Now, however, the authorities are beginning to resort to force.
On May 6, protesters en route to a lawful demonstration in Bolotny Square in central Moscow were stopped by a wall of heavily armed riot police. When the pressure of the crowd pushed the marchers against police lines, the police attacked with batons, and some demonstrators responded by throwing stones. In the resulting brawl, scores of demonstrators were beaten and 600 persons were detained. Twelve are now under arrest, and two others have been ordered not to travel.
On June 11, searches were carried out at the homes of opposition leaders, including Navalny, Yashin, Udaltsov, and Nemtsov. Their computers and flash drives were confiscated without being inventoried, which means they can now be doctored.
Putin has changed the law to include stiff fines for participating in unsanctioned rallies. The top fine was increased by a factor of 150, to 300,000 rubles ($9,200). An average monthly salary in Russia is 24,000 rubles ($740). At the same time, the monthly Sovershenno Sekretno reports, Putin has issued orders to investigate businessmen who have donated money to the opposition. They reportedly can expect tax audits and further investigations in the near future.
Putin almost certainly hopes that the challenge he faces can be contained, but attempts to suppress the demonstrations are likely to be ineffective. After twelve years of de facto one-man rule (including Medvedev’s term as president), Putin’s aspiration to rule for life is leading to political crisis, economic collapse, and the rise of nationalistic extremism, raising questions about whether the regime can survive.
The political crisis is the result of the regime’s steady loss of legitimacy. Officially, Putin received 63.8 percent of the vote for president. A count carried out by Golos, a vote-monitoring organization, showed the true figure to be 50.75 percent. But even without falsification, the election was a sham. Potential challengers were eliminated in advance. The state bureaucracy was put at the disposal of the Putin campaign, and Putin monopolized television. The result is that the population does not take the results of the election seriously.
In an attempt to defuse the first mass protests, Medvedev introduced a number of reforms, but they were quickly emasculated. The most important of them is the direct election of governors. To run, however, a candidate must collect signatures from 5 to 10 percent of regional legislators, which, in jurisdictions where the parliaments are dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, is a serious obstacle for candidates of other parties. Medvedev also replaced many governors at the last minute. This means that for the next four or five years many regions, including some of the most independent-minded, will not hold elections for governors. In the end, only four governors out of 83 will be elected in the first gubernatorial elections, on October 14.
A new law gives legal status to opposition parties. But electoral coalitions are prohibited, so the new parties will not be able to create a unified opposition. On April 17, Medvedev signed a decree establishing Public Television of Russia, which was supposed to be independent of government control. The director general, however, will be appointed by Putin.