Although administrative measures to discourage or punish opposition activists and journalists harrying the central government have coincided with most of Vladimir Putin’s tenure, the levels reached in 2021 merit a rather direct comparison with the methods once used in the Soviet Union.
Russia’s central government has almost completely stopped disguising the real motives behind pressuring its political opponents. Classifying key organisations linked to Alexei Navalny as extremist organisations mark a new milestone – while various fabricated accusations had been used to obstruct these organisations before, declaring them extremist in the spring of 2021 was done with no effort to disguise the political motivation behind this. Already at the start of the legal proceedings, the authorities stated that these organisations were “engaged in creating conditions for destabilising the social and socio-political situation under the guise of liberal slogans”, with an alleged long-term aim of dismantling the constitutional order. The verdict was drafted under the direct supervision of the Presidential Administration of Russia; the politicised and farcical trial once again warranted clear parallels with the Soviet period. The Presidential Administration also played a key role in initiating and passing a bill banning individuals affiliated with organisations designated as extremist from running in elections. The legislative proceedings appear to have taken place at an accelerated pace so that the law could enter into force before the autumn election was announced. In another sign of urgency, the methods used to pressure the opposition were ramped up along the way, reflecting a relatively rapid change in the ruling elite’s risk assessment – the previously planned activities were no longer considered sufficient, and new measures were introduced on the fly, with barely enough time to put them into practice effectively.
Almost all opposition players and government critics with public visibility found themselves under significantly increased pressure from the authorities in 2021. The entire arsenal of administrative measures was put into service, including fabricated administrative and criminal charges, and designating the targets as foreign agents or undesirable organisations. This tendency to completely subdue the opposition again harks back to the Soviet era.
In 2021, nearly every slightly visible opposition figure and critic of the regime were repressed more forcefully than before.
Putin’s regime was particularly active in muzzling the press, intending to suppress any independent media completely. Administrative methods continue to be used to force independent media outlets to cease activities. At the same time, the regime also seeks to limit information published in independent outlets from finding its way to other media, primarily by wielding the cudgel of foreign agent designation. The state media’s editorial policy is already on a par with communist practices – the topics covered and the positions taken are decided entirely by the Presidential Administration. The events of 2021 showed the Putin regime would ideally like to achieve a Soviet-type status quo in the near future – a complete absence of alternative media.
The foreign agent designation is in use in Russia since 2012, when a law allowing politically active NGOs receiving foreign funding to be labeled took effect. A separate legal framework for designating media outlets as foreign agents took effect more recently, in 2017. The conditions that have to be met in order to be branded a foreign agent have repeatedly been changed – and in recent years, simplified – while the restrictions and obligations that come with being designated as a foreign agent have consistently become more burdensome. This includes labeling any print or online publication issued by a foreign agent and even extending that obligation to any media outlet citing a foreign agent. For online publications that have been branded foreign agents, the designation has significantly reduced their advertising revenue as well as their network of sources. Regulations in force today also allow for the designation to be used for natural persons.