Russia Watch: Moscow’s Friday the Thirteenth – Just a mid-summer horror movie?

While many Russians were relaxing at the dacha or lolling on beaches overseas, back home in Moscow the air conditioning was humming around the clock in the Duma building.

After eight weeks of hard work, the parliamentary session ended on Friday — Friday the13th.

Indeed, as regards to political freedom, the Duma session looks like a Moscow sequel to Hollywood’s notorious slasher movies.

Russia’s lower house passed bills that:

– Force private groups that receive foreign donations to declare themselves “foreign agents.”

– Set up an internet control system for bureaucrats to shut down “offensive” websites.

– Re-criminalizes slander laws, setting big fines and jail sentences.

– Dramatically hike 15-fold the fines for organizing ‘illegal’ rallies.

But Moscow’s slashing at freedom is not a Hollywood import.

This summer, the Kremlin’s political strategy, it seems, is to bring back the fear.

In concert with the legislative crackdown, Russian police and courts are implementing parallel crackdowns.

Starting with the protests that surrounded the May 7 inauguration of Vladimir Putin to a third term as President, police have jailed a dozen protesters and have raided homes and offices of top opposition leaders, often seizing computers and cash. Two activists whose apartments were raided have applied for political asylum in Western Europe, one in Germany and one in the Netherlands.

Email accounts have been hacked, apparently in attempts to find evidence of wrong-doing. As interrogation of opposition leaders stretch through the summer, analysts predict ‘show trials’ this fall.

Separately, prosecutors plan to try on July 20 three young women who conducted a lightning anti-Putin protest at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral last February. The women, who have been in jail since March, have been adopted by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience. Members of a punk band known as Pussy Riot, the women are drawing international attention to the tightening alliance between the Kremlin and Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy.

Targeting opposition members of the Duma, government harassment forced one opposition Duma deputy to sell his family business at a fire sale price. Another member of parliament has lost his parliamentary immunity over a shoving incident at a protest.

As many here see it, Russia’s new, conservative legislation was approved by a parliament that is handicapped by a shaky mandate. The conduct of parliamentary elections last December prompted widespread allegations of fraud and triggered the start of massive street demonstrations.

Since then, the Kremlin has targeted Golos, a clean elections groups supported largely by European and American donations. Because of this support, Golos will now have to declare itself a ‘foreign agent,’ a phrase that in Russia is virtually synonymous with “spy.”

In open societies, citizens fund their own non-governmental organizations.

But Russian businessmen know that if they give money to groups unpopular with the Kremlin, they run very real risks of government reprisals. Last winter, a Russian financier pioneered an internet system of paying for protest equipment – loudspeakers and platforms – through thousands of micro donations. Within weeks, he was tried on an old, unrelated charge, quickly convicted, and jailed.

The attacks on non-governmental groups prompted, Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader, to write on his LiveJournal blog: “Putin’s main goal is to create an atmosphere of spy mania and hatred and to start with witch hunts.”

“Most of all,” Nemtsov wrote, “the regime wants to silence people who threaten the pillars of Putinism: falsification, corruption and police tyranny. That’s why it especially hates the association Golos, which caught it stealing our votes red-handed; Amnesty International, which has exposed unjust rulings; and Transparency International, which has rated corruption in Putin’s Russia at the level of an African country.”

Vladimir Ryzhkov, another opposition leader, wrote last week, “This is the most ruthless attack the authorities here have waged against NGOs in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

With muscular, authoritarian laws in place, the question is: will Mr. Putin use them?

Chris Weafer, a political analyst with Troika, tells me he believes the Russian president is moving proactively, storing up legal weapons to use when the oil price drops and the next economic downturn hits.

But the government’s scary, Friday the 13th moves seem out of step with Moscow’s mood this summer.

Civic engagement is the trend.

In the aftermath of terrible floods that killed more than 170 people in Southern Russia last week, hundreds of young Muscovites spontaneously gathered near Moscow State University to pack trucks donated relief goods. Governmental involvement seemed minimal.

Similarly, on Saturdays and Sundays, as many as 100,000 Muscovites crowd the newly-renovated Gorky Park, taking yoga classes, listening to lectures, dancing to salsa music, and watching outdoor movies. The scene could be Berlin, Paris or London.

Indeed, public opinion polls indicate that most Muscovites are not on the same wave length as their president. An Associated Press-Gfk poll released this month found that 60 percent of Russians favor President Putin. In Moscow, that number falls to 38 percent.

To shore up defenses, the city government is giving $9 million in bonuses to police who controlled the May crowds protesting Mr. Putin’s inauguration. The dozen policemen who were injured are to receive free apartments.

It remains to be seen if Moscow’s Friday the 13th is just another bad summer movie. Or if it sets the stage for real horrors to come.


(Photo: Sergey Kukota/



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.