Putin clampdown not winning public support

Sat, Aug 18, 2012, 01:00

The Pussy Riot jail term is just part of a process by which a repressive Russia is reasserting itself, writes JENNIFER RANKINin Moscow

THE TWO-YEAR prison sentence handed down to Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova for a one-minute protest song against Vladimir Putin in a church will be seen as a defining moment of his presidency.

The guilty verdict, never in doubt, and the jail sentence, mostly expected, confirms the authoritarian tendency in Putin’s Russia. It is a landmark in Russias post-Soviet history, just as the arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was during Putin’s first term in office.

The Pussy Riot follows a wave of attempts to control dissent since Putin returned to the presidency for a six-year term in May. In his first 100 days, fines for participating in unofficial demonstrations have been drastically increased, defamation has become a criminal offence and new controls on the internet introduced. Opposition leaders’ homes have been searched by armed police and investigations opened into the most prominent.

“The government has fixed on a repressive mode and once you are on this mode it is very hard to stop,” Masha Lipman, an expert at the Moscow Carnegie Centre, told The Irish Times in a recent interview, before the absurdist drama at Khamovnichesky court unfolded. “People are angry and see things for what they are: a shift to repression and a tightening of the bolts.”

Tactics such as raiding people’s homes are an attempt to divide the opposition, she said, hoping to scare away more cautious people.

Outside the Khamovnichesky courtroom yesterday, hundreds were ready to show they were not intimidated. Shouts of “free political prisoners” and “Russia without Putin” rang out from a crowd of all ages, some wearing colourful Pussy Riot balaclavas.

These are only a small minority. In contrast, 31 per cent of Russians feel hostility or irritation towards Pussy Riot and 20 per cent have “nothing good to say about them”, according to a poll by the Levada Centre, published yesterday. Only 7 per cent expressed positive feelings of respect and solidarity to the group.

Just as Khodorkovksy’s wealth and suspicions over how he acquired it, denied him public support, so Pussy Riot’s offence may limit public sympathy.

Yet distaste for Pussy Riot’s punk prayer does not mean support for Putin. His support has fallen sharply since he returned to power in May, the indefatigable Levada Centre showed in another poll yesterday. Only 48 per cent of Russians had a favourable opinion of Putin, compared to 60 per cent in May. While 48 per cent might be a rating many western politicians can only dream of, this is low for Russia’s action-man leader, who basks in friendly coverage from state television. Levada pollster Lev Gudkov told Vedomosti newspaper that people are tired with Putin and his team, and irritated with corruption.

It is difficult to say how this will end. Predictions of a Tahrir Square-style uprising and decades of Russians slumbering in apathy have both proved wide of the mark. Political polarisation comes with uncertainty.

“Putin no longer maintains his status of unquestioned leader, but at the same time he has still got control over all the repressive mechanisms, over the law making and law enforcement. Between these two factors, the development of future is very uncertain and extremely unpredictable,” said Lipman.

One thing is certain: the women of Pussy Riot will be icons of Russia’s protest movement.

“Whatever the verdict for Pussy Riot, we and [our supporters] have already won,” Tolokonnikova, wrote on the eve of her sentence. “Because we have learned to be angry and speak politically.”