2015: The Year of the Putin Dictatorship

<p>He's watching.</p>

He's watching. By ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

I hated what happened to Russia in 2014 so much that I decided to move away. It's safe to say, however, that 2015 will be worse. President Vladimir Putin's regime is on the verge of transitioning from mild authoritarianism to outright dictatorship. The country's newly amended military doctrine is an especially ominous sign. Judging by it, the Kremlin's response to the ongoing economic crisis will be to crack down on all signs of popular discontent. The Kremlin seems determined to turn inward and complete its break with the Western world.

Russia's wariness of the West is nothing new. The 2010 edition of the country's military doctrine -- issued under "liberal" President Dmitri Medvedev -- listed as the top external threat the eastward expansion of NATO toward Russia's borders. Putin's new, post-Crimea version reiterates the vision of NATO as the arch-enemy creeping up on Russia.  The new doctrine differs from the old one, however, in treating domestic challenges to the ruling regime as military dangers to the nation.

Where the 2010 document merely referred to "attempts at violent change of the Russian Federation's constitutional order," the 2014 one adds "the destabilization of the domestic political and social situation in the nation" and even "information-related activity aimed at influencing the population, primarily the country's young citizens, with the goal of undermining the historical, spiritual and patriotic traditions in the area of defending the Fatherland." Political opposition, in other words, is now classified as an activity worthy of a military response.

This marks an important shift. Despite a gradual tightening of the screws since Putin started his third presidential term in 2012, a 13-year-old consensus was still in effect at the start of this year: Less political and economic liberty for more wealth. Protests were usually ineffectual, but often tolerated. In 2013, I took part in demonstrations that clearly violated freshly adopted restrictive laws, and, like thousands of others, escaped unscathed. There were enough uncensored media to vary one's news diet and, if you were a journalist, to write for. The economy was slowing down and growing more dependent on colossal state projects like the Sochi Olympics. But banks weren't failing and workers weren't being laid off in droves. Moscow still emptied out for the New Year's holidays as wealthy Russians descended on European ski resorts and the tropical havens of Southeast Asia.

You wouldn't have easily mistaken Russia for a European country, but, in the big cities at least, it was still a relatively prosperous one. Then the ice cracked in the frozen kingdom, and so did the edifice underneath.

I think the tipping point was February 22, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned his sprawling Mezhihirya estate near Kiev and revolutionary crowds -- and investigative journalists seeking clues on Yanukovych's corrupt rule -- invaded the ornate residence. "We have no palaces," Putin said at a recent press conference, but of course he and his friends do. And as Yanukovych's home was defiled, ogled, Instagrammed and, inevitably, looted before a semblance of order was established, Putin submitted to paranoia. He mentioned the "capture" of Mezhihirya on several occasions last spring, though the residence was, in fact, abandoned and thus lay open to all comers. 

I visited Yanukovych's former house -- soon to be nationalized -- just as a handful of unbadged troops took control of the local parliament building in Crimea, laying the groundwork for the swift, bloodless, Anschluss-like operation that made Crimea part of Russia. The volunteer protectors of Mezhihirya were already suspiciously eyeing me, a Russian citizen, as a potential enemy, but I still found it difficult to imagine that Russia was actually preparing an invasion. The Kremlin had always meddled in governing Ukraine, but it did so through intrigue and economic pressure, never by force.

I was glad I was not in Mezhihirya the following day as Putin asked the Russian parliament for permission to send troops to Ukraine. Overnight, Russia became a different country, roaring in unaccustomed defiance.

Putin's support quickly soared above 80 percent, and he made an unprecedentedly regal speech, welcoming Crimea as a new Russian region. Under a 2013 law that banned "the propaganda of separatism," it became a crime to mention in public Crimea's status as an occupied part of Ukraine. Editors of the few remaining independent media outlets became wary of such mentions. For me, these changes meant I could no longer write for Russian publications: This year, not saying that Crimea belongs to Ukraine would mean ignoring the elephant in the room.

I had never contemplated leaving my country before. But it had now become a matter of being able to do my job as I understood it, and of finding a way to express my disapproval of what Putin was doing when most people around me backed him.

READ ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-12-29/2015-the-year-of-the-putin-dictatorship

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