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How Vladimir Putin Uses Dissent To Tighten His Grip On Power

Monday's arrests are just the latest of a series of anti-government crackdowns.

14/06/2017 2:48 PM AEST | Updated 15/06/2017 9:57 AM AEST
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Police forcibly detained more than 1,000 protesters during unauthorised anti-corruption rallies in Russia on its national patriotic holiday.

Key figure of opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Alexei Navalny, has been sentenced to 30 days in jail for instigating anti-government protests just one day after his arrest, in a telling but unsurprising manifestation of Russian democracy.

More than 1,000 anti-Kremlin campaigners, many of them school children, were forcibly arrested by Russian authorities amid nation-wide protests on Monday.

Despite harsh anti-protest laws and thinly veiled threats by authorities in the lead up to the unsanctioned rallies, thousands gathered in more than 100 cities across the country to protest government corruption and the dismantling of democratic freedoms.

In Moscow, riot police kicked, shoved and beat demonstrators with batons as the youth-dominated crowd converged near the Kremlin chanting "Russia without Putin" and "Putin is a thief".

According to the independent Russian organisation, OVD-Info, 825 people were arrested in the nation's capital alone. Hundreds more were held in St Petersburg and other cities.

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Russian riot police brandished batons and released pepper spray onto thousands of protestors in Moscow on Monday.

Photos and videos taken at the rallies show young teenagers being forcibly dragged away by armoured riot police.

It is the single largest crackdown on government opposition in Russia in the past five years, but it is certainly not the first time Vladimir Putin has quashed opposition to his government -- and is unlikely to be the last.

A Groundswell of Opposition

Navalny, a well-known vocal critic of President Putin, was arrested outside his home on Monday before he had even arrived at Monday's protests.

"Alexei was detained in the entrance hall of our building. He asked me to tell you that the plans (for the protest) are unchanged." his wife Yulia tweeted.

Police vans were seen leaving his apartment building, and the electricity to his office was cut at around the same, temporarily bringing down a live feed of the nationwide protests.

Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters
Anti-Kremlin campaigner Alexei Navalny during his court hearing in Moscow on Monday. He was sentenced to 30 days behind bars for repeatedly organising "unsanctioned" protests.

It is the second time so far this year Navalny has faced jail for his anti-Putin campaign. He was sentenced to 15 days behind bars for protests he orchestrated in March, which also saw more than 1,000 arrested.

Before his March sentencing, he tweeted a defiant selfie with the words: "The time will come when we will have them on trial (honestly)."

Navalny has harnessed social media to garner support and organise rallies. The March protests were prompted by a video, published via Navalny's popular blog, accusing the Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, of large-scale corruption and money laundering.

Navalny claims that Medvedev, who was also Russia's President from 2008 to 2012 (during which time Putin was Prime Minister), uses a network of charities run by associates to hide his assets, which include mansions, yachts and a vineyard.

Navalny has announced his intention to run against Vladimir Putin in the 2018 Presidential elections. The move is seen as largely symbolic, as he is ineligible to run due to a felony conviction and, according to opinion polls, would win only a tiny portion of the votes in Russia's government-controlled media landscape.

While Navalny's chances of being allowed to run -- let alone winning -- seem far-fetched, many observers see the scale of the latest protests as the sign of a new groundswell of opposition to strongman Putin.

Stifling Dissent

But with every wave of dissent, the screws of power are wound a little tighter.

Several Russian cities over the weekend managed to get approval for their anti-government protests, but these were heavily restricted and largely relegated to the back blocks, hidden from public view.

Government influence over the country's mainstream media was evident in the national coverage of the recent protests.

While the Internet lit up with images of riot police hauling away people at random as tens of thousands protested, the state's flagship evening news show, Vremya, relegated the protests to item nine out of 10 on their bulletin and reported that less than 2,000 people showed up in Moscow.

Then there are the increasing restrictions on public expression.

During the mass protests of 2011 and 2012, the Russian government dramatically increased the penalties for "unsanctioned protests". The anti-protest bill, which Putin signed into law days before a huge planned protest, meant any public gathering had to be sanctioned by the state, and offenders could face fines of up to 300,000 roubles -- more than the average annual income.

Russia drew international condemnation in 2014 when it introduced anti-gay propaganda laws, allegedly designed to stop children accessing material about "non-traditional sexual relations". The move was seen by many as an attempt to crack down on dissent and stem the rise of modern Western values.

In July 2013, Navalny was sentenced to five years for embezzlement -- charges which were widely speculated at the time to be politically motivated. He had his sentenced overturned by the Russian Supreme Court on the basis that he wasn't given a fair trial, but he was again convicted in a retrial in 2017.

The fierce Kremlin critic has repeatedly said that the charges were trumped-up and an attempt to prevent him from running for the Presidency in 2018 -- as anyone convicted of a felony is ineligible to run.

Then there are the unexplained suspicious deaths of key figures of opposition.

In 2015, Russian liberal politician Boris Nemtsov was shot four times in the back by an unknown assailant. Putin said he would take "personal control" of the investigation into his murder, but his killer has never been found.

Just last year, a UK public inquiry into the suspicious death of Alexander Litvinenko concluded there was a "strong possibility" that the former Russian spy was murdered by personal order of Vladimir Putin. Litvinenko was poisoned by two Russian agents, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, in November 2006, having fled Russia after falling out with the President.

Reuters Photographer / Reuters
Investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot at point blank range in her apartment building lift.

Prominent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya -- who wrote a book accusing Putin of turning Russia into a police state -- was shot at point blank range in her apartment building lift in 2006. Five men were convicted of the contract killing, but those who paid for her murder were never found. Two years earlier, she nearly died after being poisoned on a plane. She was on route to northern Russia to report on the Beslan massacre -- widely seen as a huge failing of the Russian government.

But while becoming a public opponent of the Kremlin may be a risky undertaking in Russia, in a country of 144 million people spanning 11 time zones, fear and repression is not enough to maintain a steady grasp on leadership.

A Populist Dictatorship

Support for murderous Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and allegations of interference in the elections of several heads of state, including the 2016 election of U.S. President Donald Trump, have led to widespread international condemnation of Putin. In 2014, Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine led to the introduction of sanctions by the United States, the EU and other Western countries.

These controversial foreign policy decisions, combined with regressive social policies at home -- including the watering down of domestic violence laws and a 2013 law banning the dissemination of LGBTQ "propaganda" -- have created an international image of Putin as a brutal dictator.

But while his regressive policies and interference in international affairs may earn him the ire of foreign powers, on home soil Putin enjoys vast popular support. In fact, 81 percent of the population support him -- higher than almost any other democratically elected Western leader.

While the West may chuckle at a 64-year-old riding topless through Siberia on a horse, Russians see a strong, independent and virile leader. In fact, it is this marketing campaign which has helped him become a cultural icon -- an image of the ultimate Russian male.

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Putin has cultivated an image as a virile and charismatic strongman.

Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was seen as a pawn of the United States. He was also a source of embarrassment to the Russian people due to frequent drunken episodes -- including one where he used the balding head of the President of Kyrgyzstan as a percussive instrument, and another where he attempted to hail a taxi outside the White House guest house in his underwear.

For those who had lived through Soviet Russia -- where everyone earned the same and the only choice in clothes was the size -- giving up certain personal freedoms, such as the right to protest, appears a small price to pay in exchange for a strong, coherent government and a wave of economic growth brought about by oil and gas.

Putin's annexation of Crimea has cemented his popularity in recent years, even as dissent has grown from figures such as Navalny.

It is this popularity which clears the way for Putin to silence dissence, allegedly commit large-scale electoral fraud and ride out accusations of corruption at the highest levels -- and which will likely see him hold his grip on power for several years to come.

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