Donald Trump’s summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki will be a jarring moment for many Americans. He’ll be face to face again with the leader many accuse of green-lighting interference in the 2016 US election. Many Americans hear little these days about Russia beyond Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of collusion by Trump’s campaign with Russia’s election interference.
That’s a pity. Since Trump’s used his bully pulpit to compliment Putin’s “very strong control over [his] country,” it’s important to understand just what that control is, and where Trump’s admiration could lead.
Trump misses few opportunities to malign the media, going so far as to brand outlets he dislikes “public enemies.” Thankfully, so far, the administration isn’t interfering with or stopping these outlets from publishing. In Russia, the “strong control” Trump so admires has meant that much of Russia’s mainstream media have become almost exclusively the voice of the state, often using elaborate propaganda tools -- including, at times, blatant misinformation -- to mobilize patriotic support for the government’s agenda. The few media critical of the government regularly report pressure from the authorities and are compelled to exercise self-censorship.
Trump has no authority to give legal weight to his “enemy” epithet, but Putin does, and with a cruel twist-- Russian authorities actually make their critics brand themselves enemies and traitors. The government vigorously enforces a law that compels independent groups and journalists to register themselves as “foreign agents” if they accept even a penny of any kind of foreign funding and engage in any kind of advocacy. They must display this label prominently on their websites, all publications, at public events etc. or risk prosecution.
In the Russian public mind, “foreign agent” means “enemy” or “traitor,” and taps back to the Soviet era, with its paranoia about foreign spies and saboteurs. It’s not a benign label. It’s a label that makes everyone afraid of you. Independent groups that work on everything from human rights to the environment, to diabetes awareness have been hit by it. If the groups won’t register themselves as “agents” authorities can forcibly do it for them.
Trump has still not let go of his “Lock her up” rallying cry, so prominent during his campaign, calling for Hillary Clinton to be imprisoned. She hasn’t yet been. But in today’s Russia some of the Kremlin’s adversaries have been. Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption and political opposition campaigner, has been jailed many times, for weeks at a time, on misdemeanors. And for good measure, there’s a suspended prison sentence stemming from a political prosecution on embezzlement charges hanging over his head, and they have also targeted family members with such charges as a warning of how far they can go.
Then there’s Oyub Titiev. He isn’t a rival or an adversary, he’s just a 60-year-old human rights defender who fell afoul of one of Putin’s most brutal regional governors, in Chechnya, and has been in jail since January on ludicrous marijuana charges.
Russian authorities can and do regularly throw people in prison if they criticize Russia’s military campaign in Syria, or its actions in neighboring Ukraine, a NATO ally. In Ukraine, Russia seized and occupies Crimea, a peninsula that is part of Ukraine, and helped foment a war in the country’s eastern provinces. Critics are charged with extremism or incitement. Extremism can also mean being active in the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations: in recent months Russian authorities have ordered the closure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses presence in Russia and arrested 20 members on extremism charges, for their peaceful religious activities.
The US is facing multiple human rights crises, albeit very different from what’s happening in Russia: reuniting migrant children with their families, after the US forcibly separated them from their families; the specter of indefinite detention of migrant families; over-incarceration, with 2.3 million people in state and federal prisons and jails; racial disparities that permeate every part of the criminal justice system; and more. US civic organizations are at the forefront fighting these crises, and 18 months of Trump’s presidency haven’t stopped them. If only their counterparts in Russia had the same luxury.