“The reaction of the Russian authorities fails to show the necessary tolerance of the state and society toward nonconformist art, and it contradicts the practices of democratic countries in such situations,” writes former Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov (left), a co-founder of the opposition Party of People’s Freedom.
Everything that has been happening in the country in recent months is a result of Putin’s reaction to the mass protests staged between December 2011 and May of this year. The regime responded soon after Putin’s third presidential inauguration by adding draconian laws to the Criminal Code — laws limiting public protests, forcing NGOs to register as “foreign agents,” permitting censorship of the Internet and recriminalizing slander and libel. Now the first stiff sentences have been handed down in the new Putin era — one that will be marked by greater repressive measures and bitterness.
But the punk band’s trial is by no means the most significant indicator of Russian political trends or the opposition’s prospects, says a prominent analyst.
The likely trial of dissident blogger Alexei Navalny will be a more significant test of the regime’s willingness to tolerate dissent, says Stephen Sestanovich (right), a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“[The] broader story is about the ability of the regime to cope with the growing dissatisfaction among key elements of the population, including the elite,” he says. “For a time, it looked like opposition was coming together and was going to achieve steady success. Now Putin’s opponents have had to regroup and find issues that can mobilize supporters and broaden their base.”
Russia’s opposition movement is “regrouping,” says Sestanovich. Putin’s critics are “also aware that there has been a loss of momentum, a loss of focus post-Putin reelection. Obviously for that reason, there’s an interest in latching on to any new cause that dramatizes the repressive character of the Putin regime,” he observes.
“In that respect, the Pussy Riot trial is important. It has [shown] many of the middle-class supporters of the opposition that the authorities are prepared to put people in jail for charges that do have a kind of Soviet flavor.”
The Kremlin is likely to follow the precedent established by one of its most repressive neighbors, claims Ryzhkov, a member of the steering committee of the World Movement for Democracy.
“Putin’s goal is to intimidate the dissenting members of society and to frighten the growing wave of protesters into submission,” he suggests in the Moscow Times:
Putin is emulating Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Putin believes he will be able to keep society’s dissatisfaction under control indefinitely if, like Lukashenko, he beefs up his security forces by giving them extraordinary powers, openly persecutes the opposition and dissenters, censors the Internet and passes laws regulating protest rallies. ….Putin understands that the cost of stepping up repression at home will be growing isolation abroad and, possibly, Western sanctions against officials implicated in human rights violations and corrupt dealings. And so, in true Belarussian style, Putin is preparing to pass legislation banning state employees and corporations from owning property and bank accounts abroad.
The following excerpt is from a Council on Foreign Relations interview with Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:
Journalist Masha Gessen recently wrote in the Guardian that this “remains Russia’s most important political trial.” What do to think this trial says about the state of Russian politics in general and Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term in particular?
When you talk about Russian politics, you’re speaking of a moving target. Six months ago, the authorities were on the defensive–they were uncertain about how to cope with the new ferment this series of demonstrations had made the defining feature of Putin’s reelection campaign. Many people thought Putin would have to undertake some kind of liberalization, [make] concessions to the opposition. But since the election, we’ve gotten a different answer as to how he intends to proceed: there have been a series of legislative measures designed to restrict opposition activities, making it harder for organizers to get people on to the street, for NGO’s to receive foreign support, for opposition groups to organize freely on the Internet and so forth. ….
But I would disagree that this is Russia’s most important political trial, because the authorities are also moving to put some of the best-known organizers of the protests on trial. And that will be the most significant test of whether the Putin regime is prepared to actually create political prisoners out of people who were the leaders of these demonstrations.
You’re referring to the embezzlement charges levied against Alexei Navalny?
Navalny is generally acknowledged as the most attractive new political figure [to emerge] on the Russian political scene in the last couple of years, and the authorities want to try to charge him with the same sort of corruption that he has been exposing in his blog. Earlier in the summer, they raided his apartment and office, and the homes and offices of other opposition figures. If the authorities can succeed in taking these people off the field of battle, they will have won a pretty significant victory.
Polls show a divided public sentiment about the fate of these women. Is this symptomatic of the growing economic, political, and cultural stratification of Russian society? Are there, in fact, “two Russias?”
There are at least two Russias. A lot of Russian commentators, backed up by Russian polls, say Putin has lost Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and the middle class. …. Putin has enjoyed increased support among parts of the country that have benefited least from Putinism, and he faces the hostility of those who have [profited]. …..Culture wars often become political wars. If you think about the symbolic politics of the Pussy Riot trial, you find echoes of culture wars [waged in] other countries.
Does the outcome of this trial matter?
I think it does matter, but it’s only one part of the story that’s unfolding right now. And that broader story is about the ability of the regime to cope with the growing dissatisfaction among key elements of the population, including the elite. For a time, it looked like opposition was coming together and was going to achieve steady success. Now Putin’s opponents have had to regroup and find issues that can mobilize supporters and broaden their base.
Can you briefly discuss the Russian Orthodox Church’s growing influence with the Kremlin leadership in post-Soviet Russia?
Putin, even more than Yeltsin, has tried to cultivate an image of an Orthodox believer. He’s tried to use the vocabulary and ritual of the church to [confer] some legitimacy for himself–and to provide an anchor for a post-Soviet Russian identity. This is important obviously because of the enormity of the transition that Russia has had to negotiate over the past twenty years. …..
At the same time, the church is also seen by many as paying for its resurgence by supporting the authoritarianism of the Putin era. And that has made it a more kind of controversial force. Just as some people see it as an anchor of Russian identity, others see it as [an impediment to] its modernization.
So the consensus seems to be that the center is going to hold for now?
The center is holding–but it’s embattled. And there are new challenges ahead: Russia may be sliding into a recession. If that happens, will Putin be able to retain the loyalty of his disadvantaged working-class supporters? If the price of oil continues to slide, how will he resolve disputes about budget shortfalls? There are big issues ahead for Putin, and although he’s been able to right himself in the past six months, he has by no means won the war for good.