Putin Stokes Russian Culture Wars

By Dan Peleschuk

MOSCOW, Russia - The two-year prison sentence handed down to feminist punk rockers from the band Pussy Riot last month for their disturbance in a church shocked many around the world who saw it as a draconian punishment for exercising their freedom of expression.

But the eight years delivered to another opposition activist who accused police of framing her says even more about the Kremlin's methods for dealing with its critics. Taisiya Osipova's supporters say police planted heroin in her apartment after she refused to testify against her husband, a member of the radical Other Russia movement, in 2010.

The punishments are part of a crackdown on dissenters that has included mass arrests of protesters and selective prosecution of opposition leaders. It suggests the Kremlin is increasingly threatened by the burgeoning number of largely young, urban liberals chiefly responsible for setting off street protests over Vladimir Putin's return to a third term as president in March.

However, Putin's controversial policies appear to reflect more about his divisive strategy to maintain his authority.

Marginalizing a growing cadre of opposition-minded Russians he has cast as a danger has enabled him to stoke Russia's version of a culture war in order to consolidate his increasingly valuable support among older, conservative Russians who constitute his base.

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But analysts say splitting the population along ideological lines threatens to isolate the president in an increasingly polarized society he may no longer be able to manipulate.

Although pressure against opponents is hardly new for Putin, Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center believes his latest tactics show him to be no longer positioning himself as president of all Russians, but a "majority versus the minority" for the first time since his rise to power a dozen years ago.

"He considers this minority - those who live in big cities, in Moscow especially, and who are not welcoming him now - as his opponents, or even his enemies," he said.

The scandal over the Pussy Riot trial, which shows few signs of abating weeks after it ended, has become a focus for debates over conservatism, justice and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Religious and nationalist groups accused the women of being Satanists seeking to destroy Russia. Increasingly vocal, some have set about organizing vigilante groups to protect a culture they say is under threat.

Previously seen as stalwart Putin supporters, however, they are also increasingly critical of him. Increasing numbers blame him for not being patriotic enough.

Pussy Riot supporters have contributed to the radicalization, most visibly a group called People's Will - which evokes a violent 19th-century revolutionary group of the same name - that has cut down Orthodox wooden crosses.


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