Dictators seek love. It is on the love for the despot and on people worshiping him that most totalitarian regimes are built. But the unconditional love of the backward people, deprived not only of democratic values, but also social benefits (dictatorial regimes can never provide for the common wellbeing), is only possible in full isolation. This could last for decades in the late Soviet Union, and it still is in the present-day North Korea, fully separated from the rest of the world. In the open world though, there are always people who are able to find information, critically evaluate it, draw conclusions, and, what's worst for dictators, share it with others. And every dictator seeks to isolate such people from the rest of society, destroy, and intimidate precisely such threats to peace and benevolent love of the loyal people for their monarch.
In today's Russia, Putin has managed to find approaches not only to loyal population strata and bureaucrats, but also to reformat the opposition "in his own image and likeness"
Vladimir Putin still remains one of the last dictators of such centuries-old type on the planet. For them, it was not the result of authoritarian rule that mattered most but the very process of own deification by the people. And Putin got the "right" kind of people to this end. Upon Russians, ideas of tsarism and adoration for state power have been imposed for centuries. All that Putin needed to do was to restore some historical narratives and translate them onto himself despite him being too insignificant to claim the majestic role of an autocrat. That Putin accomplished successfully. But when, either due to insufficient isolation of society or due to social issues, the public suddenly feels less love for their ruler, a dictator always looks for the cause in some pathogens of tranquility rather in themselves. They blame those who dared to shout out loud that "the king is naked!"
In today's Russia, Putin has managed to find approaches not only to loyal population strata and bureaucrats, but also to reformat the opposition "in his own image and likeness." The democratic opposition that was in place during the protests at Bolotnaya Square started to get marginalized and disappear under severe pressure by the FSB after the show-off assassination (or rather say execution) of Boris Nemtsov. Today's opposition, especially personified in their highest-profile leader Alexei Navalny, has already been poisoned by imperial perspective and principles. It's just as naive to look for the old-school national-democratic opposition in modern-day Belarus with any nationalist and anti-Kremlin sentiments. Lukashenko has destroyed it decades ago.
So with Nemtsov's assassination, Putin eliminated in the country the very factor of democratic, genuinely European opposition. But suddenly, he faced a much greater threat to his rule.
It was not difficult for Putin to neutralize a direct opponent, his antagonist. But with someone analogous, things turned out to be much more problematic
It's only in Moscow or St Petersburg where democrats could seal support against the dictator, but for remote areas of the vast Russia democratic values and their promoters are something distant and incomprehensible. At the same time, aggressive leaders, who don't even wink toward democratic stopcocks, are no longer seen as opposition or alternative, they are analogs of the existing regime, only younger, more skillful, and relatable to people. It's these leaders of the new imperial opposition who turned out to be main troublemakers and suddenly began to gain massive public support. Remember how people would go to Navalny's rallies in places where democratic opposition traditionally received no support at all? Remember the protests in Khabarovsk under the sauce of the odious Liberal Democratic Party?
It was not difficult for Putin to neutralize a direct opponent, his antagonist. But with someone analogous, things turned out to be much more problematic. Such figures could secure the nation's love just like him. See, they are playing a game: this tsar is bad, but we a candidate to become a better tsar! Such palace coups in Russian history usually saw success, although little changed in the routine of imperial history.
There are various ways to counter people such as Navalny. But they can't guarantee efficiency. However, dictators don't care too much about the arsenal of means they will employ if needed. Where the people's love for their leader doesn't help, fear must be imposed onto the elite. This fear must be very distinctive and personalized.
It would seem that there are plenty of means of killing dissidents in the secret services' arsenal: from staged accidents to the imitation of murder as a result of a bar brawl. The latter is very easy to achieve in some distant provincial cities like Omsk. And everyone would believe the version because this is the harsh reality of living in the Russian outback. But a series of assassinations of Kremlin's political opponents are being committed just way too openly and brazenly. It's as if Moscow tells the whole world: "Don't even suggest it was a fatal accident! The person stood in our way and was executed for this." And they just can't care less about international scandals and implications. The worse abroad, the closer the trusting nation unites around the ruler, "confronted by the whole world."
The Kremlin had long sought to get rid of Boris Nemtsov, but they didn't eventually do it somewhere in a distant province or on Moscow outskirts. They did it right outside the Kremlin walls. Anna Politkovskaya was executed (not just killed, but precisely executed) so that no one would have any doubts, no matter what the official investigation told people later. Then the assassination attempt on defector (traitor in Russia's perception) Sergei Skripal in UK's Salisbury. It was as if an autograph was left on the crime scene: "From Putin with love." After all, novichok was only available in Russian labs, and the West was well aware of this. Moreover, Russia knew that the West knew... The only thing they did poorly was they failed with formal excuses, left too much factual evidence, so the embarrassment did ensue. But it didn't linger for too long.
Navalny could have been killed in multiple ways. He could have been thrown behind bars for years, not months. After all, they could have used quarantine excuses to ban evacuation to Germany altogether. He would have been kept in an Omsk clinic, where visiting professors from Moscow would simply run a few experiments while Navalny's in a deep coma, after which he would regain consciousness, but not his memory, remaining a helpless human being for life. And the whole world would have understood everything, without being able to prove anything. That would've been yet another crime left unpunished.
But here, again, the autograph was supposed to be put: "From Putin with love," so that things are clear to all.
With Navalny's poisoning, Putin seems to have created enormous problems for himself in the Western world, but the main thing for him is to achieve a tough schooling effect at home
The more demonstrative and outright the execution, the better the "schooling effect." After all, this "message" sent not to some revolutionary democrats, ready to go for anything to defend their ideas, but rather to relatable people, the ones who could be referred to as an analogy, rather than an alternative, the ones that have something to lose.
With Navalny's poisoning, Putin seems to have created enormous problems for himself in the Western world, but the main thing for him is to achieve a tough schooling effect at home. I suppose that Navalny was sent to a German clinic with obvious traces of a poisonous substance from the novichok group (as an autograph in his body) in his body to send certain signals – both inward and outward.
Putin has faced no consequences for his wars in Georgia and Ukraine. Well, almost none. Campaigns in Syria, the Central Asian Republic, and Libya have gone completely unpunished. The West expressed outrage, but eventually forgot about Alexander Lytvynenko's polonium poisoning in London and then Sergei Skripal's novichok poisoning in Salisbury. Some are still criticizing Russia for the recent Berlin hit job, but they will also get over it eventually, Putin thinks.
Russia has definitely turned into an international terrorist and blackmailer state. Today, it intimidates the civilized world: "We can do whatever we want. What will you do about it? Be prepared soon to once again remain silent about some other incident." Russia is feared precisely due to such show-off brazenness and faith in impunity. Let's recall how many of Ukraine's Western partners reacted to Russia's multiple crimes committed in Ukraine: "Yes, this is a war crime, indeed, it's a violation of international law, but why should we anger the Russian bear?"
Putin has come to terms with the image of a dictator and an outcast in the international arena. And he has found himself feeling rather comfy playing this role. And, unfortunately, this is a new step away from civilization and toward a new level of threats.
First, the country refuses to comply with international law, then breaches the basic principles of life and death defined by the Commandments… Meanwhile, we are bound to live on the same piece of land with this set of territories, melted peoples, elites, and leaders, who are united only by a complete rejection of civilizational norms. And we often treat them as if we have another Germany or France across the border… So I believe the signal of Navalny's poisoning should be read not only by those whom it was targeting.
Taras Chornovil is a Ukrainian political analyst