MOSCOW – While all eyes are turned to Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has quietly enacted laws that opponents say will strengthen his hand in a battle against dissent in Russia.
Putin signed laws Monday envisaging tougher punishment for people involved in riots and imposing life sentences for various “terrorist” crimes. He also approved tighter controls on bloggers, some of whom have emerged as opposition leaders and have used the Internet to criticize Putin and arrange protests.
“All this tightening will be applied only for political ends,” said Dmitry Gudkov, a member of parliament who helped organize rallies against Putin in the winter of 2011-12.
The moves underline the Kremlin’s concern that the unrest in Ukraine, where demonstrations ousted the Moscow-backed president, might encourage protests in Russia, even though the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine has helped push Putin’s ratings to their highest level since late 2010.
The new measures were announced hours before a few hundred people gathered on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square to mark the second anniversary of a major rally there that was broken up by riot police on the eve of Putin’s inauguration for a third term.
Dmitry Agranovsky, a lawyer for defendants in what became known as the Bolotnaya trial following the protest two years ago, said Kremlin fears of a spillover from the uprising in Kiev meant an example had been made of his clients.
Seven received prison terms of up to four years although the Kremlin denies using the courts for political ends and dismisses talk of a clampdown on the opposition.
“Our defense strategy is to draw a clear line between Bolotnaya and the protests in Kiev,” Agranovsky said Tuesday. “We cannot be punished for what happened in Kiev.”
The laws signed by Putin, and posted on Russia’s official legal information website, envisage prison terms of eight to 15 years for organizing “mass riots accompanied by violence, pogroms, arson, destruction of property, use of weapons, explosive devices, explosive and poisonous substances.”
They introduce prison terms of up to 10 years and fines for taking part in “training” with the purpose of staging mass riots, as well as prison sentences for recruiting people for “extremist activity.”
The laws also expand the powers of the Federal Security Service, a KGB successor that Putin once led.
The legislation also raised to life imprisonment the maximum penalty for crimes such as organizing and financing terrorism, and being linked to or “performing other terrorist activity.”
The opposition has been further sidelined during the Ukraine crisis because criticizing the annexation of Crimea would win almost no popular support in Russia.
Some of the staunchest Kremlin critics, including leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov, echo the Kremlin’s line that the Kiev protests that ousted the president were staged by “fascists.”
Only a small number of opposition leaders have voiced any criticism of Putin’s stance on Ukraine, including Gudkov, who has said taking over Crimea will drain funds from state coffers.
“Putin has rallied Russians behind him but this was his last trump card in a dangerous game,” Gudkov said. “For now people may focus on hating ‘fascists’ in Kiev, but Crimea will cost citizens dear in the end and the economy is already in trouble.”
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