Pussy Riot sentences just the latest crackdowns by Putin's Kremlin

On Friday, after something of a show trial, three young women in a Russian punk band were found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison for an anti-Vladimir Putin protest in a Moscow cathedral earlier this year.

But, despite its high profile, the Pussy Riot trial was just one on a long list of crackdowns on freedom of expression that human rights activists and observers have compiled since Putin returned to the Russian presidency in May.

Pussy Riot, an all-female band, had performed their song, Madonna, Drive Putin Away at a Russian Orthodox cathedral on Feb. 21. The performance was uploaded to YouTube.

On the eve of the March 4 presidential vote, the first arrests took place and on March 15 they were charged with hooliganism.

Even before the trial began, the case was proceeding with dubious legality. "The case is full of procedural violations and they are trying to speed up the hearing to ensure that we don't have time to respond to them all," a lawyer for one of the accused said July 4.

For many Western observers, the charges and trial were almost incomprehensible.

Jane Buchanan, a senior researcher on Russia at Human Rights Watch in New York, said the band members were legitimately exercising their right to free expression with their performance.

"To face criminal changes with a heavy sentence is scandalous and it speaks volumes to the environment for free speech and political opinion that's critical of the government," she said.

The judiciary in Russia is not an independent branch of the state, as it is in most Western countries, observers note.

"It's closely controlled by the executive and, in the Pussy Riot trial and trials before it, we have seen such a scandalous number of fair trial violations that it gives a strong sense that there's a political motivation and a political direction behind this kind of trial," Buchanan says.

In fact, Nikolay Petrov, a Russian government official in the 1990s and now a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Centre think-tank in the Russian capital, told CBC News that he believes Putin was personally involved in the case.

However, during a trip to London for the Olympics a few weeks ago, Putin told reporters that he hoped the Pussy Riot band members would not "be judged so harshly" for the protest.

"I hope the court will come out with the right decision," he said.

The new crackdown

In separate interviews, Petrov and Buchanan referred to a number of steps the new Putin government has taken to curtail free expression.

For example, in June the Kremlin significantly increased the amount of fines – by 300 times in some cases – for violating the rules on holding protests. At the same time, it toughened these rules to make it more difficult to even hold public protests, like the large anti-Putin ones that dominated several Russian cities since last winter.

The Russian government has also presented a draft law that gives authorities the power to order what they consider "extremist" content, as well as content harmful to children, removed from Russian websites.

If passed, free speech advocates fear the law will be used to crack down on dissent and shut anti-Putin websites.

In July the Duma, the Russian legislature, passed legislation to re-criminalize libel.

It also passed a bill that requires many non-governmental organizations, mostly advocacy groups, which receive donations from outside Russia, to register as "foreign agents."

With the Winter Olympics slated for Sochi, on Russia's Black Sea coast, there have also been restrictions on journalists and activists there who are raising concerns about forced evictions, re-locations and the treatment of construction workers at the Olympics sites.

'Personal project'

Noting that there had been a thaw in Russian authoritarianism under former president Dmitry Medvedev, Buchanan sees these new restrictions as "Putin's personal project."

"He and his government are intolerant of that kind of critical expression we see among protesters, in their music, among NGOs who do research, advocacy and reporting that questions policies or laws," she said.

After reaching the two-term limit for presidents in 2008, Putin switched jobs with Medvedev, who had been his prime minister.

Four years later, the two men switched jobs again. Medvedev's announcement of the change last year provoked widespread protests in Russia, which gained strength following parliamentary elections in December that were widely seen as fraudulent.

In Petrov's analysis, the authorities became concerned about these protests and came up with the idea of political reform, which Medvedev announced in late December, as a way of slowing their momentum.

"Until the presidential elections in March, the authorities gave the impression that they were eager to go ahead with these reforms," Petrov said. They viewed the protests as strongly connected to the election and expected they would stop after the voting.

But when that didn't happen – there was large rally in May, for example – the Kremlin began "moving in a very different direction," Petrov says.

The Pussy Riot message

For Petrov, the Pussy Riot trial had a purpose beyond sending three Putin critics to jail. It was also to send a message to the conservative elements of Russia who live away from the big liberalizing cities.

Petrov feels that Putin is positioning himself as the president of those Russians who do not live in the capital or the other big cities and he pointed to the television coverage of the Pussy Riot affair, which he said was not neutral or objective.

"The state controls entirely the TV, the main source of information for the majority of Russians outside big cities," he said, adding that this coverage helped create a strong polarization over this case, with a majority in favor of harsh punishment.

"The Kremlin is trying to put those who are not supporting the government into a kind of ghetto to show that the majority of Russians do support the government, do hate modernized fats cats in big cities who enjoy much higher salaries and who are not so loyal."

Meanwhile, on Friday, Levada, an independent Russian polling firm, released the results of a survey that found Putin's approval rating has fallen to 48 per cent from 60 per cent, the lowest level since Putin first became president on the last day of 1999.

'We exist'

For his part, Petrov feels that the Putin regime has not made a final decision yet whether or not to become increasingly authoritarian.

But he feels that decision might come in October when regional elections take place.

While these elections are not about real power, they are an important test for the political system, he says. " Until then, Putin wants to have different options on the table."

He also sees division within Putin's inner circle over how to proceed, with the authoritarian direction of the last few months partially an effort to threaten the political elite so it remains united and loyal.

In a post this week on his blog for Russia watchers, Radio Free Liberty senior correspondent Brian Whitmore, sounded more optimistic about Russia's future.

"A powerful constituency for change does, indeed, exist now," he said. "It grew out of the increasingly confident middle class that emerged during Putin's rule.

"It is powered and networked by increased internet penetration and the explosion of social networks. And it's not going away anytime soon."

Whitmore noted that one of the protest movement's most powerful slogans is, "We exist."

"We exist" was a refrain in a Pussy Riot performance from before they performed Madonna, Drive Putin Away.

External Links

Nikolay Petrov, Carnegie Moscow Center
Jane Buchanan, Human Rights Watch