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Mission Journal: Putin imposes harsh climate on Russia

A security guard at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, right, runs toward Pussy Riot supporters holding Cyrillic letters reading 'Blessed are the Merciful' in Moscow on Aug. 15. (AP/Novaya Gazeta, Yevgeny Feldman)

Record-high temperatures swept most of Europe this summer, but in Moscow the weather, much like the political climate, was chilly. I spent three months in the capital at the invitation of the Russian Union of Journalists, and witnessed how Vladimir Putin's third term in office kicked off with the passage of restrictive laws, harassment and prosecution of dissent, the jailing of an irreverent punk-rock band, and death threats by a top-ranking official against a prominent editor. 

On Sunday, May 6, the day before Putin's inauguration, an estimated 20,000 gathered in downtown Moscow for a march toward Bolotnaya Ploshchad, a square within walking distance of the Kremlin, to protest what they saw as Putin's illegitimate claim on Russia's top office.

That day, authorities limited access to Moscow's downtown, closing adjacent metro stations and streets. The explanation?--a scheduled rehearsal of the May 9 Victory Day parade, an annual demonstration of Russia's military might. In the preceding days, opposition activists from Russia's regions reported being prevented from traveling to Moscow to attend the protest. The websites of several independent and pro-opposition media outlets, including the prominent business daily Kommersant, the radio station Ekho Moskvy, and the online television channel Dozhd, all experienced distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that disabled them on May 6.

When protesters tried to break through a cordon of geared-up riot police to head toward the Kremlin, tensions rose and a confrontation ensued. Some protesters threw bottles and stones at the police, who pushed and clubbed them. Amid frustration and adrenaline, the clash resulted in reports of about 30 injuries, all of police officers. It was unclear how many protesters were hurt, but more than 400, including the rally organizers, were arrested.

The Kremlin's reaction to the clashes was instantaneous. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Dozhd he thought police had acted softly towards demonstrators, whom he referred to as provocateurs. "I'd rather they [police] behave more harshly." His comment signaled what was to come: an unapologetic crackdown on dissent, critical media, and civil society.

A month after stepping into office, Putin signed into law a bill levying steep fines on protest organizers and participants, and restricting their rights to peaceful assembly. The penalty imposed on individual participants in rallies "unsanctioned" by the government is 300,000 rubles (more than US$9,000); the penalty is double for rally organizers. The figures are exorbitant in a country where the average monthly salary is less than 24,000 rubles (around US$740). By mid-June, 15 activists were criminally charged with separate counts of incitement to, organizing of, or participation in mass disorder, as well as violence toward law enforcement, in connection with the May 6 events. Police also raided the homes of several opposition leaders, most notably 36-year-old anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny, who has emerged as the boldest, most charismatic figure of the fledgling protest movement. Navalny would later be charged with "embezzlement" --a crime that carries up to 10 years in prison--after Russia's Investigative Committee resurrected a case against him that previously had been closed for lack of evidence.

The Kremlin did not wince at the group exodus, post May 6, of human rights defenders, NGO leaders, and civil activists from the presidential human rights council--a liaison office between Russia's top leaders and civil society. (Among the prominent figures who departed were human rights defender and former Nobel Peace Prize nominee Svetlana Gannushkina, veteran media rights advocate Aleksei Simonov, and legendary founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group Lyudmila Alekseyeva.) On the contrary, Putin proceeded to sign a bill that de-facto outlawed civil society. The legislation, which came into effect on July 21, obligates all NGOs that receive international funding and are involved in "political activity"--without a clear definition of that term--to register as foreign agents with Russia's Justice Ministry. Needless to say, having to register as a foreign agent in Russia is like being forced to wear the proverbial scarlet letter. The Kremlin has long sought to vilify activists who receive grants from abroad as being bought by the West to create unrest and undermine Russia's stability. Most recently, in early spring, a series of so-called documentaries aired repeatedly in prime time on the state-controlled NTV national television channel, portraying civil society leaders as traitors paid by the U.S. State Department to stage and participate in anti-government rallies.

The registration process for NGOs in Russia is already a cumbersome, costly, and time-consuming endeavor set by a restrictive law. But the new "foreign agents" legislation adds extra reporting-to-the-government requirements. Colleagues at the Russian Union of Journalists told me the law would create extra work for the already-stretched accounting department and make the group more vulnerable to bureaucratic harassment.

Nine days after signing the restrictive NGO bill, Putin signed two other laws that directly harm independent media. The first one recriminalizes defamation in the country--a rollback of then-President Dmitry Medvedev's decriminalization of libel and insult last November. In returning defamation to the criminal books, Putin approved a maximum fine of 5 million rubles (US$150,000) for those convicted--a significant jump from the previously provisioned 3,000 rubles (US$100). Such a sum would be prohibitive for independent and pro-opposition media in Russia, and makes them extra vulnerable to politically motivated prosecution. A staffer with the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta told me that after Putin signed the law, editors convened a meeting with legal advisers in anticipation of politically motivated defamation claims.

The second bill Putin signed into law on July 30 allowed for websites carrying "unlawful content" to be blacklisted in Russia. Though ostensibly created to curb child pornography, the law's vague definitions of unlawful content--including such stretchy concepts of "making war propaganda" and "inciting inter-ethnic hatred"--allows for broad interpretation. Observers worry that the law could be selectively used to silence critical online content. In recent years, the Internet has emerged as a home for independent, alternative news and views, as well as civil and political activism. The new law allows authorities to close down websites without a court order.

The beginning of Putin's third term in office was marred by politically motivated prosecutions and harassment.

In one prominent example, Aleksandr Lebedev, a banker and key shareholder in Novaya Gazeta, reported being harassed by police, who told him they had "some order from above" to investigate his business, The New York Times said in early August. "The special services steamrolled my business into the pavement," Lebedev told the news agency Interfax. "I give up." It is unclear what that could mean for Novaya Gazeta, which is one of a handful of publications in Russia that investigates top-level wrongdoing and publishes searing commentary on the country's power structures.

Exactly such commentary apparently pushed Aleksandr Bastrykin, the head of the federal Investigative Committee--the body tasked with investigating severe crimes in Russia--to threaten the life of Novaya Gazeta deputy editor Sergey Sokolov in early June. In a self-described "emotional breakdown" Bastrykin ordered his guards to put the journalist in a car and drive him to a forest outside of Moscow, where he asked his guards to leave them alone and proceeded to make graphic death threats against Sokolov. Sokolov left the country, fearing for his life. Bastrykin later apologized for his conduct at a press conference with Novaya Gazeta's editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov, who said he considered the matter to be settled. But many asked whether offering an apology is enough redemption for a top-ranking official in charge of investigating severe crimes--including murders of journalists.

An apology was not enough, meanwhile, to keep three members of the feminist punk-rock band Pussy Riot out of prison for singing in a church. In perhaps the most emblematic case yet of how far Putin 2.0 is determined to go to crush dissent, the performers were tried and jailed for staging a flash mob in Moscow's main Orthodox Church in February. During the irreverent stunt, the band, wearing colorful balaclavas, "prayed" to the Virgin Mother to "banish Putin." Even though Pussy Riot's stunt, upon the band's own admission, was a purely political statement, authorities insisted it was an act of religious hatred. Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a staunch Putin supporter, publicly condemned it as "blasphemous."

Despite an international outcry, including from international megastars such as Sting, Madonna, and Paul McCartney, a Moscow court pronounced 22-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24-year-old Maria Alyokhina, and 30-year-old Yekaterina Samutsevich, guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," and slammed them with two-year prison sentences. Defending the court's decision, Putin told the Kremlin-sponsored English-language television channel Russia Today, that the "state is obligated to protect the feelings of the faithful."

The band's supporters disagree. "If they had sung 'Virgin Mother, save Putin,' there would have been no trial at all," Yevgeniya Albats, editor-in-chief of the independent newsweekly The New Times, told Ekho Moskvy. 

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