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The Big Chill: Is Russia's Mini-Thaw Over?

A man in front of a Moscow court protests the prosecution of entrepreneur Aleksei Kozlov.
Andrei Kolomoisky thought he'd have a little fun.

After seeing an edited video on YouTube mocking Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's address to the nation ahead of the December 4 parliamentary elections, the journalist for "Vyborgskiye vedomosti" posted the link to his blog on the newspaper's website.

He now faces a possible five years in prison for inciting extremism, according to the St. Petersburg-based news site

The video, which has since been removed from Kolomoisky's blog but is still available on YouTube, has attracted more than 600,000 views. It edits Putin's speech to make it appear that he is saying Russia is entering a period of "empty promises" and increased poverty.


Soon we will hold elections to the State Duma that will undoubtedly set the tone for the election of a new president. Our country is already now entering a period of empty promises. Dear friends, we have accomplished much together. Poverty, although moving slowly, is nonetheless experiencing stable growth, and in this case it is very important to guarantee we continue this course. That is why I decided to return to the times of humiliation, dependence and destruction to redraw plans for the development of Russia.

According to prosecutors in the Leningrad Oblast city of Vyborg, by posting the link, Kolomoisky violated a provision in the Russian Criminal Code against using the media to incite hatred or enmity as well as one prohibiting the humiliation of a person or group.

It's not clear where -- if anywhere -- this case is going. Nor is it clear whether Vyborg prosecutors are acting on their own or on instructions from Moscow.

But it does seem to fit into a pattern of politicized prosecutions that has been visible since the March 4 presidential election.

Among the most high-profile of these was the re-prosecution and re-conviction of former businessman Aleksei Kozlov, the husband of opposition journalist Olga Romanova.

Entrepreneur Aleksei Kozlov is escorted out of a court session in Moscow on March 15.
Entrepreneur Aleksei Kozlov is escorted out of a court session in Moscow on March 15.

In 2008, a court convicted Kozlov of stealing money from a leather-production company he owned together with former Federation Council deputy Vladimir Slutzker. The conviction came after Romanova wrote an article critical of one of Slutzker’s associates. Romanova claims Slutzker threatened Kozlov with legal problems if he failed to denounce his wife's story.

The Supreme Court struck down Kozlov's conviction. But in his retrial, completed shortly after the presidential election, he was convicted again and sentenced to five years in prison. The case was widely seen as a litmus test of how Russia's justice system would function with Putin back (formally) in charge.

Billionaire businessman and presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov said the verdict would stoke distrust in the judicial system. Opposition figure Garry Kasparov said that "the authorities are sending the latest signal" of how things will be under Putin 2.0.

Another high-profile case, of course, involves the feminist punk-rock group Pussy Riot over their now-infamous "Prayer for Putin" concert/protest at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. Three members of the band are in prison awaiting trial on charges of hooliganism and inciting religious hatred. They face seven years in prison if convicted.

More than 2,000 people have signed an open letter to Patriarch Kirill, asking him to press for the charges to be dropped. But Kirill told Russian Television this weekend that he was sickened by Pussy Riot's actions and saddened that Russian Orthodox believers would defend them.

A case that has attracted less attention involves opposition figures Ilya Yashin and Boris Nemtsov, socialite and journalist Ksenia Sobchak, and Anton Krasovsky, an aide to Prokhorov. Prosecutors have opened a criminal case into an incident in a Moscow restaurant in which some members of the group got into a fight with a camera team from the Kremlin-friendly website, who were filming their conversation against their will.

LifeNews, of course, had previously published recordings of Nemtsov's private telephone conversations.

"We're used to this sort of thing, and all of this is political in nature," Yashin told Interfax. "If the process starts, we'll use our rich experience of defending [ourselves] within the walls of the court."

Does all this add up to a full-blown crackdown? It's probably too early to tell. But as Kasparov suggested, the authorities seem to be sending a signal that they want to put an end to the atmosphere of (relative) tolerance for dissent that prevailed throughout the election season.

Kolomoisky, for one, says he has no illusions. "As long as things are moving along the same vector as in the case of Pussy Riot. I wouldn't be surprised if I got a real prison term," he told

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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