The Kremlin insists that opposition parties will be permitted to hold a major rally in Moscow this Saturday to protest alleged election fraud, as a follow up to a giant Dec. 10 meeting, and has pledged that no police measures will be taken against demonstrators as long as they behave peacefully and legally.
But beneath the radar screen some awfully strange things have been happening to many grassroots activists, including phone tapping and pre-emptive arrests, in what human rights monitors say is a concerted police effort to split the opposition leaders and undermine the movement.
"We've seen some of this before, police kidnappings of (banned and marginal) National Bolshevik activists, but such methods were mainly confined to the (zone of anti-terrorist operations) in the northern Caucasus," says Oleg Orlov, chair of Memorial, Russia's largest human rights organization. "Now, under conditions of general political crisis, we see these tactics being used on the whole territory of Russia and against prominent political personalities. The illegal essence of our state has come into clear focus."
Consider the case of Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister and co-leader of the banned liberal Party of People's Freedom, who awoke Tuesday morning to find that his private telephone conversations had been secretly recorded and published on the Internet tabloid site Lifenews.ru, which is part of a media empire believed to be controlled by Yury Kovalchuk, a shadowy financier and Kremlin ally who's been called "Vladimir Putin's personal banker."
The conversations between Mr. Nemtsov and friends included a fair bit of rude street language, and some unguarded asides about some of his fellow protest organizers.
Reached by phone, Nemtsov said he had no doubt that the Kremlin was behind the "absolutely illegal and unconstitutional" intrusion into his private space.
"This is a provocation, not against me, but against our rally on Dec. 24. Putin and (acting Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav) Surkov are terrified that the protest momentum is building, and many more people are going to come out," Nemtsov says. "The goal of publishing my private conversations is to split the opposition."
Nemtsov says he has apologized personally to fellow organizers whom he'd mentioned in disparaging terms, and that he will launch a lawsuit against Lifenews.ru and others who violated his privacy.
"But if they wanted to divide the opposition, the result is the opposite," he adds. "We are more unified than ever, because people are furious at the tactics being employed by the Kremlin. No one can accept these criminal methods."
Another worrisome case involves Sergei Udaltsov, leader of Left Front, a coalition of leftist groups that has applied repeatedly and been refused official registration as a political party.
Mr. Udaltsov, a veteran street activist, has been detained by police more than 100 times in the past five years, mostly for participating in peaceful but unsanctioned political protests. But on the morning of Dec. 4, Duma election day in Russia, he was arrested while walking on the street in what appeared to be a preemptive police operation. He was handed a five-day prison sentence after two police officers testified that he had ignored their advice about where he may cross the street – in other words, alleged jaywalking.
"I think the purpose was to isolate me" during the sensitive post-election period, Udaltsov said after being reached on his cellphone in a prison hospital Tuesday. "I was so angry I went on a hunger strike. I don't know why I am the subject of so much attention. I have never called for violence, though they act as though I was trying to storm the Kremlin or something," he says.
After his five-day term was up, Udaltsov was immediately rearrested and given 15 more days after police cited his alleged misbehavior during a previous arrest in October. When his hunger strike led to serious physical complications, he was placed in a prison hospital under heavy guard by special police and plainclothes officers of the state security service, FSB.
Some of his friends say that Udaltsov's health, normally robust, has taken a suspicious turn for the worse under police custody that cannot be explained simply by the hunger strike, which he voluntarily ended Tuesday.
Udaltsov's lawyer, Violetta Volkova, says she has documentary evidence that Moscow authorities ordered "preventive measures" – which are not legal – to be taken against key protest organizers such as her client.
"This case demonstrates that there is no rule of law in Russia," she says.
"Udaltsov is the victim of a chain of absolutely illegal actions on the part of authorities," she adds. "It's very difficult to be his lawyer, because we are not permitted to take part in court hearings, our documentary submissions are ignored by judges, when it comes to him the system just doesn't work as it's supposed to… I have come to the conclusion that my client is a political prisoner who is suffering primarily for his personal convictions."