Putin May Resume Crackdown After Olympics

Recent amnesty may be for international Olympic image, not reform.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets upcoming Olympic games volunteers in Sochi on January 17, 2014.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent amnesty of political prisoners and limited access for protests near the Winter Olympics in Sochi may not be a part of a trend, as crackdowns on civil dissent seen in recent years may continue once the international media leaves after the Games.

Russia declared amnesty for prisoners in December including members of Greenpeace protesting on an offshore oil rig, and two members of the punk protest band Pussy Riot. The two members of Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were released two months before the end of their two-year prison sentence for "hooliganism," which was defined as playing a song protesting the Putin government in a Russian Orthodox cathedral.

Russia's government said the amnesty marked the anniversary of the country's post-Communist constitution in 1993, but it is widely viewed as a public relations move by Putin to improve his nation's human rights image ahead of Winter Olympics in Sochi, which begin on Feb. 7.

[READ: 3 Weeks to Sochi: Are Russian Security Forces Ready?]

Hosting the Olympics is a "personal project" for Putin to gain international legitimacy, but it has also spotlighted his government's human rights restrictions, including against the LGBT community, says Laura Reed, an Internet freedom research analyst focused on Eurasia for advocacy group Freedom House.

Putin is also allowing special protest zones near the Games, walking back his original decree in 2013 banning all demonstrations in Sochi for the duration of the Olympics. A Russian law passed in 2013 bans the distribution of information about homosexuality as "propaganda" on the pretense that it could be harmful to children.

"The real question is what happens to Russian citizens and bloggers critical of the government once the spotlight of the Olympics is gone," Reed says. "That is when we are more likely to see ramifications of what people say and do during the Olympics." Putin served as president of Russia from 2000 to 2008, and served as prime minister under former President Dmitry Medvedev from 2008 until 2012. Putin returned to power in 2012 facing huge demonstrations accusing his re-election as a fraud, which resulted in laws that limit the right to protest without government permits.

[READ: Russians Hunt for Potential Female Suicide Bombers in Sochi]

"We have seen more cases where local prosecutors have used the anti-extremism laws to restrict free speech," Reed says. "While the media attention is focused on the Olympics, I think there will be some tempering of their crackdown as long as they are not disruptive."

Anti-government protests in Ukraine may also occupy the journalistic attention of Russia-based bloggers who may have been prepared to protest Putin online during the Olympics, says Kevin Rothrock, an editor on Russian news at Global Voices Online, an Internet freedom-focused blog. The Putin government may be trying to put on a good face during the Games for the international media, but his government is also considering legal measures that could increase limits on free speech, Rothrock says. A draft law could limit funding of extremist groups using online payment platforms like PayPal, which could be used to limit the funding abilities of Russian civil society critical of Putin, Rothrock says.

"They have a lot of instruments to crack down on dissent after the Games," Rothrock says.

 

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