Russian security forces armed with assault rifles today raided the homes of several opposition leaders, a day before a planned mass rally by critics of President Vladimir Putin.
The searches and a new law sharply increasing fines for protest violations highlight the ascendancy of hardline elements in the Kremlin under Putin, said former finance minister Alexei Kudrin.
Police stormed the residences of anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny (right), left-wing leaders Sergei Udaltsov and Ilya Yashin, TV personality Ksenia Sobchak and the Solidarity Movement’s Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under president Boris Yeltsin.
The activists were summoned to appear before the Investigative Committee, the country’s main criminal investigation agency, at the same time as the anti-government protest.
“This is the biggest action yet against the opposition in terms of scale and also the most demented one,” Anna Veduta, Navalny’s spokesperson, told the Financial Times.
“In the end, it will probably be counter-productive and help us. The people will not accept such behavior from the authorities.”
The Kremlin‘s commissioner for human rights, Mikhail Fedotov said he was “shocked” by the raids, and called on demonstrators and security forces to show restraint on Tuesday.
“I think that from the standpoint of social harmony, modernization and political reforms, this is the very worst that could have happened,” Fedotov told Interfax.
Valery Borshchyov, a lawyer and activist for the Helsinki Group, believes the raids are “an act of intimidation.”
“It was not essential to search the opposition leaders’ flats in the middle of the public-holiday period,” he said. “The authorities want to send a signal to frighten society, to show that everyone who violates the new law will be tried.”
Observers say the raids are designed to deter ordinary citizens from supporting the rally, which will be an important indicator of the opposition’s ability to maintain the momentum of the winter’s pro-democracy protests.
“The electoral cycle brought with it heightened political consciousness,” said Andrei Kortunov. “Now that the elections are over, authorities want to return to life as normal.”
The authorities “want to scare off Muscovites from participating in a very important political event,” employing “a very simplistic idea to behead the protest demonstrations,” opposition activist Andrei Piontkovsky (left) told the BBC:
It was a decision by one person – Vladimir Putin. Who else would be able to send the prosecutor’s office representatives at seven in the morning on a holiday to the homes of the protest organisers? This means he is becoming increasingly ineffective in his actions – which is bad of course, as he is the president of a nuclear state.”
“Judging by the reaction in the media, internet and blogosphere, the result is the opposite – tomorrow there will be more people than expected,” said Piontkovsky, a former Reagan Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
The raids prompted outrage on social networking websites, reports suggest:
“hello37″ – a reference to the year when Joseph Stalin began a bloody campaign of purges and political repression – was the top trending words on Twitter throughout much of the day.
“At 8 o’clock in the morning people burst into my room. They did not allow me to put my clothes on, robbed my apartment, humiliated me,” Sobchak twitted on her blog after the search.
“I never thought we would be back in the country of SUCH repression,” she added.
Russian political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky said the “raids had nothing to do with investigations, but are a campaign of intimidation.”
Leading activist Lev Ponomarev (right), the head of For Human Rights, said the government was trying to provoke radical elements to cause trouble on the march, giving security forces a pretext to intervene.
“[The authorities have] several purposes here: To intimidate the organizers, destabilize the leaders of the rally, and deliberately make people angry with these [searches] so that more angry people come to this rally,” he said. “Using this opportunity, I call [on protesters] not to give in to this provocation. It is crucial to conduct the rally and the march tomorrow in a peaceful fashion.”
Putin signed into law on Friday a new law that drastically raised fines for violations of public order during street demonstrations.
“This is a ban on rallies and political actions,” said Sergei Mitrokhin, the leader of Yabloko, a liberal opposition party. “Now, anyone can be punished with slave’s work or an astounding fine. I cannot call people to a rally knowing in advance that from there they may be sent to the galleys.”
The new penalties were described as excessive by Putin’s own advisory body, the Presidential Human Rights Council.
“They lost their sense of reality about what they can do and what they can’t,” said Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin insider “People who do not agree with the authorities turn out not to have full rights.”
He described the law as “idiotic” and “dangerous” in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio station:
“Putin has once again shown that he has lost the plot,” he said, adding that the law was driven by paranoia of protest movement in Mr Putin’s circle. “However, there is clearly no danger of crowds storming the Kremlin or the Moscow mayor’s office,” he said.
“[Putin’s] people have lost their perspective. They look out the window and they see German tanks coming.”
“The searches of the opposition leaders on the eve of June 12, alongside the new law, will radicalize the protest and demonstrate the strengthening of the influence of radicals in the regime,” said Kudrin, who has flirted with the opposition since he left government in September.