The Russian State: A Hammer in Search of a Nail


Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 36

Crimean Tatars, an ethnic and religious minority in Crimea, are no strangers to state repression. Yet, the immediate wave of targeted persecution following the Russian annexation of Crimea has only increased in intensity five years later. The state accuses members of the community of being affiliated with Hizb ut-Tahrir–a group that promotes an Islamic caliphate but denounces violence as a means of achieving it–and uses anti-terrorism efforts as a pretext for arrest, a justification that echoes Russian reasoning for intervention in Syria. It is not unusual that a community indigenous to the Crimean peninsula resists Russian occupation of the territory or that the Russian state uses threats of terrorism as a pretext for this repression. This narrative, justifying Source: Wikimedia Commons

intervention in Syria and domestic repression of minority

communities, thinly veils increased power consolidation by

the Russian state.

According to data by FreedomHouse, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that tracks and scales each states’ political freedoms, levels of freedom in Russia peaked in 1999. Since then, democratic norms of freedom of expression, free and fair elections, limits on elected officials power, and protection of the rights of minorities, have steadily decreased. Russia’s highest recorded score placed it in the “partly-free” category. Over the past two decades freedoms have steadily decreased with a push to consolidate power by eliminating political opposition, targeting media, and increasing repression towards minority ethnic groups participating historically in anti-imperialist movements.

In the five years since the annexation of Crimea, the crackdown against the Tartar community has caused life for 250,000 Tatar Muslims to disintegrate. Beyond disappearances, torture, and arrests aimed at prominent members of the community, Tatar Muslims have been denied work, use of their native language, private publications, and cultural consistency in an effort to forcibly assimilate the population or force migration off the peninsula. The most common charge made against detainees is membership to Hizb ut-Tahrir. While involvement in this group is legal throughout Europe (excluding Germany) and Ukraine, it is illegal in Russia. As an occupying power, the Russian state disregards Ukrainian law used before the occupation and enforces federal law. The use of this ban to repress the Crimean Tatar community is a blatant violation of civil rights and an example of the state’s use of democratic institutions, such as the criminal justice system, for political means.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), claims that while arrests are made under the pretext of terrorism, most people are targeted for their religious identification. Their most recent report regarding the issue states that, “the evidence against the Crimean Tatars prosecuted is not that they engaged in, advocated, or aided and abetted acts of violence. Rather, the evidence...is primarily discussions during meetings, often in private apartments, on interpretations of the Quran or Russia’s actions in Crimea, or possession of religious literature.” These arrests violate procedural safeguards outlined in both Russian and Ukrainian law.

Beyond banning their use of language and membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, Russian government forces carried out mop-up operations in which house-to-house searches ended in the indiscriminate arrest of military aged men. Reasons for these arrests are rarely stated, and with limited information regarding detainees, most are eventually labelled missing or dead. The human rights situation in Crimea continues to deteriorate as a direct result of the Russian Federation authorities violation of humanitarian law. That this is an unprecedented act of repression by the Russian state, meant to deny freedom of religion, speech, and expression, is undeniable– it is the pattern of rhetoric employed to justify these acts that points to power consolidation.

The portrayal of those who oppose Russian occupation as terrorists or national security threats fits the larger narrative curated by the Russian state to bolster political endeavors throughout the population at large. As one Russian official stated, “The increase in the number of extremist crimes can be explained by the behavior in leaders of...Crimean Tatars. These people express readiness to commit terrorist attacks and sabotage.” Yet Islamist violence (in the broadest definition of the term) accounts for only 19% of all violence in the region and a mere 3% when the definition is narrowed. Academics have proved time and again that indiscriminate repression, when targeting Islamist violence, is ineffective in deterring extremism, as violent actors are not supported (financially or ideologically) by local populations, but rather by a larger international base. Both these facts are conveniently lost on Russian officials when determining action in the region. The state has successfully perpetuated the narrative that ethnic and religious minorities are responsible for the majority of violence and that they do not behave like rational actors, making wide-scale repression of the community justifiable.

The Russian state is deflecting responsibility and avoiding institutional change by predominating the narrative blaming Islamist violence for both domestic problems and international conflict, as seen in Syria. Annexing Crimea and propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria are both attempts to distract the domestic population from increased power consolidation. Beyond citing economic influence and political leverage in its intervention in Syria, the Russian state promotes its support of Assad’s regime as a campaign to reduce potential security threats posed by terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East. The Russian State claims that left unchecked, Syrian opposition groups would infiltrate historically ‘problematic’ areas of Dagestan, Chechnya, Crimea and Ingushetia. This, it is argued, coupled with a growing extremist network, means that propping up Assad’s regime prevents the export of terrorism to the Russian Federation.

In a speech made to the United Nations, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the state’s support of Assad stating that, “ Islamic State camps train militants from many countries, including the European countries...Russia is not an exception. We cannot allow these criminals who already tasted blood to return back home and continue their evil doings.” This narrative’s continuity between domestic repression and international intervention is no coincidence. To the international community it may be relatively easy to look past Russian ‘anti-terror’ rhetoric due to the country’s human rights violations in Syria and Crimea– yet these brief examples are symptoms of a greater issue, consolidation of power.

Disproportionately reporting threats of extremism to domestic populations leads to concentrating power in the hands of authority figures deemed capable of preventing the threat. This is not a quick process, but one that occurs over decades ending in a few people controlling the government. Russia has effectively performed this consolidation with little response from the international community, mostly because this process is so gradual that each action alone does not warrant an international response. Now with the intention of the state undeniably being to restrict political freedom, it falls to the Russian population and international community to resist this consolidation of authority.

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