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Suppressing dissent’s limited shelf life

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MIKA BAUMEISTER-UNSPLASH

Images of dissent and violent crackdowns on such protests by repressive regimes have been shown on all online channels and cable TV platforms in the last several days.

In Iran, the Agence France Presse (AFP) reported that as of Saturday, Sept. 24 (Sunday, Sept. 25 in Manila), at least 41 people have died “according to official figures,” as protests flared over the death of a 22-year-old woman in custody of Iran’s morality police.

AFP states that Oslo-based Iran Human Rights (IHR), however, put the death toll at 54, excluding security personnel. The IHR claimed that in many cases, authorities had made the return of bodies to families contingent on them agreeing to secret burials.

Per the AFP report, the main reformist party inside Iran called for the repeal of the mandatory Islamic dress code that Mahsa Amini had been accused of breaching.

As further proof of the intensity of the repression and crackdown, the AFP says that Web monitor NetBlocks reported that Skype was now restricted in Iran to limit communication that has already targeted the last accessible international platforms there — Instagram, WhatsApp, and LinkedIn.

CNN’s latest report on Monday evening in Manila stated that confirmation of figures of deaths, injuries, casualties, and arrests are hard to come by as the government has shut down almost all communications platforms and disrupted the internet. Security forces are reportedly using live ammunition and firing directly at crowds, something difficult to confirm. Reports of deaths by shooting have reached as high as more than a thousand — with no independent confirmation available, however. In the meantime, despite the clampdown on the internet and the paucity of detailed information, demonstrators in other Iranian cities and in Paris, in solidarity with the Tehran protesters, have taken to the streets to voice their support for Iranian dissenters and have lately started to attack the regime of Sayyid Ebrahim Raisolsadati.

The expansion of the protest, marked initially by women defiantly cutting their hair and removing their head covers in public, has to be watched closely. It appears that most of the protesters are young people who long for the same freedom that their peers in other countries freely enjoy.

The strict dress code imposed on women is applied in all aspects of human activity in Iran. In sports where the general unspoken rule is “the lighter the clothing or athletic wardrobe, the better,” Iranian female volleyball players are all wrapped up from head to toe. The same dress code applies to teams from Indonesia, the Maldives, and Bahrain, among others. Turkey, which has one of women’s volleyball powerhouse teams, can be considered more liberal and relaxed in its sports dress code. In athletics/track and field, Iranian women are also covered from head to toe.

Athletics competitions are not mixed gender: women have their own competition days with no males allowed inside the venue, whether spectator or technical or officiating official.

In Moscow and other parts of Russia, there is, as described by Ben Hubbard of The New York Times, “a lot of panic (as) Russian men, fearing Ukraine draft, seek refuge abroad.” There is however a major change in that description in that it seems that minorities, mainly from Central Asia, are the first targets of the conscription. There are stories of young men inside colleges and universities being “grabbed by recruiters” and loaded into vehicles to be brought to registration centers.

Hubbard writes that since Vladimir Putin’s announcement on Sept. 21 (coincidentally, an unforgettable date among Filipinos), of a new troop call up, some Russian men who had once thought they were safe from the front lines have fled the country. And they have done so in a rush, lining up at the borders and paying rising prices to catch flights to countries that allow them to enter without visas, such as Armenia, Georgia, Montenegro, and Turkey. Ticket aggregators say that one-way tickets from Moscow to Istanbul that normally cost $350 are now priced at $2,500 and that was late last week as antiwar demonstrators appeared on Moscow streets and were promptly arrested by police. Reports indicate that around 1,500 protesters were picked up at that time, and now, Monday evening in Manila, up to 2,300 are now in police custody.

Although it was pointed out that Putin officially called up only reservists, saying that only men with military experience would receive orders to report for duty, many worried that the government would impose new travel restrictions on conscription-aged men and wanted to make a quick escape, just in case.

Those anxieties are justified. Putin has cultivated the image of a new Peter the Great, a giant at 6’9” compared to Putin whose height is estimated as 5’7”. In countless statements and monographs, Putin has been trying to reposition Russia to its old Russian empire status from the tsarist period. Such visions of grandeur, with Ukraine as a colony of Russia, is what Putin wishes to reprise. It is quite like the United Kingdom wanting to bring its old colony, the United States of America, back into its fold.

The New York Times stated that Turkey was already among the countries that received a large exodus of Russians at the beginning of the Ukraine invasion. Many were fleeing the crackdowns at home, including the criminalization of dissent, with speaking against the invasion or even calling it a war now carrying serious penalties. Others worried about the impact of international sanctions and Russia’s (ever) growing isolation on the economy and their jobs.

At this point, it is crystal clear that this rush for air tickets and the long lines of cars and other types of vehicles at Russia’s borders show that prospects of an expanded conscription beyond the so-called partial mobilization of 300,000 is very possible but will encounter even bloodier opposition and threaten the very foundations of Putin’s 22-year rule.

What happens then now to Russia’s grand plan to obliterate Ukraine which Putin has said is not a “real country”? Putin continues to bluff and threatens the use of nuclear weapons. It appears that the ex-KGB operative is being slowly boxed in and care must be taken to provide him with a way out, a face-saving route out of the mess he himself created.

Putin and the Kremlin have consistently boasted of the public backing they have for the invasion of Ukraine. Some government-initiated surveys have shown that 15% oppose the war, another 15% declare they support their country “right or wrong,” while 60% “don’t care.”

We suspect that prior to these continuing antiwar protests, Putin and his hawkish generals did not know (or perhaps didn’t even care to know), the extent and intensity of dissent. The main reason for this is that Putin’s security forces had so mastered suppressing dissent, they now have no real empirical evidence of how deep is this dissent.

Now Putin knows. His conscription agenda has brought all the dissent out into the open. Counteracting this exodus of dissent, so graphically displayed by air ticket purchases and lines at the borders, will be a big challenge — almost an impossible one. One wonders if Putin and his cronies will be able to muster public support during this Putin-created crisis.

Philip Ella Juico’s areas of interest include the protection and promotion of democracy, free markets, sustainable development, social responsibility and sports as a tool for social development. He obtained his doctoratein business at De La Salle University. Dr. Juico served as secretary of Agrarian Reform during the Corazon C. Aquino administration.

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