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.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
Prominent anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny talks to the media after leaving the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation in Moscow Aug. 3. He has been charged with embezzlement. Op-ed contributor Lucian Kim writes: 'Putin has nothing to fear when he refers complaints about election fraud or police brutality to the courts,' because the courts are 'designed to uphold the prevailing social order rather than hand down justice.'

Russian President Vladimir Putin is just reaching the 100-day mark of his return to the Kremlin, and already he has shown what his third term holds in store. Amid Russia's biggest antigovernment protests in 20 years, Mr. Putin has lost no time in further curbing civil liberties and purging the public sphere of dissenters.

Although often portrayed as enigmatic, Putin is not a particularly complex figure. His belief in the supremacy of state power is consistent to the point of redundancy. After 12 years at the helm, Putin has conflated himself with the Russian state, so that any attack on his rule is construed as an attack on the nation.

Putin sees himself in an endgame against domestic enemies and their supposed foreign masters. As a KGB agent in communist East Germany in 1989, he witnessed how the once-mighty Soviet empire caved in to people power. Today, with one Arab despot toppling after the next, Putin is pulling out all the stops to ensure nothing similar happens in Russia.

It's a risky plan.

Since the beginning of June, four restrictive legislative initiatives have been rushed through the rubber-stamp Duma – the very assembly whose disputed elections in December sparked the Moscow protest movement. Penalties for demonstrators and rally organizers have been toughened; Internet sites can now be blocked if they contain content deemed harmful to children (pro-government hackers could easily insert such content into any site); nongovernmental organizations receiving funding from abroad will be branded as "foreign agents"; and libel is again a criminal offense.

Putin justified the changes as bringing Russian law up to international standards. But in the absence of an independent judiciary, the legislation is little more than a new cudgel in the hands of an overzealous security apparatus.

While the chilling effect of the legislation has yet to sink in, Putin's lieutenants are already using existing laws to go after the regime's most vocal critics.

Ilya Ponomaryov, Gennady Gudkov, and his son Dmitry – the three lone dissidents in the Duma who tried to thwart the legislative assault – were advised by the ethics committee to give up their seats for participating in protest rallies. The Gudkovs' private security business has come under pressure.

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.

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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