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Putin squeezes opposition ever harder

Once seen as a critical test for the opposition, regional elections this weekend are now seen as irrelevant.

Russians in a number of regions go the polls on Sunday to elect governors, mayors and provincial legislatures in what was once seen as a critical test for the opposition. Its leaders had hoped at least some victories would provide a political foothold to harness the public displeasure with Vladimir Putin’s return as president that prompted mass protests in December.

That’s not going to happen thanks to a campaign by the authorities to strong-arm, cajole and undermine opposition candidates that has forced them back into the political margin.

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One of the candidates became a prominent opposition leader by launching a movement to stop the felling of parkland trees outside Moscow to make way for a highway. Now running for mayor of her suburb, Yevgenia Chirikova says she is the victim of a plot to stop her from winning. The 35-year-old businesswoman is running third, behind the incumbent and a heavy metal rocker with Kremlin ties who says he would cut down the forest because it’s “dirty.” He’s accused the United States of bankrolling the opposition, a common claim by officials.

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While it’s undeniable that the protests reflected a change among many who were frustrated and humiliated by the Kremlin’s authoritarianism, they didn’t mean the country had irrevocably changed.

Making bold proclamations to that effect is the opposition’s job. Others would be well-advised to heed an unchanging pattern in Putin’s governance since his rise to power a dozen years ago.

The president has systematically consolidated his power from the very beginning through trial and error. In the first years of his rule, he undertook to neutralize rivals by exiling business oligarchs, shutting down television channels and watering down governors’ vast political powers. The process was taken step-by-step, each move made after judging the reaction to previous incremental advances.

Today is no different. After having appeared to embolden his critics during his spring re-election campaign with apparent concessions such as allowing Russians some direct participation in this week’s elections, Putin began cracking down again even before he was sworn in for a third term last May.

Police have hounded opposition leaders by searching their homes and threatening lawsuits, courts have put protesters on trial and parliament has enacted legislation to further limit free speech by enabling the authorities to shut down internet sites and forcing civil society groups receiving foreign funding to declare themselves foreign agents.

Nothing reflected Putin’s steadfast ruthlessness better than the Pussy Riot trial. Ignoring withering international condemnation many times in the past, he has emerged with ever greater control over the levers of power as well as the oil and gas and other industry that has fuelled Russia’s global resurgence.

This week’s release of a Pussy Riot member illustrates the state’s exercise of arbitrary power. The three women were jailed on charges of inciting religious hatred by cavorting in Moscow’s central cathedral, in a country in which church and state are formally separate.

Now one prisoner’s sentence has been suspended because apparently security guards seized her before she had time to participate in a “punk prayer” criticizing the president. As if that couldn’t have been established during their initial trial. And as if that matters in any case because in fact none of the women sang on the church’s alter: the words and music on the video that made them famous were added only afterward.

The release reflects the Kremlin’s constant fine-tuning of responses to public and foreign opinion, the main goal of which is always to maintain or increase its hold on power.

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Now parliament is considering a new bill that would make blasphemy a criminal offense, the latest indication the culture war Putin has overseen to split society is part of a long-term strategy. He contributed to it this week by saying that he regularly follows public opinion polls in order to ensure he understands the opinions of “not just the intelligentsia that I respect, but also the native Russians.”

Such nationalistic fantasy that pits us true Russians against a group of malevolent “others” that lumps together intellectuals, opposition leaders and foreigners is important for generating support when reform to address the country’s widespread poverty, corruption and mounting predictions of economic downturn is impossible because the current system is constructed that way for Putin’s exercise of power.

The lack of popular support makes it also inherently unstable. The slightest challenge, in regional elections, street protests or elsewhere, is taken to be an existential threat because the Kremlin fears it will snowball into something larger. That’s why it’s taken no chances over this week’s elections by making them irrelevant.

Officials may take heart in the latest poll by the independent Levada Center, which shows public support for protests has sunk from 44 percent in December to 39 percent.

Now the latest hope for change lies in the opposition’s process to form a co-called coordinating council. A varied and often infighting group of figures — although not all the main ones — is taking part in debates that will culminate in online voting next week. It may help to one day focus a real challenge to Putin’s ever-tighter grip on power.