MOSCOW— One year ago, on May 7, Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin to serve another term as president, after a four-year stretch out of the spotlight as Russia’s prime minister.
Angry protests greeted his return, and his inauguration motorcade flew through the empty streets of Moscow, emptied by a five-day holiday and by riot police flown in from as far away as Siberia.
Today, analysts say President Putin spent his first year methodically cracking down on Russia’s opposition. This crackdown goes beyond the symbolic restoration of street patrols by Cossacks, the whip wielding enforcers of Czarist days.
“The tactics are destroying the opposition, destroying the protest movement by persecuting, imprisoning, marginalizing, forcing to emigrate - whatever,” says Dmitry Suslov, international affairs professor at the Higher School of Economics.
The Kremlin sent a high profile signal with last summer’s trial of Pussy Riot, a female punk band that protested in Moscow’s main cathedral. Two of the women are serving two-year jail sentences.
Now it is the turn of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most popular opposition leader. He is on trial in a provincial city, 1,000 kilometers from his power base here.
Opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov says the trials reflect a wider crackdown that President Putin started after returning to the Kremlin one year ago.
“Putin and his parliament enacted an entire series of laws aimed at prohibition: the prohibition of protests, the prohibition of the freedom of expression, the prohibition of criticizing the government and church,” said Ryzhkov, co-chairman of the Republican Party of Russia, a new group.
Today, street protests are smaller than a year ago.
In a new campaign, government inspectors are visiting hundreds of non-governmental organizations, trying to prove that they receive foreign donations and should be classified as “foreign agents.”
Inspectors visited the human rights group Memorial and demanded 9,000 pages of documents.
“They define any kind of influence on society or on the state as political activity,” Alexander Cherkasov, chairman of Memorial Human Rights Center, said as photocopying machines could be heard cranking away in the background. “All these checks were aimed at bringing Russian organizations under the context of the law on foreign agents.”
But Putin supporters, like Ekaterina Stenyakina, a leader of Young Guard, note that public opinion polls routinely give Mr. Putin approval ratings over 60 percent.
People who don’t like the government, she said, are free to act.
“Tell me, do these laws somehow restrict civic activism?” she asked. “I don’t think so. You want a party? Please, go ahead. You want a public tribune? Everywhere there are open roads for absolutely everyone.”
Some Russian opposition leaders are shifting from organizing street protests to fielding candidates in Russia’s two-year series of local elections that starts this September.
Vladimir Milov chairs another new opposition party, Democratic Choice: “If you have clear, viable forces - parties, candidates for mayor - who actually are capable of winning support and being attractive to voters - this is where the authorities will not be able to survive, even with like 10-15 percent fraud.”
Now, a big stress test looms for Putin.
Russia’s key oil and gas exports are down. Squeezed by Europe’s recession to the west and China’s slowdown to the east, Russia’s economy may record zero growth this year.
This is far from the goal of five percent annual growth set when Putin returned to the Kremlin, only one year ago.
With energy earnings falling by billions of dollars, cuts in public services can be expected to increase discontent in Russia.