WASHINGTON – Habits instilled by fear are slow to fade but can be rapidly relearned. That is one lesson Vladimir Putin is teaching us.
Roaming through Russia just after the Soviet Union dissolved, I kept in my pocket a copy of the new U.S.-Russia treaty that opened the country to free travel.
As I drove down highways until recently off-limits, my license plate identifiable as a foreign reporter’s, highway police would pull me over and demand to know who had given me permission.
“Your foreign minister,” I would say, handing them the treaty.
Sometimes they’d puzzle over the document, call a superior and wave me on. Sometimes they’d force me to turn back. Treaty or no, they knew what they knew: no foreigners allowed.
Over the following years, ingrained suspicions and deference to authority began to fade. Russians who had never before met a foreigner ceased to marvel at the novelty. People who would not have dared criticize those in power, at least beyond their kitchen walls, thought nothing of loud griping.
Now, says Tanya Lokshina, fear is returning. “It’s becoming a different country as we speak,” she told me during a recent visit to Washington.
To illustrate the point, Lokshina, deputy director of the Russia office of Human Rights Watch, described a recent trip to a region in Siberia. She was conducting research with a colleague on the paucity of palliative care in Russia, not your usual human rights subject, and her trip was actually a good-news mission: The region is an exception, a pioneer in offering humane care.
“So we weren’t worried,” Lokshina recalled. “It was a positive story, and not politically sensitive.”
Local bureaucrats at the Ministry of Health learned of their visit and summoned them. “Where was our permission to be in Siberia?” they demanded to know, as Lokshina recalled. “Where was our official permit to interview? Who invited us? Was George Soros involved?”
In years of dangerous human rights research in the war-torn Caucasus, Lokshina said, she’d never been questioned more intensively. The doctors they’d still hoped to interview canceled appointments, and those they’d already seen got into trouble. “What were you thinking, talking to foreign agents?” the doctors were asked.
The suddenly chilled atmosphere is precisely what Putin has been seeking since he reclaimed the presidency in May, after a four-year hiatus as prime minister. He has had his compliant parliament redefine “treason” so vaguely that pretty much anyone who speaks to a foreigner or foreign organization will be nervous. “I’m liable just by job description,” Lokshina said. “I literally don’t have to do anything.”
Putin required any organization that takes foreign funds, which means most human rights groups, to declare itself a “foreign agent,” which to Russian ears sounds synonymous with “spy.” He expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development. Both the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute (IRI), which help political parties learn to function in democracies, have had to pull staff out after two decades in Moscow, IRI just last week.
Putin also set out to make examples of those who defy him. An independent-minded legislator was drummed out of the Duma. An opposition leader, Sergei Udaltsov, was charged with plotting mass disorder, and his associate was kidnapped from neighboring Ukraine and tossed into jail. The ludicrous persecution of the Pussy Riot musicians has been well documented, but 17 other protesters are being prosecuted, with one already sentenced to 4½ years. A daring opposition blogger, Alexei Navalny, and his brother are threatened with prison on byzantine, far-fetched allegations of bribery and fraud.
The phoniness of the case is the point: No one is beyond Putin’s reach, and no one will be protected by judges, the law — or innocence. Just as in his first term he broke one of the richest industrialists, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to tame every other oligarch, so the prosecution of Russia’s best-known and most daring leaders cows everyone else, down to health ministry bureaucrats in Siberia (and their brothers).
Putin is seeking to instill this fear because of his own. Large protests a year ago stunned him. “He’s frightened,” said Lokshina. “He wants to go back to 2007, when he was certain of stability and his popularity.” Lokshina says that she doesn’t believe he will succeed. “It is a different society, and he cannot turn back the clock.”
But she also admits to being struck at how quickly self-censorship can regrow and flower even beyond what’s intended. When high-ranking officials in Moscow learned of her Siberia experience, one said, “This is not what we had in mind,” and Lokshina said she believes that.
“When you create repressive legislation, it acquires a life of its own,” she said. “It is easy to start, and almost impossible to stop.”
Fred Hiatt is The Washington Post’s editorial page editor.