In the depths of mid-summer, when most Russians are on vacation or cultivating their dacha gardens, authorities are busy reshaping the country's political landscape. When the new political season opens in September, and anti-Putin protesters attempt to return to the streets after a summer hiatus, opposition activists may find themselves facing a dramatically changed playing field, in which harsh new penalties abound for those who commit even minor infractions.
Critics argue that the growing list of state actions against opposition figures this summer is part of a "creeping crackdown" on all forms of civic disobedience that is likely aimed at quashing any reemergence of the protest movement in September.
“All the political ground is shifting under our feet this summer, and it's becoming clear that Putin is no longer trying to be the president of all Russians but is reinforcing his own conservative base by giving them what they want," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
That future arguably is already here for three young women, members of the edgy feminist punk rock collective Pussy Riot, who face up to seven years' imprisonment for allegedly performing a 40-second "punk prayer" last February at the altar of Moscow's premier Orthodox cathedral, in which the masked singers implored the Virgin Mary to "redeem us from Putin."
Their trial, which began this week, has created a storm of commentary on Facebook and other social media websites, despite severe courtroom access restrictions that have been slapped on the press by nervous authorities.
Opinion polls uniformly show that the vast majority of Russians felt deeply offended by what they view as sacrilegious behavior. They generally react negatively to the Pussy Riot women's image, who launched their band a year ago modeled after the 1990s British punk band Riot grrrls.
But growing numbers of Russian artists, legal experts, and intellectuals – including some top officials and members of the clergy – are publicly expressing their uneasiness over the extended pretrial detention of the women, two of whom are mothers of young children, the harshness of their potential punishment, and the flimsy legal underpinnings of their case.
Their trial appears to be more about extracting revenge on behalf of the church and the conservative majority, experts argue, than about enforcing the law in a secular society which is enshrined in the Russian Constitution (Article 14).
What fuels the anxieties of legal experts is the extent to which prosecutors appear to be pandering to religious prejudice rather than attempting to legally prove the very serious charge that Pussy Riot is an "extremist" organization whose performance – in which no one was harmed and no property damaged – aimed to incite "religious hatred."
The charges, read out in the courtroom, accused the women of "entering into a premeditated conspiracy to commit disorderly conduct motivated by religious hatred and hostility ... the defendants caused significant damage to the sacred values of the church... and in a blasphemous manner disgraced the ancient foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church."
"The more active, educated, and unhappy sections of society are no longer regarded as [Putin's] constituents. It's more important for authorities to send a clear signal that believers' feelings will be protected and that the Russian Orthodox Church is honored by the state, than it is to attend to all the proper legal details," Mr. Petrov says.
Series of restrictions
Before leaving for summer recess, the State Duma, whose dominant pro-Kremlin United Russia majority has credibility problems following unresolved mass allegations of fraud in last December's elections, passed a raft of new laws aiming to restrict the space for any politically active opposition to operate. They include a Draconian law on protests that imposes steep penalties on anyone who attends an unsanctioned political meeting, and heavy fines for organizers if infractions are committed at a permitted meeting.
Another law will require nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from abroad and engage in any sort of loosely defined "political activity" to publicly label itself as a "foreign agent."
Ironically, several Russian state-funded organizations, including the Kremlin's own English-language satellite TV network Russia Today, are registered NGOs that receive some funding from abroad. In a clear indication of how this law will be applied, United Russia inserted a last-minute amendment that grants automatic exemption to all "state-founded" groups.
But United Russia deputies say that when the Duma reconvenes in September, they will extend the legislation beyond NGOs to also require any media outlet that receives outside funding to register as a "foreign agent," though similar exemptions for pro-government outlets will likely be included.
The Duma also passed a law that will sharply increase penalties for "defamation," which critics say could be applied selectively to chill media or opposition critics of officialdom. A new Internet law will compel servers to install expensive filtering infrastructure that potentially gives law enforcement the capacity to shut down any website.
On Tuesday, finally, authorities announced criminal charges against anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny. He had accused the powerful chief of the Kremlin's Investigative Committee and Putin protégé, Alexander Bastrykin, of secretly obtaining a permanent residence permit in the Czech Republic last week and buying an apartment in Prague – a conspicuous move of the man who will be responsible for enforcing the "foreign agent" legislation. Mr. Bastrykin subsequently admitted to owning the flat, but denied having a residency permit in the NATO country.
The charges against Mr. Navalny, who became a key leader of the protest movement that erupted last December, revolve around a 2009 case in which Navalny was implicated in fraud at the local state-owned timber company as an advisor to the governor of the Kirov region. Investigators dropped his case early this year, citing Navalny's cooperation with the police and a lack of evidence against him. The new case, however, involves much more serious charges that could potentially send Navalny to prison for 10 years, after his case was revived in May on orders from Bastrykin.
Setting a precedent
Critics argue that the choice of targets, such as the elite blogger Navalny and the feminist punk rockers Pussy Riot, may be aimed at setting precedents against figures who are widely reviled by Russia's conservative majority, but which later can be applied to almost anyone.
"The Pussy Riot case has split Russian society between its educated part and the rest of the population," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of Panorama, an independent Moscow think tank.
"Hardly anyone approves of what those girls did, but the dubious legalities and the harsh punishment that's going to be meted out to them for that prank has alienated many intellectuals, artists, and people who worry about the long-term consequences,” he said.
“They are standing up to complain about the conduct of the trial, and this suits the Kremlin perfectly. It makes it look like the intelligentsia is against the people, against morality, against Russia's hallowed traditions. This was exactly the purpose of the people who framed this case," he adds.