Putin cracks down on dissent and strengthens his grip on power

Sat, Dec 29, 2012, 00:00

Vladimir Putin’s place as Russia’s dominant leader was looking a little wobbly at the start of the year. Tens of thousands had demonstrated against him, feeding speculation that he might fail to get an outright majority in the first round of March’s presidential elections.

It was not to be. Putin won handily, taking 64 per cent of the vote. Domestic election monitors said some ballot boxes had been stuffed, but conceded Putin would have got more than half of the votes anyway.

So the former KGB spy who has led Russia since 2000 became president for a third time in May. Dmitry Medvedev, who kept the presidential seat warm between 2008 and2012 was given Putin’s old job as prime minister.

Putin’s return began with hundreds of anti-government demonstrators being arrested amid violent clashes with police at a rally on the eve of his inauguration. It was a sign of what was to come. In June, armed law officers raided the homes of prominent opposition leaders, including the anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny.

Meanwhile, deputies from the ruling United Russia party vied to come up with the toughest measures against dissent. Laws were passed at dizzying speed: swingeing fines for taking part in unsanctioned protests; an internet blacklist; a broader, vaguer definition of treason; and a requirement for NGOs funded by foreign sources to declare themselves “foreign agents”, language redolent of espionage.

Anti-government protests continued into summer and autumn, attracting smaller crowds, while leaders of the movement continued to be targeted. One government critic, Leonid Razvozzhayev, disappeared while claiming political asylum in Ukraine in October. Turning up in Moscow a few days later, he said he had been abducted and threatened by Russian officers. At least 18 people have been jailed on charges related to the May protests.

But none have received anything close to the attention heaped on the feminist punk band Pussy Riot. Two band members are serving two years in remote prison camps for performing a crude protest song in a Moscow cathedral. Their rushed trial in August, where prosecution witnesses cited hell and the devil, drew international condemnation from people as diverse as Angela Merkel and Madonna.

Jailing of protesters prompted Forbes magazine to name Putin as the third most powerful person in the world.

But the Russian president’s dominance is more fragile than it looks. Putin sacked his defence minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, over corruption allegations in November, the first time he has moved against a close ally. Other officials are also being investigated for stealing from the state, cases that are seen as an attempt by the Kremlin to insulate itself from popular discontent with Russia’s chronic corruption.

Putin’s strongman image took a dent when reports emerged that he had injured his back while flying in a motorised hang-glider with endangered cranes in western Siberia, although the Kremlin insists it was a minor sporting injury.

Putin, who recently turned 60, may no longer be able to pull off these action-man stunts. But with all the levers of power in his hands and a mandate until 2018, he is likely to remain in charge for some years to come.

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