Putin Rolls Back Freedoms, Ups Efforts to Intimidate Opposition

(Image Credit: Misha Japaridze/AP Photo)

MOSCOW - When riot police forcibly dispersed a crowd that lingered after an anti-Putin protest in central Moscow a day after Russia's presidential election in March, many in the crowd sensed an ominous change in the air.

By the time protestors clashed with riot police May 6, the eve of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration, there was little doubt in most people's minds: Putin's patience with the opposition was over.

The next day, as Putin's motorcade drove through Moscow's deserted streets on the way to an opulent swearing in ceremony in the Kremlin, police raided cafes popular with opposition leaders and detained anyone wearing the opposition's iconic white ribbons. For the next week, police harassed roving groups of protestors who were guilty of little more than gathering without signs in a public square.

The incidents marked a dark shift in the Russian government's approach to the unprecedented wave of protests that have called on Putin to go since December.

Although Putin mocked the protest movement at first, accusing them of being U.S. agents and comparing the white ribbons to condoms, police did not intervene and city authorities granted them permits.

Since Putin's inauguration, however, the Kremlin has pushed through several pieces of legislation and orchestrated an apparent attempt to systematically restrict and intimidate the opposition.

"The government has switched to a repressive mode," Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in an interview. "Punishment for a few, I think, is aimed at intimidating others."

For his part, Putin has said he respects the right of the people to protest, but again mocked their efforts. The white ribbons, he said, were yesterday's protest tactic.

"I am not saying anything against people, who use such symbols. But it hurts my feelings to see people using foreign-developed technologies," he told a youth forum Tuesday.

Lipman says any hope that Putin would pursue reform after last winter's protests was overly optimistic. "Putin's way of governing hasn't changed. But only now he is facing challenges he didn't face before and he wants to remove the challenge," she said.

That effort has only increased in recent weeks.

Several pieces of legislation were rushed through the legislature and signed into law by Putin. Several more are pending. The new laws, which are ostensibly to protect stability and decency, include restrictions on public gatherings, a drastic increase in the fines and penalties for organizing or joining unsanctioned protests and the creation of an Internet blacklist that critics warn could lead to censorship. Others are the re-criminalization of libel, a requirement that foreign-funded NGOs and perhaps soon even media might have to publicly declare themselves "foreign agents" (a term tinged with hints of espionage), and efforts to control the waves of volunteers who rushed to help flood victims in southern Russia.

Police have also raided the homes of several prominent opposition leaders, ostensibly to investigate violence during the May 6 rally, and have detained several dozen others accused of attacking police during the skirmish. Many leaders say they are being followed everywhere they go.

Among those raided and harassed were anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and television personality Ksenia Sobchak.

Authorities charged Navalny with embezzlement this week in a case that had been dismissed for lack of evidence years ago. He faces up to 10 years in prison. Sobchak, a prominent socialite whose father was Putin's mentor when he was the mayor of St. Petersburg, has been booted from her television shows as her activism has increased.

In another case that is being viewed as a canary in the coal mine for how the Kremlin will deal with the opposition, the trial of an all-female punk rock group began Monday. The group called Pussy Riot is being tried on charges of hooliganism after they performed an anti-Putin anthem on the altar of Moscow's largest cathedral in February.

Their song asked for divine intervention to remove Putin from power. Several prominent Western musicians have spoken out against their detention and Amnesty International has called them "prisoners of conscience." They face up to seven years in prison.

One of the band members Tuesday said they are being made an example for others who might attempt to defy the Kremlin.

"I am taking it as the start of a repressive authoritarian campaign which aims to hamper the public's political activity and build a sense of fear among political activists," Ekaterina Samutsevich said in a statement to the court.