As Putin Greets Investors, Kremlin Wages Pre-Vote Crackdown
(Bloomberg) -- As President Vladimir Putin rolls out the red carpet for foreign investors at his flagship forum in St. Petersburg, the Kremlin is continuing a sweeping crackdown on political opponents within Russia ahead of key parliamentary elections.
Police this week detained opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov, once a member of parliament, and Andrey Pivovarov, former executive director of Open Russia, a now disbanded civil society group financed by exiled tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Pivovarov was hauled off a plane as it was about to leave St. Petersburg for Warsaw, while Gudkov was held for 48 hours before being released late Thursday.
The authorities’ war on dissent since opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s imprisonment in February has effectively wiped out organized networks of anti-Putin activists. Individual critics are now being caught up in the most aggressive backlash in years amid a slump in support for the ruling United Russia party before September’s elections.
The confrontation in neighboring Belarus between President Alexander Lukashenko and pro-democracy protesters also acts as an example of the potential for upheaval.
There’s a “harsh operation” under way against Putin’s opponents, said Sergei Markov, head of the Institute of Political Studies in Moscow, who’s a political consultant to the Kremlin. “If the authorities have a strong enough will and finish the purge, there won’t be any mass protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg like in Belarus. There won’t be anyone to organize them.”
Putin on Friday signed into law a hastily passed provision that bans people involved in groups deemed by courts to be “extremist” from running for office. Navalny’s anti-corruption foundations and election campaign offices suspended their activities after prosecutors officially put them in that category in April, exposing supporters and staff to potential imprisonment.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday denied any crackdown is underway, saying, “it’s the part of the opposition that isn’t friendly with the law that gets in the way of development.”
Independent media haven’t been spared. The VTimes business news website announced Thursday it was closing because of “the risk of criminal prosecution” of employees after Russian officials last month labeled it a “foreign agent.” The Meduza news site was similarly compelled to post a “foreign agent” label on every article it publishes or face prosecution, prompting advertisers to flee.
United Russia, which holds a two-thirds majority in the lower house of parliament, has seen its public support slide to the lowest since mid-2013 after years of falling incomes. Its popularity rating was just 27% in an opinion poll published in March by the independent Levada Center.
Pivovarov, who faces up to six years in prison on allegations of violating a law on undesirable organizations, was ordered held in custody for two months by a court in Krasnodar, southern Russia, on Wednesday. He said last week he was terminating Open Russia’s activities due to legal amendments targeting the organization.
Gudkov, who plans to run in the elections, is under investigation on accusations he owes unpaid rent for a commercial space from 2015 to 2017. He was released from detention without charge, the state-run Tass news service reported, citing the Interior Ministry.
“They’re going to go after people one or two at a time to frighten everyone,” Navalny said in a statement on his Instagram account.
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