The election of Donald Trump as US president has put his connections to Russia back in the spotlight. News headlines have announced “Russia’s establishment basks in Trump’s victory.” The Duma, the lower house of the federal legislature very much under president Vladimir Putin’s control, erupted in applause at the election news from the US. The editor of the Kremlin-backed English-language television network RT (formerly Russia Today) said she would drive around Moscow with an American flag in celebration.
Despite this and despite allegations of Russian interference to disrupt the US election campaign, no one can say for certain yet how Russia-US relations will develop in the coming years. Trump has publicly admired Putin’s leadership, but it’s not at all clear what the Putin-Trump dynamic will mean for human rights in Russia or Russian respect for human rights abroad.
The past few years have seen a staggering decline in respect for fundamental freedoms within Russia. The Kremlin’s crackdown on civil society, media, and the Internet has gone from bad to worse to downright appalling as the government has intensified harassment and persecution of its critics. New laws and repressive practices by the authorities have increasingly isolated the country, which is already subject to US and EU sanctions over occupied Crimea and Russia’s role in eastern Ukraine.
Human Rights Watch has maintained a “Battle Chronicle” of the ever-expanding list of groups caught up in the sweeping crackdown at home as the Kremlin has sought to stigmatize criticism or alternative views of government policy as disloyal, foreign-sponsored, or even traitorous. It does not make for happy reading.
External condemnation from the West may not have been able to halt this wave of repression, let alone reverse it, but it perhaps applied some brakes to it from time to time. What impact will a budding bromance have?