Russians are enjoying freer private lives than ever before. Russia appears to have weathered the global financial crisis, and unemployment and poverty rates are relatively low.
But some see a shadow approaching.
A court case that curbs artistic expression, and fresh legislation to strengthen the KGB’s successor and limit the right of public assembly, have some anticipating a crackdown on freedom.
The “government appears to be preparing itself to deal with large-scale public protests,” says Nikolai Petrov, with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “It may not look like it on the surface, but there is a feeling that bad times are coming. The mechanisms are being put in place now to ensure that any social tensions or dissent within the elite can be quashed.”
Critics warn that the social contract created by former President Vladimir Putin – in which the Kremlin redistributed oil revenues via social programs in exchange for silence and political consent – is fraying.
Exhibit A is a Moscow court’s July 12 decision to fine former museum curators Yury Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev over “Forbidden Art,” a 2007 art exhibit. It displayed controversial images of Jesus, including one that replaced his head with Mickey Mouse’s face, and another with the Soviet-era Order of Lenin medal.
Many intellectuals had hoped for an acquittal. “It’s not just a particular art exhibit that was condemned ... but all social criticism as expressed through art,” says Yevgeny Ikhlov of the Moscow-based group For Human Rights. “It says we are not moving toward a normal society, with tolerant attitudes, but in another direction.”
The defendants were convicted of “inciting hatred” under a tougher and broader version of Western hate-speech laws. Alexander Dugin, one of the leading intellectuals of Russian nationalism, defends the court decision as standing up for Russian values.
“In Russia we consider [religion] a public matter, and take any mockery ... or profane expression as a crime against public opinion,” says Mr. Dugin. “These are our standards, and Samodurov and Yerofeyev are Russians who committed their acts in Russia.”
But Mr. Samodurov, former director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow, says the social atmosphere is deteriorating, while hard-liners in government and the Russian Orthodox Church appear to be gaining.
“I felt support from artists and intellectuals” during the trial, he says. “But it was mostly in private discussion.... then they would tell me it’s too dangerous to say so out loud, that it’s a social taboo. This is where I felt completely alone.”
FSB security powers may grow
Lawmakers have brought forward several pieces of legislation that worry democracy activists. The State Duma passed a bill through its key second reading earlier this month that will bolster powers of the FSB security service – the former KGB – and limit the rights of journalists and others to report on the agency’s activities.
“People don’t understand that the secret services are trying to get a foothold to pursue a further offensive against society,” says Sergei Mitrokhin, head of the liberal Yabloko Party. He added that opposition parties, such as his own, will “feel the results” in the coming election cycle.
Another bill would curtail the right of public groups to organize protests by limiting venues and banning anyone guilty of an “administrative offense” – say, a speeding ticket – from applying for a permit.
Sergei Markov, a Duma deputy with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, rebuffed criticism of the new law on protests, saying: "It does not limit the right of parties or movements to stage public meetings in the slightest."
But an opposition coalition’s monthly rallies to dramatize the right of free assembly have often been crushed by riot police. Nadezhda Matyushkina, of the Solidarnost coalition, says she’s been arrested four times.
“[The new law] is a way to frighten people,” says Ms. Matyushkina, who says the authorities are also scared. “Protest moods are on the rise, not just for political reasons but because conditions are getting harder for people.”
Supporters of the Kremlin argue that legislation is merely being "perfected" and "clarified."
Mr. Petrov, of the Carnegie Center, says the next election cycle, which begins in late 2011, will probably spell the end of the social contract.
"The government is still pursuing populist policies, because it's impossible to change that before the elections," he says. "But the generous patronage involved in the Putin-era social contract cannot be sustained. It will have to be cut back, and that will likely generate social tensions."