I suppose it’s an improvement over being lined up against a wall in the basement of the Lubyanka and being summarily shot, but Vladimir Putin’s tactics in suppressing dissent in Russia remind everyone of the good old days of the Soviet Union.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was charged with theft on Tuesday and could face up to 10 years in jail in what Kremlin critics call a growing crackdown on dissent by President Vladimir Putin since he began his six-year term in May.
Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who has organized street protests that have dented Putin’s authority, dismissed the charge as absurd. Other opposition leaders accused Putin of using KGB-style tactics to try to silence his critics.
Navalny, 36, the most charismatic of the protest leaders and potentially the biggest threat to Putin, was also barred from leaving the country.
Russia’s federal Investigative Committee said he is accused of helping organize a plan to steal timber from a state firm called KirovLes, causing the government of the Kirov region to lose more than 16 million rubles ($497,000). The charges relate to 2009, when Navalny was advising the region’s governor.
“This is really quite absurd and very strange,” Navalny said as he left the Investigative Committee headquarters, where he was summoned to hear what he had expected to be a less severe charge related to a case opened in 2010 but dormant since then.
“I will continue to do what I have been doing, and in this sense nothing changes for me,” he said. “We believe that what is happening now is illegal. We will use the methods of legal defence at our disposal. What else can we do?”
The charges, in a country where few believe in the independence of the judiciary, signalled a toughening of the Kremlin’s stance against its opponents.
Navalny said in an interview he believed some decisions in politically motivated cases were being made by “Putin himself.”
Putin, an ex-KGB spy, has in the past few weeks pushed through a law raising fines for protesters, tightened controls of the Internet — often used to organize protests — and imposed tougher rules on foreign-funded campaign and lobby groups.
Some protest organizers’ homes have been raided, and some demonstrators arrested over a rally that turned violent on May 6.
Putin has plenty of time to change the Russian constitution so that he could be made president for life. Strangely, he remains very popular for his anti-corruption stand and his management of the economy which, thanks to jacked-up oil prices, is growing strongly. Many Russians seem inured to the prospect of a “strongman” to lead them — an observation made by czars, commissars, and others who have tried to explain the Russian character over the last 700 years.
Certainly there are millions who want a western-style democracy with guaranteed freedoms of expression and true political freedoms. But Putin did not have to cheat to win this last election, despite the crackdowns on dissent. Putin realizes this and will continue to lead Russia using authoritarian tactics.