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You're reading: Pussy Riot trial sets tone for Putin presidency

MOSCOW - Whatever verdict a Russian court delivers on Friday for the women from punk band Pussy Riot who taunted the Kremlin from a church altar, President Vladimir Putin has signalled he is no more willing to brook dissent as he begins a third term.

The trial has caused an international outcry and crushed
Western and opposition hopes that former KGB officer Putin might
allow more political freedom and give courts more independence
in the first few months of his new term.

“Essentially, it is not three singers from Pussy Riot who
are on trial here. It is the entire state system of the Russian
Federation which is on trial,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one the
three defendants, said in her closing statement last week.

Tolokonnikova, 22, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Maria
Alyokhina, 24, face up to three years in jail for bursting into
Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in balaclavas, short
skirts and bright tights and belting out a “punk prayer”
protesting against Putin’s close ties with the Orthodox Church.

Judge Marina Syrova is scheduled to start reading the
verdict at 3 p.m. (1100 GMT) on Friday and could hand down a
sentence by the evening on charges of hooliganism motivated by
religious hatred.

The three women, confined to a glass courtroom cage during
the trial, say the Feb. 21 protest was part of a broad movement
against Putin’s decision last year to return to the Kremlin and
extend his effective 12-year rule as president or prime minister
for at least six more years. His new term began on May 7.

They deny intending to offend believers and say they are
victims of a crackdown on dissent in which the Kremlin has
rushed through legislation to tighten its hold on its opponents
following big protests against Putin during the winter.

The trial has exposed Putin to international criticism for
politically motivated prosecutions, including from the U.S.
State Department, human rights groups and pop stars.

U.S. singer Madonna donned a balaclava in a Moscow concert
to show her support for Pussy Riot and stripped to her bra to
show the band name scrawled across her back. Campaign groups
plan new protests in cities such as New York, Paris and London
on Friday.

The 59-year-old president’s opponents say Putin saw the
trial as an opportunity to tarnish the reputation of the whole
opposition, but that he misread public opinion.

“The Kremlin thought the entire opposition would be tarred
by the same brush when they portrayed Pussy Riot in a bad light.
But it hasn’t worked,” opposition leader Alexei Navalny said.

KREMLIN INFLUENCE OVER COURTS

Putin has signalled he is aware of the danger of appearing
intolerant. He told reporters in London that although they did
“nothing good”, they should not be judged too harshly.

He also insisted that it was for the court to decide the
verdict, but few people in Russia believe that.

“The decision, the ruling, is certainly not made in the
courtroom. Like in any prominent political case in Russia, such
rulings are made elsewhere,” said Masha Lipman, an analyst at
the Carnegie Moscow Centre thinktank.

That is bad news for foreign investors who regard an
independent judiciary and rule of law as vital for a safe and
predictable investment environment in Russia.

A sentence that is widely considered too harsh would open
Putin to new criticism in Russia and abroad, might help drive
more disillusioned young Russians into the arms of the
opposition and could radicalise his opponents.

A lenient sentence could win Putin plaudits but would risk
alienating leaders of the influential Russian Orthodox Church,
whose flock includes 70 percent of the population, though far
fewer regularly attend services. It would also do little to
convince foreign governments he has changed tack.

“A tough sentence on Friday would make divisions in society
worse and feed radicalism. A more lenient sentence would seem a
sensible compromise, but it would still not remove the damage
that has already been done to Russian society and the Kremlin,”
said former Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky.

A liberal Russian magazine, the New Times, said the negative
publicity for Putin had been worse even than during the five-day
war with Georgia in 2008, the arrest of wealthy businessman
Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 and the forced break-up of his oil
company, Yukos, after he fell out with the president.

“Neither the war in Georgia … nor the expropriation of
Yukos and he second sentence blatantly ordered up against
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, nor even Putin’s return to the Kremlin has
done as much damage to his image in the civilised world as this
trial,” it said.

NO IMPACT ON POLICY

Despite any damage to his image and foreign criticism, Putin
is unlikely to change course. He won almost two-thirds of votes
in the March 4 presidential election and can still count on a
lot of support in Russia’s provinces.

Kremlin sources say anti-Western rhetoric swelled his
support on March 4, and fine words about democracy matter much
less to Russian voters than the nation’s leader showing a firm
hand, sounding tough and standing up to foreign powers.

“Either you show weakness and you show that you are not
confident, and then you are facing a risk of weakening even
further – or you continue to crack down,” Lipman said. “There is
no way to stop on the path of cracking down and of repression.”

The Kremlin has denied launching a crackdown or persecuting
opponents and businessmen who criticise Putin.

His first 100 days in office included resisting Western
efforts to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the passage
of laws to tighten control of the Internet, push up fines for
protesters and increase checks on foreign-funded lobby groups.

The homes of some protest organisers have been searched, and
state investigators have pressed theft charges against one
opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, and are investigating
another, Gennady Gudkov, over his business activities.

While many Russians have little sympathy with the mainly
middle-class protesters who have taken to the streets against
Putin in big cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg, anger over
the treatment of Pussy Riot could reinvigorate a protest
movement that had stuttered in recent months after attracting
large crowds in the winter.

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