On February 24, while Ukrainian protesters were still reveling in their victory over corrupt pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, eight Russians stood in a Moscow courtroom to hear their sentences in a blatant show trial stemming from the last of Moscow’s massive street protests two years ago. Seven men convicted on trumped-up charges of rioting and assaulting police officers during a May 6, 2012, march toward Bolotnaya Square—their crimes, by all credible accounts, consisting of either minor acts of resistance to rampant police brutality, or mere presence at the rally—received sentences of two and a half to four years in a penal colony; the lone female defendant got a suspended sentence.
Defending this outcome in a radio interview the next day, government lawyer Mikhail Barshchevsky invoked events in Ukraine, where, he claimed, the government fell because it failed to properly back up its police forces. The harsh sentences in the Bolotnaya case, Barshchevsky argued, had less to do with the defendants themselves than with sending a “message” from the state to the security services, the siloviki: “We’ve got your back.” It is not too much of a stretch to suppose that the message was also directed to anyone harboring fantasies of a Russian version of the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square and the site of the protests that toppled the Yanukovych regime: Don’t try this at home, kids.
While the Russian opposition viewed the revolution in Kiev as a source of both envy and inspiration, the Kremlin’s nervous response to these events was undoubtedly driven by domestic as well as international concerns. It is important to keep in mind that an earlier wave of Maidan demonstrations—the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, which forced the reversal of an election stolen by Yanukovych—had a great deal to do with shaping Vladimir Putin’s mindset. Apparently genuinely convinced that the protests were the work of Western and particularly American plotting, Putin became obsessed with the “orange threat” at home. In Kremlin propaganda, “orange”—meaning “foreign-backed subversive”—became a common slur against the liberal opposition, particularly in 2011-2012 when the opposition actually managed to bring almost Maidan-sized crowds into Moscow’s streets and squares.
A new Maidan triumph in Ukraine surely ranked among Putin’s worst nightmares. That alone seems to portend stepped-up repression against what’s left of independent politics, civic life, and media in Russia.
The sentences handed down to the Bolotnaya defendants are one likely sign of such a crackdown. Somewhat paradoxically, the case also galvanized some of the largest protest rallies Moscow has seen in the past two years, with thousands gathering outside the courtroom; one demonstrator wore a Putin mask and held a sign that read, “Let’s lock up everyone!” But it also generated the biggest wave of detentions since the Bolotnaya events: 230 peaceful demonstrators were dragged into police vans on the morning of February 24 outside the courthouse where the sentencing took place; more than 400 were detained at rallies in downtown Moscow later that afternoon. Among those arrested and released were the two recently amnestied Pussy Riot activists, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina.
Several detainees, including former governor and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and blogger, activist, and recent Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny, received jail sentences of 7 to 10 days; Navalny was found guilty of resisting arrest despite a video, and testimony from two eyewitnesses, contradicting the charge. (After his release, Navalny was placed under house arrest in an unrelated, politically driven embezzlement case for which he is now awaiting trial; in a particularly blatant attempt to muzzle the activist, he has been banned from the Internet until April 28.)
The Ukraine crisis almost certainly provided the impetus for new measures against nongovernmental organizations—already required, under controversial 2012 legislation, to identify themselves as foreign agents and include a disclaimer to that effect in all their published materials if they receive any funding from abroad. On February 24, Putin signed an insta-law, enacted by his puppet parliament, expanding the government’s power to harass NGOs with investigations and surprise inspections to root out noncompliance with various rules, regulations, and prior official orders. A simple complaint of “extremism” or other misconduct brought by any entity—a government agency, a prosecutor’s office, a citizens’ group, or a private individual—will now trigger such scrutiny.