It is 20 years to the day since Boris Yeltsin named the head of Russia’s top spy agency his acting prime minister. 

Vladimir Putin was 46 years old and barely known beyond intelligence circles.


Thus began two decades in power in which the state’s grip over the lives of its citizens would tighten – the heady democratic bounce of the 1990s, accompanied as it was by traumatic economic upheaval, would lead many Russians to buy into his apparent logic of order over political freedoms.

Moscow today is the urban response to just that political formula. It is meticulously clean. Pavements have been widened, parks landscaped and streets pedestrianised.

Food markets and fancy restaurants crop up in district after district. Moscow’s hipster glitterati need not feel their city can’t compete.

But to anyone who watched the clinical way in which riot police shut down protests the last two weekends, detaining almost 2,400 people – the vast majority for no reason other than that they showed up to an unsanctioned rally – that comfortable if utterly sanitised lifestyle comes at a cost.

The message is clear. Messing with the powers that be will cost you. You will be kept in a police station sometimes for days at a time, you will be fined, you may even be jailed.

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The maximum penalty for incitement or organising mass disobedience in the criminal case now opened into the events of 27 July is 15 years. Your name will be recorded. Repeat offences will cost you more.

Let’s just look back a second at where this all started. A decision by someone, somewhere in the mayor’s office, that allowing liberal candidates on to the ballot for the Moscow city assembly elections was too much of a risk.

As a result, each and every liberal running as an independent was told they didn’t quite have the signatures required to be registered.

If you are opposition then your threshold is a little higher, a member of the central election committee told barred candidates.

Moscow city assembly elections are not usually a big deal but they do give elected officials oversight over the city’s budget – a chance to check into the contracts, perhaps, of some of that fancy new urban planning.

Sergey Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, ordered this because he doesn’t want to seem as a part of the Moscow assembly, Liberal candidate Ilya Yashin told me.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin’s popularity ratings have slumped

The Moscow assembly has a huge budget and for Mr Sobyanin this budget is money for his own pocket.

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If I or someone like me becomes a part of the assembly, we’re going to interfere in this.

Mr Yashin was due out of a 10-day period of administrative detention on Thursday only to be promptly re-arrested.

Heaven forbid that firebrands like him should be taking the stage at rallies this weekend.

It is not just the Kremlin’s arch-foe Alexey Navalny whose fate looks like an endless merry-go-round of time behind bars on administrative grounds.

Moscow is awash with the stories of the 21-year-old student and activist YouTuber Egor Zhukov, one of 12 now charged in the 27 July criminal case; of the couple who handed their baby to a relative during that demonstration and now face losing parental custody.

Opposition politician Lyubov Sobol getting detained before the protests expected to gather thousands on Saturday
Opposition politician Lyubov Sobol was detained during a previous protest

Balaclava-clad state security raided Mr Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign headquarters on Thursday with a wrench and sledgehammer.

Overkill perhaps when their purpose was to seize documents in an investigation into alleged money-laundering they decided to open last Saturday but it’s an image which sticks.

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Despite this barrage of scare tactics, turnout at rallies this weekend will likely be high.

Protests have been authorised for both Saturday and Sunday but the police have already made clear anyone participating in an unsanctioned evening walk on Saturday will face consequences.

The authorities have also hastily organised a music festival on the Saturday aptly, if perhaps not intentionally, named “Meat and Beat”.

The protests had been authorised
People are often arrested simply for turning up to a protest

The question is whether people are satisfied with their parks and their cafes and their brand new pavements, even if they do come at the expense of their freedoms.

And if this crackdown is enough to deter if not the confirmed opposition, then at least everyone else who does not want to put their heads above the parapet.

My feeling is that it will. There is not the febrile atmosphere of Winter 2014 on the Kiev Maidan.

Despite a drop in living standards, a decline in real wages, a slump in President Putin’s popularity ratings, you don’t actually need to be popular if you rule with a draconian if not quite an iron fist.

These protests expose Mr Putin’s managed democracy for what it is. But there is not the critical mass to change it.



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