Oppression in modern Russia

Monday, August 30, 2010

Q:IN WHAT sort of society might a 68-year-old man be sent to jail for peacefully carrying his nation's flag in a parade to celebrate Flag Day?

A: In Vladimir Putin's Russia, if the man is someone that Mr. Putin -- former president, current prime minister and seemingly eternal ruling-party boss -- happens not to like.

Last week a court in Moscow sentenced Lev Ponomaryov, 68, a longtime human rights activist, and Mikhail Schneider, an organizer of the opposition Solidarity movement, to three days in prison for taking part in "an unsanctioned rally." Russia's constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but in the Putin era any gathering requires a permit and permits are routinely denied to anyone who questions the ruling regime.

Dmitry Medvedev, whom Mr. Putin anointed as president when his own term ended, has promised fidelity to the rule of law, and some Russians took heart last week when he suspended the razing of a forest near Moscow where officials hoped to build a highway. Neighborhood and environmental activists trying to save the forest had been met with official stonewalling and worse -- one newspaper editor was beaten into permanent disability -- and so the president's action was greeted as a rare success for Russia's beleaguered civil society.

For the most part, though, the story of the past decade has been one of ever-tightening restriction on political activity and expression. As Freedom House noted recently, Russia's past year was marked by "electoral abuses, declining religious freedom, greater state controls over the presentation of history, growing police corruption, and the repeated use of political terror against victims including human rights activists and journalists."

Against that backdrop, sentencing a couple of dissidents to three days in prison might not seem like much. But it is another warning to every Russian that any transgression, no matter how minor, is a risk.

The White House issued a brief statement saying it was "disappointed that some Russian authorities continue to deny Russian citizens their constitutional rights." The phrasing -- some Russian authorities -- reflects a continuing hope that not everyone in Moscow's power structure shares Mr. Putin's worldview. So far there's little evidence to bolster that optimism.


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