A dictator meets an opponent he can’t co-opt, corrupt, calumniate, cow or coerce.
The Russian human-rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko once explained to me how Vladimir Putin’s machinery of repression works.
- “It isn’t necessary to put all the businessmen in jail,” she said. “It is necessary to jail the richest, the most independent, the most well-connected.
- It isn’t necessary to kill all the journalists. Just kill the most outstanding, the bravest, and the others will get the message.”
Her conclusion: “Nobody is untouchable.”
That was in 2007, when Putin still cultivated an image as a law-abiding, democratically elected leader. But that fiction vanished long ago.
Boris Nemtsov, the leading opposition figure, was murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin in 2015. His successor in that role, Alexei Navalny, has been in and out of prison on various trumped-up charges, as well as the victim of repeated attacks by “unknown chemicals.” Others, like the Putin critic and ex-Parliament member Denis Voronenkov, have been gunned down in broad daylight in foreign cities.
So it’s little less than awe-inspiring to read Andrew Higgins’s profile in The Times of opposition activist Lyubov Sobol.
Sobol, 31, is a Moscow lawyer and Navalny associate who has spent years pursuing a graft investigation of Putin intimate Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch indicted by the U.S. last year for sponsoring the troll factory that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Considering that journalists have been killed looking into Prigozhin’s other businesses, Sobol’s doggedness recalls Eliot Ness’s pursuit of Al Capone in “The Untouchables” — except, unlike Ness, she has no knife, no gun, no badge, no law, and no federal government to aid her.
Now she is at the forefront of protests that have rocked Russia this summer after the regime disqualified opposition candidates (including her) from running in Sunday’s municipal elections. Her husband has been poisoned. Assailants have smeared her with black goo. Police dragged her from her office. Only a law forbidding the imprisonment of women with young children has kept her out of jail.
“I am always asked whether I am afraid, and I know that I should say, ‘Yes, I am,’” she tells Higgins. But, she says, “I am a fanatical kind of personality and am not afraid. I have always been a fan of the idea of fairness and, since childhood, have hated to see the strong abuse the weak.”
When regimes like Putin’s realize they cannot co-opt, corrupt, calumniate, cow, or coerce their opponents, what usually comes next is a decision to kill them. The risk that this could happen to Sobol or Navalny is terrifyingly real, not least because Putin has so many underworld friends willing to do his presumptive bidding without asking for explicit orders.
But Putin also needs to beware. Dictatorships fall not only when they have implacable opponents but also exemplary victims: Steve Biko in South Africa, Benigno Aquino in the Philippines, Jerzy Popieluszko in Poland. Through their deaths, they awakened the living to the conviction that it was the regime that should die instead.
Today, Nemtsov continues to haunt the Kremlin. So do Sergei Magnitsky, Natalia Estemirova, Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya, to name just a few of the regime’s murdered adversaries. At some point, a growing list of victims will start to weigh heavily against Putin’s chances of staying in power. The death of a galvanizing opposition figure could be the tipping point.
Especially when the political-survival formula that has worked for Putin so far is coming unstuck. That formula —
- enrich your cronies,
- terrify your foes,
- placate the urban bourgeoisie with a decent standard of living, and
- propagandize everyone else with heavy doses of xenophobic nationalism
— no longer works so well in an era of
- Magnitsky sanctions,
- international ostracism,
- a persistently stagnant economy,
- middling oil prices,
- unpopular pension reforms, and
- dubious foreign adventures.
It works even less well when your domestic foes aren’t so easily terrified. As in Hong Kong, a striking feature of the Russian protests is the extent to which they are youth-driven — a vote of no-confidence in whatever the regime is supposed to offer. One recent survey found that the number of young Russians who “fully trust” Putin fell to 19 percent this year, from 30 percent last year. That’s not a good trend line for a man who aspires to die on his throne.
None of this guarantees that Putin can’t bounce back, not least if Donald Trump gives him the kinds of breaks, like readmission into the G7, he needs. And Robert Mugabe’s death this week at 95 is a reminder that tyrants can endure longer than anyone expects.
Still, for the first time in 20 years, the elements by which Putin falls are coming into place. Core among them is the courage of people like Sobol — a woman who, as Pericles said more than 2,400 years ago, “knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.”Related‘I Am Always Asked if I Am Afraid’: Activist Lawyer Takes On Putin’s RussiaHe Played by the Rules of Putin’s Russia, Until He Didn’t: The Story of a Murder
Purported hackers obtained and leaked confidential information about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as part of a pro-Russian disinformation campaign that appeared to be aimed at discrediting the inquiry, Mr. Mueller’s office disclosed Wednesday.
Mr. Mueller’s office had turned over the documents to a Russian firm fighting federal charges, Concord Management & Consulting LLC, as part of the disclosure process ahead of a trial.
.. This month, Concord’s attorneys criticized the judge overseeing the case, U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich, in an unusual filing saying she had created an appearance of bias in favor of the government. That came after Judge Friedrich, appointed to the bench by Mr. Trump, told Concord lawyer Eric Dubelier that he was engaging in unprofessional behavior in his attacks on Mr. Mueller’s team and told him to “knock it off.”
.. The Wednesday filing came in response to request by Concord to share documents with colleagues in Russia, including one of the indicted defendants, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and known as the Kremlin’s favorite restaurateur.
He earned the slightly mocking nickname of “Putin’s cook.”
Despite his humble, troubled youth, Mr. Prigozhin became one of Russia’s richest men, joining a charmed circle whose members often share one particular attribute: their proximity to President Vladimir V. Putin.
.. According to the indictment, Mr. Prigozhin, 56, controlled the entity that financed the troll factory, known as the Internet Research Agency, which waged “information warfare against the United States” by creating fictitious social-media personas, spreading falsehoods and promoting messages supportive of Donald J. Trump and critical of Hillary Clinton. He has denied involvement.
.. he has emerged as Mr. Putin’s go-to oligarch for that and a variety of sensitive and often-unsavory missions, like recruiting contract soldiers to fight in Ukraine and Syria.
.. “He is not afraid of dirty tasks,”
.. “He can fulfill any task for Putin, ranging from fighting the opposition to sending mercenaries to Syria,” she said. “He serves certain interests in certain spheres, and Putin trusts him.”
.. the Kremlin endorsed projects like the troll farm without directly organizing them.
“This is done by somebody who receives large-scale government contracts,” he said. “The fact that he gets these contracts is a hidden way to pay for his services.”
.. When the troll factory was formed in 2013, its basic task was to flood social media with articles and comments that painted Russia under Mr. Putin as stable and comfortable compared to the chaotic, morally corrupt West. The trolls soon branched into overseas operations focused on Russian adversaries like Ukraine and the United States.
.. limited details about his personal life have emerged, mostly through the Instagram accounts of his two grown children.
One picture featured his son, Pavel, walking naked on the deck of the 115-foot family yacht. Other pictures showed a private jet and a vintage powder blue Lincoln Continental, said to be Mr. Prigozhin’s favorite car.
.. sweeping view from his wooded compound in Gelendzhik, the resort town on the Black Sea.
.. pier for the yacht, was built in an ostensibly protected forest much beloved by Mr. Putin and his cronies
.. In exchange for providing soldiers to protect Syria’s oil fields, companies linked to Mr. Prigozhin were awarded a percentage of the oil revenue
.. The only clues are the companies’ overlapping ties, including the same managers, shared telephone numbers or IP addresses.