On October 19th, Leonid Razvozzhayev went to grab a sandwich at the cafe inside HIAS, an immigrant aid society where he was filling out paperwork for political asylum, acting under direction from the UN High Council for Refugees. Suddenly, “persuaded” by several masked men, he decided to relocate his lunch break to the back of van. After being hooded, bound with electrical tape, and driven to an abandoned house, Razvozzhayev claims to have been told he was “beyond the reach of law” and made to choose between the execution of his children and writing a false confession to having planned terrorist attacks.
This incident, which inflamed human rights activists around the world, follows on the heels of several other well publicized offenses by the Russian government. Recently, two members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot were sent to a prison camp on account of “hooliganism” for performing risqué songs in a Moscow cathedral. In the same week, Russia’s lower parliament passed legislation expanding the definition of espionage to include foreign involvement in the organization of anti-government protests.
In response to Mr. Razvozzhayev’s unsettling case, the Russian government took a position of full denial. Mr. Markin, head of The Investigative Committee, claimed the activist voluntarily turned himself in and confessed without abuse. But he also added this: “I would like to draw the attention of those who thought that in our country it is possible with absolute impunity to organize mass disorders… you underestimate the professionalism of Russia’s special services”
Signs of a crumbling support base for Putin’s administration and party, United Russia, are to blame for the recent flare of suppression. Fissures in United Russia’s base can be traced to last December’s Duma election, where the party only maintained its supermajority status through rampant manipulation of polling results. The (rightfully) perceived illegitimacy of that election sparked a series of riots that has served to further undermine the popularity of a Putin lead government. But outrage met with brutality begets more outrage and brutality. This week, Razvozzhayev was the one to suffer; In the long run, all of Russia suffers.
Privatization (however corrupted) and liberalization of trade over the last two decades have unavoidably yielded consistent gains for Russian citizens across the board. But these gains were easy; Russia has exhausted the low-hanging fruit. To continue improving, Russia requires true leadership and appropriate representation not found in the current political lineup. Recent riots indicate the realization of this fact by a growing mass of the Russian people. So the question then becomes: “How long can the cycle of dissent and suppression be sustained?”. As members of the politically freer world looking on, we can only hope that the case of Mr. Razvozzhayev will serve as a tipping point, encouraging the Russian populace and sympathetic foreign powers to break through this cycle and achieve meaningful reform to Russian democracy.