Prominent Russian opposition leaders must face police interrogation at the same time as a planned protest is to go ahead. Observers say this is the wrong signal to send to Russia's citizens.
Just before new protests against Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin, investigators on Monday searched the homes of about a dozen opposition leaders. Authorities say these included the blogger Alexei Navalny, the leader of the Left Front, Sergei Udaltsov, and Ilya Yashin of the Solidarnost movement. The homes of former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov and TV presenter Kseniya Sobchak, who had joined the protest movement after the disputed election in December, were searched, according to opposition sources.
The authorities say they are investigating in the wake of the so-called "March of Millions" on May 6, which they say ended in "mass disturbances." Around 20,000 people took part in the protest against the then-imminent inauguration of President Vladimir Putin. Hundreds of protesters were arrested after clashes with police. Moscow prosecutors say that those whose houses were searched will be summoned for questioning on Tuesday on suspicion of inciting mass unrest during the protests.
Tough demonstration law comes into force
Tuesday is the day new protests against Putin in Moscow are scheduled to take place. Tens of thousands of participants are expected. The city administration had approved a demonstration with 50,000 participants. Despite the raids on opposition leaders and their interrogations at that time, the protests will take place as scheduled, said a spokesman of the organizing committee.
The opposition move was particularly explosive in light of new legislation restricting the right to assembly, which Putin only signed on Saturday. It sets significantly higher fines for violations of the law on demonstrations. If, for example, there are injuries at a demonstration or property is damaged, participants are threatened with fines of between around 250 and 7,000 euros ($312 to $8,750).
Schneider thinks that the Kremlin is susceptible to foreign criticism
The implications of the new law remain to be seen, Eberhard Schneider of the Brussels EU-Russia Center told DW.
"Now a large demonstration has been approved, so I would assume that the objective of taking action against the opposition leaders is that they cannot participate in the demonstration," he said, adding that the authorities evidently want to make the opposition leaderless.
The crackdown on the opposition leaders will not take the wind out of the protest's sails, Schneider believes. People do not take to the street only because of the opposition leaders. And he thinks the authorities will not completely ban demonstrations in the future, "because they are probably afraid of criticism from abroad." But the Kremlin does want to exert more control over the movement.
Miscalculation or nervousness?
Taking a harsher approach to the opposition is the wrong path, according to Gerhard Mangott, an expert on Russia at the University of Innsbruck.
"If Putin believes that he can stabilize the situation by doing so, then he is mistaken and offers proof to those who say he no longer understands what is going on in his country," Mangott said, adding that he believes Putin's dealings with the opposition demonstrate either a misapprehension of political realities or a significant degree of nervousness and uncertainty within the government.
Mangott highlights weaknesses in the Russian economy
"Admittedly, the situation isn't going to get easier in the next few months," he says: political decisions have to be made which will have consequences for society, and they are likely to lead to a rise in discontent, for example, if prices for community services have to rise.
"We have seen for several weeks a significant decrease in the value of the Russian ruble as a result of falling oil prices," he adds. That puts the government under pressure and makes it nervous.
Hoping for change
Andreas Schockenhoff, the German government's commissioner for Russian affairs, also views the repression against opposition leaders as sending the wrong signal to Russian citizens by promoting confrontation rather than dialogue.
"Just a few days after the harsher law on public assembly was signed by President Putin, we have further proof that the situation in Russian is being polarized," Schockenhoff said. He fears that the new assembly law will be applied harshly, leading to an increase in dissatisfaction among the population.
"A study by the Moscow Center for Strategic Studies shows that the desire for change in Russia has not diminished since the election. On the contrary: the demands for reform and change have grown in every part of the country. That's why such an application of the law would be a dangerous development," Schockenhoff concluded.
Author: Markian Ostaptschuk / sgb
Editor: Michael Lawton