While the world watches the hunger strike of Oleg Sentsov, who is becoming Russia’s best-known political prisoner, most penitentiary protests have nothing to do with politics. Rather, they are about improving conditions in prisons and human dignity. Their occurrence and their tendency to be covered up testify to the lack of true accountability in the Russian prison system.
Recent months have seen extremism cases in Russia multiply, a disturbing development in which some see echoes of the Great Terror. However, while the authorities’ campaign against so-called extremists is not a deliberate policy of the Kremlin, which intended for the laws on extremism to serve as precision instruments, it represents a system breakdown. Russia’s law enforcement agencies are applying the law in their own interest, and the consequences are dire. Now, ordinary citizens, who face the same reprisals as opposition activists, as do their children, will leave their comfort zones.
As the world debates the danger of manipulating public opinion through fake news, Ukraine has created a false narrative of global significance. Blurring the borders of truth is unlikely to help Ukraine in the long run. But the country’s desire for a spectacular victory over its enemy outweighed other concerns.
The banning of Telegram, one of the most popular messaging apps in Russia, is a serious blow to the public loyalty of ordinary people to the authorities. Ways of getting around the ban are being widely discussed in non-politicized chat groups, and even representatives of the powers that be are expressing discontent, both privately and in public. The move to block the secure messaging service has shown that people are prepared to ignore the ban and enter a gray area—and it’s the authorities themselves who have goaded people into this.
The Russian court system paralyzed itself a long time ago. It doesn’t need outside experience; it doesn’t need experienced lawyers. It needs efficient personnel who know how to follow orders. The average judge renders a not-guilty verdict once every seven years. Judges understand that such a verdict will always be repealed and the repeal of a sentence is a stain on a judge’s record that could lead to penalties and even dismissal.
The story of the arrest of Oleg Korshunov, deputy director of Russia’s prison system, looks at first glance like a victory in an anti-corruption campaign. But the truth is much more complex. Korshunov merely operated too blatantly, his detention is unlikely to change much, and he may eventually get free on parole.
If Russian judges started acquitting defendants, far fewer suspects would end up in court because cases unlikely of leading to a conviction would be weeded out in advance. That would reduce the burden on judges and lead to a reduction in state funding for the judicial branch—something no judge wants to happen.
The high-profile trial of former Russian economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev is not playing out according to the script that most analysts had expected. The prosecution’s case increasingly relies on the testimony of one man, state oil chief Igor Sechin, making this master of Kremlin intrigue potentially politically vulnerable.
When the state has mineral resources, it hires a company like Royal Dutch Shell to extract the oil and share the profits. But when it has an abundant supply of labor, it turns a blind eye to its resources being used in tolling schemes right out of the 1990s. The existing penitentiary system is not in the interests of the state or the prisoners.
The authorities are in a no-win situation as a result of their unpopular plans to demolish five-story residential buildings in Moscow. If they stick to their guns, angry urbanites are bound to take to the streets in protest. If they yield to public demands, they’ll demonstrate the effectiveness of mass protests.