By Leonid Bershidsky
Ksenia Sobchak, a TV personality often portrayed as Russia's Paris Hilton, had a rocky start as a leader of the country's opposition movement. At one point, demonstrators tried to boo her off a stage.
Now, President Vladimir Putin's ham-handed effort to punish protesters is making her a star.
On June 11, the day before a major opposition march, cops unexpectedly showed up at the door of Sobchak's Moscow apartment with a search warrant -- part of a crackdown on opposition activists that also brought police to the homes of corruption fighter Alexei Navalny and left-wing radical Sergei Udaltsov. They took her computer and mobile phone. They also opened a strongbox and confiscated the contents, which, according to police, included more than 1 million euros packed in envelopes. As a result, one of Russia's top entertainers had to borrow from a make-up assistant to fuel up her car.
The searches, allegedly part of an investigation into violence at a demonstration that preceded Putin's bizarre May 7 inauguration, are just the latest in a series of hard-line measures that are angering Muscovites and reviving the opposition movement.
On June 5, the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, passed a bill imposing a fine of 300,000 rubles ($9,000) for organizing a rally, or any gathering, without the authorities' prior approval. The minimum fine for merely taking part in such a gathering was raised from 300 to 20,000 rubles ($600). The approval by parliament, dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, came despite a denunciation from Putin's own Council for Human Rights, which argued that the exorbitant fines would restrict Russians' freedom of assembly, and despite the vociferous protests of some legislators.
“The State Duma has never seen a bigger disgrace,” said deputy Sergei Ivanov, of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party. “This shows the United Russia party's protest phobia. Your bravado is built on the expectation that police and workers from the Urals will protect you, but they won't.”
Putin hastily signed the bill on June 8, just ahead of a major opposition rally planned for June 12 in Moscow. The unusual speed of the bill's passage into law prompted a storm of commentary in the blogosphere, with thousands reposting a cartoon portraying a mischievous Putin shouting: “I signed it in time!"
The authorities "do not respect us and they are not even trying to pretend they do. Should we just take it and wipe the spit off our faces?” wrote Echo Moscow radio commentator Anton Orekh, calling on Muscovites to attend the rally.
Monday's apartment searches added insult to injury. Although several people have already been arrested for fighting with riot police at the pre-inauguration demonstration, investigators are after bigger fish. As they searched the apartments of Sobchak, Navalny and Udaltsov, police confiscated all electronic equipment, “even CDs with pictures of my kids,” Navalny tweeted. The anti-corruption activist also had to give up a T-shirt proclaiming United Russia to be “a party of crooks and thieves.”
In Sobchak's case, officers initially suspected the cash-filled envelopes to be some kind of slush fund to finance people's participation in the protests. A better explanation soon presented itself: Sobchak is often called on to emcee lavish corporate parties and award ceremonies, and each envelope contained a fee for one event. “My annual income is more than $2 million,” Sobchak tweeted. “Don't I have the right to keep money at home if I do not trust the banks?” Investigators are now checking into Sobchak's tax status.
The irony of Sobchak's situation is that her father, then St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, gave Putin his first government job back in the early 1990s, putting him in charge of the city's foreign economic ties. Putin remained loyal to the elder Sobchak until his death in 2000. Now the respected statesman's 30-year-old daughter is an unlikely celebrity of the opposition camp. “It's time she realized: Opposition figures will be grabbed even for crossing the street in the wrong place,” journalist Sergei Dorenko wrote in his microblog. “It's time to learn how to be a saint.”
Bloggers started comparing the surprise searches – somewhat hyperbolically – to Josef Stalin's reprisals of 1937. Even normally sober people who had not planned on attending the march now wanted to take part. “I'll have to go,” economics professor Konstantin Sonin wrote in his blog. “This is not 1937, of course, but some kind of twilight zone like 1990-1991, when the authorities' hysterical harshness one day was followed by total paralysis the next day.”
It remains to be seen whether the current standoff between Putin and the opposition can indeed be compared to the last months of the Soviet Union. The June 12 march was a success, culminating in a rally and concert that flooded a central Moscow avenue with about 50,000 protesters. But it was roughly comparable to another Russian march held later that day: About 30,000 fans walked to the central stadium in Warsaw to watch Russia play Poland in a Euro-2012 soccer match. Polish police had to use water cannons to stop fighting between the fans and hardcore local nationalists.
In Warsaw, the sides played to a 1:1 draw, much like Putin and Moscow's protesters have done in the latest round of their epic battle.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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