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Pussy Riot Sensation Challenges Putin Crackdown on Dissent

A Moscow court is scheduled to deliver its verdict today in the trial of three female punk performers whose prosecution has become an international symbol of President Vladimir Putin’s intolerance for dissent.

Prosecutors are seeking three-year prison terms for the Pussy Riot band members, who are charged with hooliganism and inciting religious hatred for performing a “punk prayer” in the country’s main Christian Orthodox place of worship in February urging Putin’s removal.

Whatever the outcome, the case has galvanized a fractious political opposition as authorities ratchet up pressure by prosecuting leaders and other activists. Putin, who faced the biggest demonstrations against his 12-year rule last year, will find it hard to reverse course now, said Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technology in Moscow.

“Putin has become a hostage of the process of repression,” Bunin said by phone. “He’s in a trap. He can’t quit without losing face.”

Governments from the U.S. to Europe have condemned the trial, while pop stars such as Madonna, Sting and Paul McCartney, who Putin invited to the Kremlin in 2003 before a Red Square concert, have backed the women.

Public Disquiet

Supporters of Pussy Riot plan to stage rallies today in more than 65 cities, including London, Paris, New York, San Francisco and Buenos Aires, according to a campaigners’ website. In Russia, public disquiet at the treatment of the activists, two of whom are young mothers, has grown even if many disapprove of their protest in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.

A poll published at the end of July by the independent Levada Center showed that while 47 percent of Russians consider Pussy Riot violated society’s moral values, 54 percent opposed jailing them. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Ekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Maria Alekhina, 24, have been held for five months. Judge Marina Syrova is scheduled to start reading the verdict in Khamovnichesky District Court at 3 p.m.

A crowd of journalists joined supporters and opponents of Pussy Riot outside the court, where Yukos Oil Co. billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky received his second conviction on fraud and money-laundering charges in December 2010. The lawyer of one of the defendants, Nikolai Polozov, said he didn’t rule out that the judge will delay announcing the verdict until a later date.

Slumping Ratings

Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s approval ratings slumped this month to the lowest levels since mass protests erupted in December, when tens of thousands took to the streets to denounce Putin and alleged fraud in parliamentary elections. A crackdown on demonstrators has since ensued, including embezzlement charges that could see protest leader Alexey Navalny jailed for 10 years.

Putin, 59, who handed the presidency to Medvedev, 46, in 2008 after serving the constitutional maximum of two consecutive terms, took back the reins from his protégé in May.

While there have been no major opposition demonstrations since an estimated 18,000 people gathered in central Moscow June 12, the movement may be re-energized by the Pussy Riot trial and other concerns over the independence of the judiciary, according to Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a Moscow-based political analyst.

‘New Signal’

“This can provide a new signal that will trigger a fresh wave of protests,” said Kryshtanovskaya, who’s also a member of the ruling United Russia party. “The opposition has united, organized itself and grown in numbers. They are fighting for power, for real changes. This is very dangerous.”

The case has split the pro-government camp. The organizer of a Kremlin-backed youth camp challenged Putin last month over the trial and a general lack of judicial independence as well as illegal detentions and propaganda on state television.

“The reason for many of the problems I’ve talked about is the impossibility to get a change of government” in Russia, Dmitry Ternovsky told Putin at the camp at Lake Seliger, northwest of Moscow, according to a transcript posted on the Kremlin’s website.

Some opposition figures have criticized the band’s cathedral performance in a country where 69 percent of its 142 million people identify themselves as Orthodox, according to a 2011 Levada poll.

‘Blessed Virgin’

“Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, drive Putin away,” Pussy Riot sang in front of the altar of the cathedral in February, weeks before the presidential election. Navalny, an Orthodox Christian, said on his blog in March that he didn’t approve of the “publicity” stunt in a sacred place, though they shouldn’t be in jail.

One of the defendants, Tolokonnikova, was filmed having sex with her husband in a zoological museum in Moscow while pregnant a few days before Medvedev was elected president in 2008. The event, which involved other members of a radical art collective, was posted on the Internet.

“The Putin system has made a PR catastrophe out of a situation that could have been easily contained with an administrative fine for a public order offense,” said John Lough, associate fellow of the Russian and Eurasia Program at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs.

“The result has been to sow divisions within the ruling elite about how to handle the case and at the same time to create new dividing lines in society,” Lough said on the research group’s website.

Putin Criticized

Putin, who has been criticized by the U.S. and Europe for his human-rights record since coming to power in 2000, including the imprisonment of Khodorkovsky, was asked about Pussy Riot this month during a visit to London to meet U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.

Putin said there wasn’t “anything good” about their behavior, but they shouldn’t be judged “too severely.”

The head of the Kremlin’s human-rights commission, Mikhail Fedotov, said yesterday he opposes any conviction, even if the band members are freed immediately, calling their protest “minor hooliganism.”

“Top officials are in a cold sweat because of this trial,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser who heads the Moscow-based Effective Policy Foundation.

To contact the reporters on this story: Stepan Kravchenko in Moscow at skravchenko@bloomberg.net; Henry Meyer in Moscow at hmeyer4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net

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