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Stalinist tactics on Russian dissent could stumble in Internet era

August 10, 2012 |  5:00 am

Russia punk rock trio

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny faces charges of embezzlement, accusations of inciting violence in the Caucasus and the threat of having his law license revoked. A female punk rock trio awaits sentencing for appealing to the Virgin Mary to throw President Vladimir Putin out of office. And Putin's allies in parliament recently passed laws punishing demonstrators and branding civil rights groups with overseas supporters "foreign agents."

GlobalFocusThe crackdown on dissent in recent weeks has Kremlin watchers making comparisons with Josef Stalin's paranoia-driven repressions in the early Soviet era for their power to scare opponents into silent submission.

But the politics of fear may not work so reliably, Russia analysts say, in the age of the Internet and toppled authoritarian regimes across the Middle East. And, the experts say, Putin and his hierarchy may be underestimating the potential for global cultural stars and social media to incite a backlash against their efforts to stifle dissent.

The three feminist rockers fell afoul of Putin's regime when they belted out a "punk prayer" at a Moscow cathedral in February that ended with a heavenly appeal to "throw out Putin." They were charged with hooliganism and inciting religious hatred, prosecuted in what many called a show trial this week and are awaiting an Aug. 17 verdict widely expected to send them to prison for at least three years.

Superstar Madonna, in Russia for a concert tour, showed her solidarity with the jailed rockers by sporting their signature black ski mask at a performance Tuesday and scrawling the group's name across her bare back. Sting, Yoko Ono, Pete Townsend of the Who and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant also have appealed for the trio's release in a rising outcry against free-speech infringements.

The opposition in Russia may look weak now, but "there's a potential spark out there," said Paul Gregory, a Russian scholar at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

"Putin clearly watched with some trepidation as the 'Arab Spring' unfolded," Gregory said of the swift spread of uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria last year. Just imagine, he said, if something were to happen to one of the twentysomething rockers while in prison, like a suspicious death or suicide.

"I don't want to suggest something like this, but it's the kind of thing that could bring millions of people out on the streets," he said. "The people who can help, believe it or not, are those in the artistic community, like Madonna. The Kremlin is scared to death of her. These artists can't be written off as foreign agents, and they speak to millions and millions of Russians."

Putin's strategy throughout his 12 years in high office has been to cast challenges to his authority as bankrolled by foreign enemies, and it has been successful in portraying him as a strong leader and defender of Russian sovereignty in the provinces, said Andrew Weiss, director of the Rand Center for Russia and Eurasia and a former National Security Council official during the Clinton administration.

But blaming foreigners for the 100,000-strong protest in Moscow after December's tainted parliamentary elections doesn't play as well with the educated, technology-savvy populations of Russia's biggest cities, Weiss said.

The unprecedented eruption of anti-Putin protesters shocked the Kremlin and spurred its Security Council chief, former KGB official Nikolai Patrushev, to call for "reasonable regulation" of the Internet and social media to prevent their use by "criminals and terrorist groups."

"There may be people in the Russian establishment who want to block Facebook and Twitter, but I doubt they could pull it off," Weiss said. He sees a leadership that is out of touch with the wired generation of Russians with no memory of the Soviet era, when the communist government could control movement and access to information.

Laws that criminalize public assembly and the defamation of officials are acceptable to Russian peasants and workers in the provincial rust belt cities, he said. But it remains to be seen how long tactics that were refined decades ago will succeed in stifling dissent, Weiss said.

Navalny, the 36-year-old lawyer whose disjointed political alliance failed to get much traction against Putin's United Russia last year, has reacted to the criminal charges and moves to undermine his credibility with regular postings on the blog of his nonprofit Endowment for Fighting Corruption. The posts have included reports of his discovery this week of listening devices embedded throughout his Moscow apartment.

"They're using a bazooka to shoot at a mouse," Weiss said of the Kremlin's excessive moves against the opposition. "The big question is how effective these steps will be in tamping down what Putin and his top officials should be worried about."

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Photo: Russian jail matrons escort punk group members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, top, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina into a Moscow court where their trial concluded Wednesday. Credit: Sergei Chirikov / European Pressphoto Agency