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Putin’s Pussy Riot dominates summer

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Aug. 2, 2012, 10:19 p.m. | Op-ed — by James Brooke

James Brooke
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James Brooke writes:  In Moscow’s Political Summer Olympics, President Vladimir Putin is on track this week to win the gold in a demanding event: Making Martyrs for the Opposition.

After Putin’s election in March and his inauguration in May, protest crowds dwindled and a feeling of hopelessness settled over Russia’s democratic movement.

But now, the biggest chants at rallies are: Svobodu Pussy Riot! Free Pussy Riot!

Protesters hold photos of three young women jailed for conducting a protest with this feminist punk group, a band virtually unknown six months ago.

The women, two of them mothers of small children, are putting very human – and very appealing faces – on the anti-Putin movement. Every morning this week, Russia’s new poster girls for dissent appear in court, looking a mite bewildered as they go on trial for hooliganism.

Last Feb. 21, they donned colorful balaclavas and short jumpers and staged a raucous – some say profane — one-minute punk prayer against Putin near the central altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.

Public opinion, as tracked in polls, was overwhelmingly negative.

If the Kremlin had been clever, the women would have been fined and sentenced to 100 days labor – pulling weeds from the Kremlin lawns or scraping up candle wax in Orthodox churches.

But, five months later, the three women — Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich — are still in jail.

A judge has ordered them confined until next January. This week, they are on trial on charges that could bring sentences up to seven years. A guilty verdict is expected on Friday.

“Let the girls go!” chant their supporters outside a Moscow courthouse.

But to help Putin lock down a gold medal for Opposition Martyr Making, Russian prosecutors brought charges July 31 against Alexei Navalny, the ruggedly handsome 36-year-old opposition leader.

If convicted on the embezzlement charges, as expected, Navalny could be sentenced to 10 years in jail.
On one level, Putin, a longtime KGB officer, is trying to reassert authoritarian controls on Russia. Some say he is exploiting a wedge issue, hoping to divide his liberal and nationalist opponents. But, when a viewer watches this political drama with the sound off, the warfare looks generational. Putin, who turns 60 in October, seems to be trying to stop the march of time.

Perhaps aware of this, Russia’s president apparently smoothed his facial lines last year with botox. On Tuesday, fresh from signing a new law allowing tighter Internet controls, he spent the day surrounded by young people at Lake Seliger, an annual summer camp for ambitious pro-Kremlin youth. But the televised images were not all that convincing, especially of the president amiably fielding a lunch invitation from a beautiful young woman planted in the crowd.

It reminded me of Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War era U.S. president, showing his affection for college students by attending graduation ceremonies at West Point, the United States Military Academy.
Meanwhile, Putin’s martyr making machinery clanks forward.

Apparently, he seems to think the only supporters of the imprisoned punk feminists are the usual suspects: Amnesty International, the State Department, the British rocker Sting, The New York Times op-ed contributors, and demonstrators outside the Russian embassy in Washington.

But, more concerning to the Kremlin, the tide of Russian public opinion has shifted. People tell pollsters that the punishment does not fit the crime. Russia’s blogosphere talks about show trials.

In the latest Levada poll of Russians, 43 percent consider jail terms of two to seven years as disproportionate. Only 17 percent sympathize with the demands of top church leaders for harsh punishment against the Pussy Riot protesters. Putin’s KGB training may cloud his understanding of this next point. Jail time is often a stop along the way to an ultimately successful political career. Look around the world and you will see that today’s leaders were often yesterday’s rebels.

Before. Putin pushes Russia into an ideological winter, he might want to ponder the political histories of some of the world leaders he rubs shoulders with.

To the south, Recep Erdogan, now prime minister of Turkey, spent six months in prison in 1999 for reciting an Islamist poem. Nearby, Mohamed Morsi, now prime minister of Egypt, spent eight months in jail in 2008 for supporting independent judges.

In Mr. Putin’s peer group – the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – two of the five leaders have done jail time.

Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, spent 10 years in prison for anti-apartheid activity in the early 1960s.

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, was briefly, in today’s language, a terrorist. From 1968 to 1969, she led a cell of the Revolutionary Armed Vanguard Palmares, a Marxist urban guerrilla group. Rousseff was arrested while carrying a pistol. She was tortured and then jailed for three years. Carlos Minc, one of her comrades in arms from Revolutionary Armed Vanguard days, was, until recently, Brazil’s Minister of Environment.

So, to take the long view, it’s not inconceivable that 20 years from now, one of my successors will be sitting in Moscow banging out a story about President Navalny, aged 56, naming Duma Deputy Tolokonnikova, aged 43, to be his minister of health.

With an eye to the future, Russia’s prosecutors and prison guards might read a little modern world history – and treat their new political prisoners with respect.

James Brooke is Voice of America Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. This opinion piece originally appeared here: http://blogs.voanews.com/russia-watch/2012/08/01/russias-political-summer-olympics-putin-x-pussy-riot/

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