Opposition battles repression in Russia

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 8:30 PM

IN MOSCOW -- Russia has set off on an ever more authoritarian path as it heads toward a presidential election next year, sending ominous signals to the already weakened opposition and confronting the United States and Europe with vexing new political challenges.

President Dmitry Medvedev, who positions himself as Prime Minister Vladmir Putin's liberal alter ego, repeatedly assures the West that just the opposite is true. At the Davos World Economic Forum this week, he said Russia was fighting corruption, developing rule of law - if slowly - and becoming increasingly democratic. "Russian citizens believe they live in a democratic state," he said.

The experience of Boris Nemtsov argues otherwise. In the past few months, Russian authorities have made it clear they are willing to contort the legal system to their own ends, smother dissent and brazen out Western disapproval. They are clamping down hard even though they have effectively silenced the opposition.

Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, was caught in the tightening vise when he was arrested at a legal demonstration on New Year's Eve. He was put in jail for 15 days and risks a similar end Monday when he intends to stand up again for the right of freedom of assembly at another protest, which also has been given city permission to gather on a central square at 6 p.m.

Nemtsov, now 51, was a luminous political star in the early post-Soviet days, when most Russians still dreamed of democracy. He was young, energetic and smart - a physicist turned politician who charmed voters and won high approval ratings as a regional governor. For a time, he was seen as a likely heir to President Boris Yeltsin.

Instead, Putin assumed the presidency, later became prime minister, and relentlessly marginalized his opposition, Nemtsov among them. On carefully controlled television, where most Russians get their news, critics ceased to exist.

So Nemtsov's arrest on New Year's Eve, along with other dissenters from various parts of the political spectrum, was an unambiguous message. The protesters had gotten a permit to gather, choosing Dec. 31 - and now Jan. 31 - in honor of Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly and which is routinely disregarded. He was seized as he was leaving the square, accused of heading to an unapproved rally and of disobeying police. He was hustled off a few days after former oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky was given a second jail term in a case widely considered politically motivated.

"After the Khodorkovsky verdict, the authorities decided to continue to demonstrate to the country and the world that the law means nothing to them," said Igor Klyamkin, vice president of the Liberal Mission Foundation, expressing a widely held point of view. "They wanted to show that the authorities are the master of every situation, regardless of the law."

And if anyone was considering attending even an approved demonstration, maybe they should think again.

A recent report from Freedom House, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that examines the level of civil liberties around the world, expressed alarm over the increasing repression here, and in other parts of the globe, and criticized the democratic community for failing to rise to the challenge.

"Russia is not a free country," David J. Kramer, executive director of Freedom House, said in an interview, and recent events suggest officials have stopped pretending it is.

Kramer starts with November, when Russian officials marked the anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky by promoting the officials tied to his case. Magnitsky was a lawyer who uncovered a $230 million fraud, documented police complicity, and then was charged with the theft himself. He died at age 37 after a year in pretrial detention - Kramer describes it as murder because Magnitsky was denied medical treatment and kept in inhumane conditions.

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