From Maria Lipman, at Foreign Affairs, "Inside the Kremlin’s Crackdown":
In December 2015, the Russian antigraft activist Alexey Navalny released a documentary in which he exposed the corrupt business dealings of the children of Yuri Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general—the top law enforcement official in the country. In the film, Navalny accuses Chaika’s son Artem of “continuously exploit[ing] the protection that his father, the prosecutor general of the Russian Federation, gives him to extort from and steal other people’s companies.” Artem owns a five-star hotel in Greece with his father’s deputy’s ex-wife, who, according to Navalny, maintains close business ties with the wives of violent gang members in southern Russia. The film includes scenes from the inauguration of the hotel, a grand celebration attended by Russian politicians, businessmen, and pop stars. The documentary also details Artem’s involvement in a predatory takeover of a Siberian shipping company in 2002; after speaking out against Artem, the company’s former manager was found hanged.More.
The film has garnered more than 4.6 million views online. In a survey conducted by the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling and research organization, some 80 percent of those who had watched the film or heard about it said they thought Navalny’s allegations “appeared true” or were “fully credible.” Shortly after the film’s release, the Russian documentary film festival ArtDocFest awarded it a special prize, and Dmitry Gudkov, a federal lawmaker, filed a request with the Russian Investigative Committee, the Russian equivalent of the FBI, asking for an investigation into Navalny’s allegations.
The characters in this story—a whistleblower, an independent film festival, and an antiestablishment lawmaker—seem to contradict the West’s image of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia as unforgiving and authoritarian. Yet this is only part of the tale.
The rest is that the Kremlin has persecuted Navalny for years. He has been repeatedly prosecuted on what have appeared to be trumped-up embezzlement charges. He has spent months under house arrest, and although he is not currently imprisoned, he remains on a suspended sentence. His brother, who was named Navalny’s codefendant in a sham embezzlement case, has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison, and several of Navalny’s coworkers have been threatened or forced to flee Russia.
Navalny’s film went viral on the Internet, but Russia’s state-controlled national television largely ignored it. Chaika dismissed it as a political attack backed by an American businessman. And Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, when asked about the film, said its allegations were “of no interest to us whatsoever,” as they concerned Chaika’s children, not the prosecutor general himself. Yet in Russia, few believe that Artem became a rich business tycoon simply because he is a talented entrepreneur. An ascent like his takes a special kind of protection, one that his father likely provided. In fact, in 2011, when Artem’s name surfaced repeatedly in connection with an investigation of underground casinos in the Moscow region, which operated under the protection of local prosecutors, the case ended with no indictments—apparently thanks to his father’s influence.
Gudkov, for his part, has become a one-man opposition. Of the 450 members of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, he is the only one who does not pledge full allegiance to Putin. But after reading his request, the Investigative Committee decided to transfer the case to the office of the prosecutor general—that is, to Chaika himself—effectively burying it. No matter how solid the allegations against Chaika’s family may be, the Kremlin simply will not rely on the accusations of a liberal activist to hold them to account.
Since the start of Putin’s third term in 2012, the Kremlin has grown increasingly intolerant of political and civic activism. But as the economist Sergei Guriev and the political scientist Daniel Treisman wrote in 2015, “new authoritarian” regimes, such as Putin’s, “can survive while employing relatively little violence against the public.” Instead, they rely on manipulation and intimidation, cultivating a sense that opposing the Kremlin is not just dangerous but also pointless.
So far, these tactics have served the Kremlin well. Now, however, Russia’s ongoing economic decline may present an obstacle. The combination of a drop in oil prices and a shortage of investment has already led to a decrease in living standards; unemployment is also likely to rise. This makes it tempting to predict that Putin’s regime will soon unravel, but it remains impossible to tell when or how or what will come next...