Russia Returns to Stricter Control


November 5, STRATFOR


The Kremlin has reverted to its strict policies of 2003-2007, cracking down on its opponents to get the population back under control after a tumultuous year. As part of this campaign, the last of the Western-backed Cold War radio programs, Radio Svoboda (Liberty), will shut down Nov. 10 when a new law forbidding foreign control of broadcasting licenses goes into effect. This is just one in a series of laws recently passed by the Kremlin that puts restrictions on the Internet, labels nongovernmental agencies as “foreign agents,” and cracks down on the opposition.

Opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov called the silencing of Radio Svoboda a “blow to freedom of the media in Russia.” During the Cold War, Radio Svoboda formed part of the trio of Western broadcasters in the Soviet bloc, along with Voice of America and the BBC. The CIA-funded American Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia organized Radio Svoboda, allowing the West to speak directly to people living in the former Soviet Union.

While Voice of America and the BBC moved from the radio to the Internet after the end of the Cold War, Radio Svoboda continued broadcasting via radio programming. Since only 30 percent of the population in Russia uses the Internet, keeping this format allowed Radio Svoboda to get its message to a greater number of people. Other media, like television, are largely state-owned or -influenced. State groups have taken over more Kremlin-critical radio programming, such as Echo of Moscow, in the past decade. Evidence of the new management could be seen during the anti-Kremlin protests over the past year when Echo of Moscow’s owner, Gazprom-Media, forced the station’s board to resign after the program covered opposition protests.

The restriction of radio follows another law that came into effect Nov. 1 permitting the government to shut down Internet websites it deems unhealthy for children. The law creates a unified register known only to the government of websites promoting suicide or containing child pornography or instructions for the manufacture of illegal drugs. These sites will be immediately shut down without a trial and Internet service providers and web-hosting companies will be required to block them.

Civil rights groups in Russia have criticized the law as yet another limitation to free speech in Russia, maintaining that the government will use the measure to shut down anti-Kremlin or opposition websites. Russian search engine giant Yandex, the BBC, social media portal and Wikipedia have formally protested the new law.

In addition to tightening media control, the Kremlin’s new series of lawsincludes a measure labeling any nongovernmental organization receiving foreign funds as a foreign agent. Controversially, the Russian government also shut down U.S. Agency for International Development after accusing it of supporting anti-Kremlin opposition groups, which recently have been hit with heavy fines, mass arrests of their supporters, and restrictions on their gatherings.

Measures like this were last seen when Russian President Vladimir Putin first came into power a decade ago. At that time, he purged dissidents and foreign influence in Russia to consolidate his power. This tight control over the media was loosened in recent years as the government felt more comfortable with its grip. But the recent string of protests, as well as the rise of opposition groups and anti-Kremlin propaganda, have prompted the Kremlin to resort again to harsh measures.

From 2007 to late 2011, the Kremlin sought to reduce its reputation for such restrictive measures to show it had the Russian population under control and to present a friendlier appearance to Western investors. From its perspective, however, easing back allowed the system to fracture. Still, though restrictive policies will prove effective in the short term (as they did during the mid-2000s), such moves will not guarantee Kremlin control over the population in the long run.

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