MOSCOW – Last week was a busy one for Russian authorities, who arrested the only nationally known opposition mayor for bribery, sought six years in prison for crusading blogger Alexei Navalny and asked a court to find a long-dead attorney guilty of tax evasion.
The trial of a dozen demonstrators accused of rioting and attacking police at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on the eve of President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration ground on. Maria Alyokhina, a punk rocker sent to a labor camp for two years for a singing protest in Moscow’s main cathedral, lost an appeal. An appeal filed on behalf of the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been in prison for nearly 10 years, was rejected.
Leonid Razvozzhayev, an opposition organizer who was kidnapped and returned to Moscow after seeking asylum in Ukraine, was given permission to get married in jail — perhaps because he is not expected to get out soon. He faces 10 years in prison if convicted of planning riots.
And Putin signed not one but two laws aimed at gays.
By the end of the week, it was clear for anyone who held out hope to the contrary that the future in Russia looks more and more repressive. The authorities appeared intent on using all their resources — police, courts, legislature and media — to pursue that end and silence dissent for years to come. The courts have become the most important tool of repression, said Lilia Shevtsova, head of the Russian Domestic Politics Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, and it has become ever more intense since Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012. “We’re seeing the logic of the new regime,” Shevtsova said, “which I would say is based on the new principle of absolute loyalty. You cannot doubt. You cannot criticize, even softly. You need to obey totally.”
The middle-of-the-night arrest last week of Yaroslavl Mayor Yevgeny Urlashov reinforced the message, she said.
He had been a member of the dominant United Russia party, broke ranks and last year won election as the city’s mayor. In fall local elections, he was preparing to support candidates from a new party started by billionaire Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. Then, masked men in camouflage hauled him into headquarters, where he was accused of taking thousands of dollars in bribes. In a matter of hours, close associates accepted plea bargains and agreed to testify against him. A judge ordered him behind bars until Sept. 2. Television reports repeatedly showed stacks of bank notes police said they found in his apartment, and LifeNews, a channel with connections to security forces, broadcast a video that it said showed Urlashov sitting in a restaurant taking a bribe delivered in a folded newspaper. The man’s face was not clearly visible — nor was any money.
In Moscow, a prosecutor asked a court Wednesday to declare Sergei Magnitsky, who died in pretrial detention nearly four years ago, guilty of tax evasion, along with his client, William Browder, who now lives in London.
The latest laws, signed by Putin last week, limit gay rights. One outlaws gay pride rallies and makes it illegal to give minors any information about homosexuality. Another prevents adoptions by same-sex couples. The law says it must prevent “artificial imposition of untraditional sexual behavior and spiritual suffering and stress, which, according to psychologists, are often experienced by children with same-sex parents.”
By Friday it was Navalny’s turn. The 37-year-old anti-corruption blogger has been on trial in the city of Kirov, accused of stealing $500,000 worth of timber from a government-owned company.
Prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov asked the judge for a six-year sentence for Navalny, five years for the middleman and $30,000 fines for both.
Navalny’s lawyer, Vadim Kobzev, explained the charge this way: “Navalny and his defense stay in a hotel in Kirov. . . . A bottle of mineral water at the hotel costs 50 rubles and in a cafe across the street it costs 100 rubles. According to the logic of the prosecution, this is embezzlement. And the waitress might be an accomplice.”
With his shirt sleeves rolled up and his voice urgent, Navalny delivered a closing statement Friday that spoke not only for himself but also for his country.
“If somebody thinks that I or my colleagues will stop doing what we are doing because of this trial or because of the Bolotnaya trial or other trials which are under way all over the country, this would be a big mistake,” he said. “I declare that I and my colleagues will do everything to destroy this feudal order which exists in Russia.”
He said he was glad the trial took place in provincial Kirov, so the whole country could see what was happening there, where people live so poorly despite years of high oil prices feeding fat government budgets. “What have we all got?” he asked. “What have we got from these people? Nothing.”
Only vodka has gotten cheaper, he said. And while citizens drink themselves into degradation, he said, the Federal Security Service generals put their children into good jobs and United Russia officials buy property abroad.
Like many others, Shevtsova believes that the judge has been ordered to convict Navalny. That verdict will only add to the clarity of the regime, she said, if dramatically so. “The new rules are tougher,” she said, “much more assertive. It resembles the pre-Gorbachev Soviet regime. Only now there’s no idea or ideology, only pure loyalty and repression.”