Russian opposition crushed by wave of repression

The government is quietly tightening the screws on the liberal opposition

Anti-Putin protesters accused of instigating mass riots at Bolotnaya Square stand inside the defendant cage in Zamoskvoretsky district court in Moscow earlier this year during their trial. Photograph: Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images

Anti-Putin protesters accused of instigating mass riots at Bolotnaya Square stand inside the defendant cage in Zamoskvoretsky district court in Moscow earlier this year during their trial. Photograph: Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images

Fri, Jun 20, 2014, 01:07

The elderly Russian ladies who watch over the exhibits at the Hermitage in St Petersburg are usually quick to spot troublemakers at the city’s most venerated museum.

But even they were nonplussed when an art activist climbed into an ancient Roman sarcophagus under their watch last week and began scrubbing off the logo of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party stamped on his naked torso.

As political protests go, the “Unwashed Russia” performance was quirky, to say the least. But as the Kremlin cracks down on its critics, the loony fringe is fast becoming the only space left in Russia for dissent.

While the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine, Russian lawmakers have been tightening the screws on the liberal opposition using a combination of legal repression and state censorship to silence government critics.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has always been popular but his ratings have soared to record highs since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in March. State-controlled television has grown increasingly strident since then, lauding Putin’s policies and branding anyone who disagrees as a dangerous “traitors”.

“The opposition is in a despondent state,” Gennady Gudkov, an opposition leader and former member of parliament, told Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. “We have been completely routed, I recognise that.”

Unprecedented protests

Wind back to December 2012, and liberal politicians like Gudkov were at the forefront of an unprecedented wave of protests that flared up after a rigged parliamentary election.

For many years Putin had regarded Russia’s small number of liberals as an essentially harmless lot who could safely be left alone to enjoy the rising living standards delivered by the country’s oil boom.

However, when violence broke out at a rally in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square the day before Putin was sworn in for a third presidential term in May 2012, the police cracked down and conducted hundreds of arrests. Eight of those detained were sentenced in February for instigating riots and assaulting police – charges they deny. A second wave of trials is under way and, in an unexpected development, another wave of arrests.

Human rights groups say the Bolotnaya case is fabricated and marks the return of political trials that recall the repressions of the Soviet era. Allegations that activists assaulted police are politically useful to the Kremlin justifying restrictions on civil liberties in the interests of national security.

Turmoil in Ukraine, which began when peaceful pro-European protests in Kiev turned violent in February, forcing then president Viktor Yanukovich to flee, play on Russians’ ingrained fear of disorder.

Dramatic, round-the-clock Russian state television broadcasts from the battlegrounds of east Ukraine reinforce the message: support anti-government protests and you’ll get Molotov cocktails and then civil war.

Anti-Kremlin activists who refuse to bow to intimidation are being systematically sidelined by Russian prosecutors.

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most charismatic opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger, was placed under house arrest in April pending trial on charges of defrauding Yves Rocher, the French cosmetics maker. Yves Rocher has informed the Russian authorities that it suffered no damage in the deal.

Confined to his flat in south Moscow and forbidden to use the internet, Navalny has been all but silenced. His colleagues are coming under pressure.

Last week a Moscow court placed Konstantin Yankauskas under house arrest on suspicion of siphoning off funds from an online electoral campaign supporting Navalny’s bid to become mayor of Moscow in 2013. If found guilty, Yankauskas may have to abandon his plan to stand as an opposition candidate in the upcoming Moscow city parliament elections.

Online oversight

Putin largely ignored the rapidly growing domestic internet in the 2000s, but has recently stepped up oversight of Russia’s 68 million citizens.

Several independent websites have been blacklisted, including Navalny’s blog and grani.ru, which, still available to readers who can master anti-censorship software, was among the few Russian outlets that covered the “Unwashed Russia” stunt at the Hermitage.

In an ominous sign, a new website appeared recently dedicated to exposing members of Russia’s fifth column. Visitors to predatel.net – the word means “traitor” in Russian – are invited to nominate candidates for inclusion on a list of anti-Kremlin agitators.

What is perhaps most worrying for Russian liberals, and for the country’s political future, is that the repressions please the public. More than 70 per cent of respondents to a recent poll conducted by the Moscow- based Levada Centre said they supported censorship for the good of the country.

Almost one-quarter of those polled in a separate survey said Russia did not need an opposition – the highest level in more than 10 years.