny, and his foundation for the protection of citizens’ rights.

Shortly after the designation of his foundation, Navalny’s colleagues were detained on other fabricated charges, including Lyubov Sobol, who later fled to Estonia with her family.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s civil society organization Open Russia has also been targeted by the law. Concerns about the safety of his employees forced him to completely shut down all of his operations in Russia earlier this year, and media projects that he supported have all been blocked by the Kremlin. Most recently Memorial, a human rights organization founded by Nobel laureate and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, was also designated a ‘foreign agent’ and forced to close down. The Kremlin justified the move, claiming that statements made by this storied human rights organization contains signs of justifying extremism and terrorism. It is likely that the Putin regime cannot tolerate the organization’s research into Stalinist and Soviet times, given that Vladimir Putin has manipulated Soviet history to provoke nationalist sentiment in Russia and has positioned himself, through state propaganda, as the natural heir to Joseph Stalin.

In any case, the foreign registry law is indeed being used to repress all forms of civil society organizations and media that do not align with the Kremlin’s objectives. Sadly, Russian society is being actively forced into a crypto-Stalinist form of darkness, where all information, thought, and movement are controlled and enforced by the Kremlin.

How has Russia employed facial recognition to repress civil society? Are there any safeguards or regulations in place?

The Kremlin has promoted its facial recognition software as a major achievement and convenience for the Russian people. Earlier this year, mass facial recognition software was apparently introduced to allow passengers on Moscow’s transit system to literally use their faces to pay for their transit fare. The system includes 175,000 cameras throughout the Russian capitol.

The authorities have tried to quell fears among the public by reassuring them that the data is securely encrypted, to which only interior ministry staff have access.

That is not a good sign, because all digital data in Russia is accessible to Russian security services, which means that the system is, without a doubt, intended to assist the regime’s repressive organs. Given the fact that 6 million Russians use the Moscow metro on a daily basis, that is a lot of data for the regime to collect, which it will then use to repress dissent. Facial recognition technology was already used in January 2021 to identify protesters who participated in rallies in support of Alexei Navalny. It seems that the combination of internet monitoring, facial recognition, and the repressive environment enforced by Vladimir Putin, are serving their purpose. The streets of Russian cities were relatively quiet ahead of this summer’s Duma elections, which were marred with accusations of widespread fraud, ballot stuffing, and forced voting.

Are there concerns for Canadian citizens in Russia? What concerns should Canada be thinking about as an American ally and NATO member, but also an Arctic nation? 

Should Canadian citizen citizens in Russia be concerned? I think that if you ask the family of Paul Whelan, they would say yes. Paul Whelan was detained by Russian authorities in Moscow around the same time that the two Michaels were detained in China, in December 2018. Paul was born in Canada, but he is a UK and Irish citizen. He is also American—his family moved to the US when Paul was young.

He was detained by the FSB while in Moscow for a friend’s wedding. In 2020, he was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in a high security prison. It seems that his detention was pretty arbitrary, and that he had been used as leverage by the Putin regime against the US government and possibly the Canadian and UK Governments too. Indeed, any Canadian working in Russia should probably take good care of themselves, and all Canadians should consider avoiding unnecessary travel to Russia while the regime undergoes these repressive political convulsions, especially if Canada and its allies apply further economic pressure on Russia,

If we apply sanctions, as Alexei Navalny has suggested, on Putin-aligned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich—who has tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars stashed away in steel processing plants in Western Canada—I think there is a clear risk of arbitrary arrest and kidnapping of Canadian citizens in Russia. Unfortunately, this is rather normal behaviour for authoritarian kleptocratic regimes.

More broadly, I think that Canada should be concerned about the defence of our Arctic. This past summer, Russia submitted claims to all of the natural resources under the Arctic Sea. That is the entire Arctic Sea right up to our 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Russia has also been engaging in the rapid militarization of the Arctic region. New super weapons, including a stealth nuclear torpedo designed to obliterate and eradicate North American coastlines for 10,000 years, are being tested. New nuclear sites are being built close to the Norwegian border and Air Force Bases designed to house long-range nuclear bombers have also been built. Russian state propaganda frequently attacks NATO and Canada in the Arctic context, in order to legitimise its claims and stake to the region.

While the situation is not remotely as tense as what we are seeing on Russia’s border with Ukraine, it can become so very, very quickly. If we fail to stand up against the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine and Belarus today, the precedents that could set could be very dangerous for Canada itself. In conclusion, Canada and our allies need to pay very close attention to Russia in the coming days, months, and of course, years.

 

 

Marcus Kolga is an international award winning documentary filmmaker, journalist, digital communications strategist, and a leading Canadian expert on Russian and Central and Eastern European issues. Marcus has a focus on communications and media strategies as tools of foreign policy and defence, and continues to write commentary for national and international media including the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star. He is the co-founder and publisher of UpNorth.eu, an online magazine that features analysis and political and cultural news from the Nordic and Baltic region. He frequently comments on Russian, Eastern and Central European issues on North American radio and television and at foreign policy conferences. Marcus is involved with international human rights organizations and national political organizations.