MOSCOW—Russian President Vladimir Putin has come up with an ambitious plan for his fourth presidential term: the Executive Order on National Goals and Strategic Objectives. Announced on the day of his inauguration this month, it listed a number of big goals, including raising life expectancy to 78 from the current 72 and turning Russia into one of the world’s five largest economies by 2024.
What the order did not mention was anything about giving Russians more political freedom, whether to demonstrate in the streets or simply to speak their minds without looking over their shoulders—the issues widely discussed by young people on social media, but clearly missing among the Kremlin’s priorities.
Some Russian bloggers and independent analysts dubbed the order “The May Theses,” sending readers back to Vladimir Lenin’s famous April Theses in 1917, sketching plans for Bolshevik control of the state.
Others compared the new strategy to Soviet-style five-year plans.
Human-rights defenders demanded that President Putin aim for a different target—to turn Russia into a country where every citizen’s life mattered, where all constitutional and human rights were well-protected. But the result, as the Americans say, was crickets, or, rather, something worse.
On the day President Putin signed the new strategy, police arrested more than 1,600 people for taking part in “He is not our tsar” protests in more than 22 big Russian cities. Authorities banned the movement, inspired by the opposition leader Aleksei Navalny ahead of Putin’s inauguration.
Putin’s new term started with Russians sharing images of policemen beating and clubbing young protesters, so-called “Cossack” militia whipping teenagers with their heavy leather riding crops in the heart of Moscow.
On Sunday at least 20 people were detained at a sanctioned rally in support of internet freedom. More than 2,000 people had come out to demand the Kremlin stop blocking the encrypted Telegram messenger service. Some carried a big banner: “Hands off the internet.” Policemen twisted arms and necks as they dragged protesters away from the rally.
In Russia there is not going to be real growth economically without growth politically, a lesson one might learn from Soviet history, if one cared to. As independent analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told The Daily Beast, “Putin’s new program sounds like Soviet manipulation of economic figures, since without reforms nothing can turn Russia from the 11th or 12th economy in the world to one of five largest economies.”
“Instead of embracing free, successful Telegram, which is what would happen in a country with a healthy economy, Putin decides to ban it, demonstrating his intentions to keep dragging Russia back into Soviet-style stagnation.”
Zoya Svetova, a prominent human-rights defender, told The Daily Beast that without giving freedom to young, talented people, Russia has no chance to become one of the most powerful countries in the world.
“Six years from now, I would like to see people freely expressing their views in Russia without fear of brutal Cossacks attacking them,” Svetova said. “I also wish the Kremlin will have reformed the court system and let people investigated for economic crimes be put under house arrest rather than locked in overcrowded jails, which is where they’ve put Aleksei Malobrodsky.”
Malobrodsky, the former director of Moscow’s popular theater Gogol Center, was reported last week to be handcuffed to his bed in a hospital’s intensive-care unit. The day before, Malobrodsky fainted in court and was hospitalized with symptoms of a heart attack.
For several weeks Malobrodsky had complained to prison authorities of pains in his chest and and problems breathing. During the court hearing last week, both his defense lawyer and the investigator of his embezzlement case asked the judge to allow Malobrodsky to stay under house arrest and not in Matrosskaya Tishina, one Moscow’s worst jails. Shortly after the judge decided to keep him behind bars, Malobrodsky fainted and was hospitalized.
Only after Presidential Human Rights Head Mikhail Fedotov got involved did the the handcuffs come off the theatrical manager’s wrists. He was allowed to convalesce in his home as well. But it had taken a heart attack.
Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, imprisoned in Russia, started a hunger strike this week. Sentsov announced that he would quit only if all 64 Ukrainians imprisoned in Russia for political reasons were freed. “If I die before the World Cup [starting June 14 in Moscow] or during it there will be reaction in support of political prisoners,” Sentsov wrote in his declaration.
Many intellectuals and creative professionals continue to live their lives in a sort of parallel universe where they try not to think too much about the Kremlin and its grand plans, but every one of them thinks of Russia’s future.
“I would like my country to have more social freedom, to be associated with beautiful things and not with violence,” Yevgeny Mansurov, the manager of the Sawubona Artmania café in Moscow, told The Daily Beast.
But so far Russia has not shown many signs of a domestic political thaw. “Today Russian authorities go after every free and independent institution, especially those that break the rules by criticizing the country’s leader,” Yevgenia Albats, chief editor of The New Times magazine, told The Daily Beast. Recently, authorities started legal proceedings against The New Times, one of the very few independent media outlets still surviving in Russia. “The pressure grew heavy as soon as we published our series investigating President Putin, personally,” said Albats. “The Kremlin is trying hard to make our existence impossible.”
As in Soviet times, the grand plan about the future is supposed to make people forget about the present.