Grow­ing roar of Putin power

Voices of dis­sent in­creas­ingly muf­fled

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY MARC BEN­NETTS

MOSCOW | Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s do­mes­tic crit­ics have rarely had it easy. Now, as a wave of pa­tri­o­tism sweeps Rus­sia in the wake of its an­nex­a­tion of the Crimean Penin­sula, voices of dis­sent are in dan­ger of be­ing silenced al­to­gether.

Mr. Putin’s strong-arm tac­tics in Ukraine may have left Rus­sia iso­lated in the in­ter­na­tional arena, but his for­eign pol­icy ad­ven­tures have proved wildly pop­u­lar at home. The ex-KGB of­fi­cer’s ap­proval rat­ings are over 80 per­cent, his high­est in years, ac­cord­ing to a poll pub­lished this month by the in­de­pen­dent, Moscow-based Le­vada.

“For a while, I thought things might im­prove in Rus­sia,” said Olga Dobina, a young house­wife shiv­er­ing at a sparsely at­tended protest last week. “But now Putin is as pop­u­lar as ever, and we are see­ing a re­turn to Soviet-style po­lit­i­cal pro­pa­ganda and po­lit­i­cal re­pres­sion.”

More­over, Mr. Putin — an oc­ca­sion­ally shirt­less, big-game hunt­ing, horse­back­rid­ing, judo ex­pert — continues to bur­nish a vir­ile, strong­man im­age that re­in­forces Rus­sia’s emer­gence as a ma­jor player on the world stage. Most re­cently, the pres­i­dent scored six goals and dished five as­sists in an am­a­teur hockey game, which his team won 21-4. The game, like many of Mr. Putin’s other high-pro­file ath­letic achieve­ments, was cov­ered by state-run me­dia.

Buoyed by do­mes­tic enthusiasm, Mr. Putin and his al­lies have turned the screws even fur­ther on the Krem­lin’s be­lea­guered crit­ics. Mr. Putin and state me­dia out­lets have de­scribed op­po­si­tion ac­tivists as “na­tional traitors” amount­ing to a “fifth col­umn” in the pay of the West.

“Putin has noth­ing left to lose, and so he has cho­sen the to­tal­i­tar­ian route,” said Vik­tor Shen­derovich, a Rus­sian writer and Krem­lin critic. “The au­thor­i­ties have got­ten harsher. People have been ready to go out into the streets on peace­ful protests, but they are not ready to face po­lice night­sticks.”

As a re­sult, Rus­sia’s “white rib­bon” protest move­ment, which was once able to at­tract more than 100,000 people to an­tiPutin ral­lies, has been brought to its knees. Two of its most high-pro­file lead­ers, the anti-cor­rup­tion ac­tivist Alexei Navalny and the left­ist Sergei Udaltsov, are un­der house ar­rest, and many rank-and-file ac­tivists are be­hind bars. Oth­ers have been forced to flee the coun­try.

“The protest move­ment is not de­feated, but de­mor­al­ized and disor­ga­nized,” said Oleg Ko­zlovsky, a long­time anti-Putin ac­tivist and Navalny sup­porter. “Crit­i­cism has gone back into the In­ter­net and the kitchens again.”

The protest move­ment has shown some signs of life re­cently. In mid-March, more than 40,000 people took to the streets of Moscow to rally against Mr. Putin’s tac­tics in Ukraine.

How­ever, by sid­ing with the new govern­ment in Kiev — de­picted as blood­thirsty fas­cists by Krem­lin-run me­dia — the protest move­ment has alien­ated many for­mer sup­port­ers.

“When the white-rib­bon move­ment protests against cor­rupt of­fi­cials and politi­cians, I’m ready to back it,” said Pavel Bari­nov, a stu­dent hand­ing out World War II Vic­tory Day rib­bons in Moscow last week. “But when they rally in sup­port of the fas­cists in Kiev, I can’t stand for that.”

‘This is our sick­ness’

Pub­lic sup­port of the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, which was “gifted” to Ukraine from Rus­sia by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, has been so great that even some of Mr. Putin’s fiercest crit­ics have ap­plauded the move.

Mr. Udaltsov, the left­ist leader un­der house ar­rest, and Ed­uard Li­monov, a fire­brand au­thor and vet­eran op­po­si­tion politi­cian, have pub­licly sup­ported Mr. Putin’s ac­tions in Crimea.

“Crimea has re­turned to its right­ful owner,” Mr. Li­monov wrote af­ter Mr. Putin “ac­cepted” Crimea’s re­quest to re­join Rus­sia.

For Mr. Shen­derovich, the writer, such sen­ti­ments are in­dica­tive of what he called the “sick­ness of im­pe­rial great­ness” in­fect­ing many in Rus­sia.

“Un­for­tu­nately, many in­tel­li­gent, ed­u­cated people in our coun­try are sus­cep­ti­ble to the idea of Rus­sian great­ness,” he said. “This is our sick­ness, one that we have not yet been able to cure.”

Mr. Putin’s clam­p­down on dis­sent has fo­cused heav­ily on the In­ter­net, un­til re­cently a rare out­let for op­po­si­tion sen­ti­ments. Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties in re­cent months have blocked op­po­si­tion web­sites, in­clud­ing Mr. Navalny’s pop­u­lar blog.

In ad­di­tion, the par­lia­ment has ap­proved leg­is­la­tion that could ban Western so­cial net­works such as Face­book from op­er­at­ing in Rus­sia if they refuse to store data on users in the coun­try.

Rus­sia’s re­spected Kom­m­er­sant news­pa­per re­ported that a pres­i­den­tial com­mis­sion rec­om­mended that the Krem­lin de­velop its own “sov­er­eign In­ter­net,” to be in­ac­ces­si­ble from the West. A Krem­lin spokesman de­nied the re­port.

“The au­thor­i­ties have be­come more fear­ful,” said Oleg Kozyrev, one of Rus­sia’s most pop­u­lar blog­gers and an op­po­si­tion ac­tivist. “But the In­ter­net com­mu­nity is not afraid. Look at China. Their In­ter­net is to­tally con­trolled by the state, but people still find ways to get in­for­ma­tion out.”

Western sanc­tions

Other ac­tivists fear things could get worse.

Per­sis­tent ru­mors that the Krem­lin is plan­ning to in­tro­duce Soviet-style re­stric­tions on for­eign travel reached new heights last month af­ter the For­eign Min­istry warned that U.S. Spe­cial Forces were “hunt­ing” for Rus­sian na­tion­als in re­tal­i­a­tion for ac­tions in Ukraine.

Amid the dark­en­ing at­mos­phere, op­po­si­tion ac­tivists can only hope that Mr. Putin’s pop­u­lar­ity will wane as Western sanc­tions im­posed in re­sponse to ac­tions in Ukraine be­gin to bite.

Wor­ries about sanc­tions al­ready have trig­gered cap­i­tal flight and plunged the ru­ble to record lows.

“Putin’s pop­u­lar­ity is due to the ef­fec­tive use of im­pe­ri­al­ist and anti-Western pro­pa­ganda and his por­trayal as a de­fender of eth­nic Rus­sians and a re­claimer of lands,” Mr. Ko­zlovsky said.

“It can’t last very long, though, es­pe­cially if his win­ning streak ends and the econ­omy feels the cost of these de­ci­sions.”

Rus­sia’s be­lea­guered pro­test­ers, how­ever, see no sign of light at the end of the tun­nel.

“I of­ten think I should leave Rus­sia so that my chil­dren can grow up in a nor­mal coun­try,” said Ms. Dobina. “But why should I? This is my coun­try, as well.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Vladimir Putin made a tri­umphant visit to Crimea, a re­cently an­nexed penin­sula that hosts a ma­jor Rus­sian navy base on the Black Sea.

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