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Opinion

Vladimir Putin's karate chop to Russian liberties

In less than 100 days since he returned to the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin has further curbed Russian civil liberties and dissenters. But this is risky. As political dialogue no longer becomes an option, radicals on both sides are emboldened and the threshold for violence is lowered.

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The family of Putin's mentor, the late St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, has also not been spared. The daughter, Kseniya Sobchak, is a TV celebrity from the establishment and an advocate of gradual political reform. In June, police raided her apartment, confiscating money and computers. Her mother, Sen. Lyudmila Narusova, has said she may lose her seat for opposing the new restrictions on rallies.

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Putin, whose power structure is based on personal loyalty, is known for "not giving up his own." When he returned to the presidency in May after four years as prime minister, he took most of his former cabinet ministers with him.

Some of Putin's declared foes are already serving jail time in pretrial detention. A dozen people have been arrested for suspected involvement in violence that broke out at a May protest. Three young women from the punk-rock activist group Pussy Riot have been imprisoned since March for an anti-Putin performance in Moscow's main cathedral (Putin recently urged leniency). Anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny was charged with embezzlement July 31.

Russia's court system, one of the most burdensome legacies of the Soviet Union, is still designed to uphold the prevailing social order rather than hand down justice. That's why Putin has nothing to fear when he refers complaints about election fraud or police brutality to the courts.

The sweep and speed of Putin's crackdown belie the government's outward nonchalance toward the protest movement. Despite its lack of coherence and organization, it presents Putin with the greatest challenge to his grip on power.

Putin is betting that by stifling dissent in all its forms, he will crush the protest movement once and for all. But this is a dangerous path: As political dialogue no longer becomes an option, radicals in the opposition and the Kremlin will be emboldened. The threshold for violence is lowered for both sides.

That's a dead end for Russia – unless protesters remain committed to civil disobedience and enough moderates in the ruling elite overcome their fear of reprisals and seek a way out of Putin's sham democracy.

Lucian Kim is a journalist who has covered Russia since 2003. He blogs on the Moscow protest movement at http://lucianinmoscow.blogspot.com and is writing a book about Russia under Putin.

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