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."
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.
Nemtsov spent 40 hours sitting on his jacket in a dank 5-by-10-foot room with no windows, toilet or bed. In court, he was made to stand for more than four hours while defense witnesses were brushed aside. Police officers, who were not the ones who arrested him, testified that he was abusive toward police and heading toward an unsanctioned protest.
Nemtsov emerged defiant. "The main goal was to destroy my character and the will to continue my opposition," he said in an interview, "but they failed."
Out of jail, Nemtsov is pushing ahead, organizing a new People's Freedom Party with democratic allies Vladimir Ryzhkov, Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Milov, and planning to nominate a presidential candidate this spring.
Nemtsov says they will use the Internet to get their message out and crisscross the country distributing 1 million copies of what he calls modern samizdat, a pamphlet outlining the ways that Putin is destroying the country.
The United States, which has been pursuing a reset of relations by concentrating on dealing with Russia on areas of common interest, has criticized repressive actions in Russia. After Nemtsov's arrest, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, "We regret that these actions seem contrary to statements that President Medvedev in particular has made."
Nemtsov said the West should forget polite talk. Instead, he said, Congress should adopt a Support Russian Democracy Act, listing the officials responsible for human rights violations, freezing their assets and banning them from entering the country.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, has already introduced a bill that would ban visas for 60 officials linked to the Magnitsky case. In December, the European Parliament urged a ban on visas for the officials. Last week, Chris Bryant, a member of the British Parliament, suggested that the officials were engaged in "economic terrorism" and called for a visa ban and asset freeze.
Nemtsov, who has appealed his treatment to the European Court of Human Rights, has an additional list of Russian officials he says should be banned, beginning with Putin's top deputies - if not Putin himself. "It will be great," he said, smiling happily.