Defender of liberal values?

Photographer: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Russian Security Chief Makes Putin Seem Tame

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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General Alexander Bastrykin, who runs the Russian equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has provided a rare insight into the thinking of President Vladimir Putin's select circle of siloviki, or security men. His vision, published in the weekly Kommersant Vlast, includes Chinese-style Internet censorship and the elimination of "fake democracy" to ensure that Russia can defend itself.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

The image of Russia as a besieged fortress is almost always part of the silovikis's rhetoric, though they seldom express their views publicly. The lengthy article by Bastrykin, head of the powerful Investigative Committee, goes beyond the usual cautious pronouncements. It openly calls for eliminating the last vestiges of democracy and civil rights:

"Enough playing at fake democracy and following pseudoliberal values. Democracy, or people's power, is nothing but power wielded in the people's interests. These interests can be attained through the common good, not through the absolute freedom of certain representatives of society to do as they please."

Bastrykin's argument is that, for the last decade or so, the U.S. and its allies have been fighting a hybrid war against Russia. Sanctions introduced in response to Russia's interference in Ukraine are part of that offensive, as are the recent drop in oil prices and the subsequent devaluation of the ruble. Yet, Bastrykin wrote, the Western "information war" has been even more destructive. The general believes that the U.S. undermined the Soviet Union by fomenting ethnic strife, and is still at it, somehow getting Russian citizens to join radical Islamic organizations such as the Islamic State. The "so-called struggle against corruption" is also part of the information war. The West, Bastrykin says, is working to radicalize Russians and turn them against their country, and there is worrying evidence that the approach is working: 1,329 "extremist crimes" were recorded in 2015, 28.5 percent more than in 2014.

"It's time to put up a defense against this information war," Bastrykin wrote. "A tough, adequate and symmetrical answer is needed."

Bastrykin's proposals start with the development of an official national ideology to make young people more resistant to radicalization. But that won't be possible without censoring the Internet. Bastrykin cites approvingly the drastic limitations that China imposed last month on  the ability of foreign-owned and foreign-invested media companies to publish online. He also proposes "anti-extremist" Internet filters for schools, colleges and libraries and the extra-judicial blocking of any sites that the authorities might consider "extremist."

That is the Putin regime's catch-all term for speech that is seen as challenging the established order. There has been a wave of prosecutions for "extremist" convictions. The recipients of prison sentences include an anti-Semitic poet in Moscow, a Torah teacher in Yekaterinburg, a "violence-inciting" singer in Kostroma, a Tatar activist in Tatarstan, and a number of bloggers throughout the country. Bastrykin wrote that he would also use criminal prosecution against those who express their opposition to the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine: According to him, Russia needs a law criminalizing the denial of the annexation's legality.

Bastrykin also would criminalize cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, which "push legal money off the market and threaten the financial stability of the state." 

This powerful official, whose agency is charged with investigating serious crimes, is imagining a country that is a lot like the Soviet Union: A clear government-imposed ideology, no pretense of the freedom of speech, no "fake democracy" and a siege mentality induced by the fear of a Western enemy. The article is the clearest call for the restoration of the Soviet system by a top regime functionary since Putin came to power 16 years ago. 

Putin himself has never gone this far in his public statements. In January, he gave a very different definition of democracy than Bastrykin's:

"As we have already established, democracy is the power of the people and the people's influence on the authorities. We have been inoculated against authoritarian rule by one political force -- the Soviet Communist Party. We made our choice long ago and we will perfect the domestic democratic institution."

Putin's  actions, especially during his third presidential term, have belied these words. Media freedoms have been under attack, the political opposition has been worn out and marginalized, and economic openness has been curtailed. Yet Putin has steered clear of introducing open censorship or turning his regime into an ideological dictatorship along Soviet lines.

Bastrykin's bold leap could be a test of public opinion -- though Putin is certain that the public supports him. Bastrykin's views were intended more for Putin and other loyalists than for the readers  of a relatively liberal magazine. It would only take a slight push now to get Russia on the path back to its Soviet past, or some version of it inspired by the example of China. In the minds of the siloviki, that country was better equipped to fight the Western enemy.

Still, Putin may use the opportunity to state once more that he's committed to democracy and the relative freedom of a largely uncensored Internet. Some of his men are so hard-line that next to them, he might look benevolent.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net