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Putin's crackdown extends to old comrades, watch out KGB

Fred WeirThe Christian Science Monitor

Gennady Gudkov is the last person you'd think of as a radical dissident. Yet he's been driven into a dangerous corner, and it looks like the Kremlin has set its sights on destroying him.

A former career KGB officer, Mr. Gudkov and his son, Dmitry, are both Duma deputies with the "loyal opposition" party Just Russia. The Gudkovs both became involved with the street protest movement that erupted last December in order to steer the protesters toward peaceful and constructive engagement with the authorities, the elder Gudkov insists.

But today, amid a wave of government actions that some protest leaders are calling "the shadow of 1937" – the year mass Stalin-era repressions began – the Gudkovs find themselves in serious trouble, with their family business all but ruined by a blizzard of state "inspections" and the pro-Kremlin United Russia party moving to expel them and another Just Russia deputy, Ilya Ponomaryov, from the Duma.

"I was warned several times, by people who shall remain nameless from high up, who gave me 'friendly advice' to stop all this involvement with the protest movement, and they assured me that if I did my problems would go away," Gudkov says. "The last time was in early June."

Since then, the family business, one of Russia's leading security firms with about 7,000 employees, has been hit with a wave of inspections from the police, fire department, and even the Moscow architectural control committee, which resulted in the suspension of its license to allow its security guards to carry weapons in Moscow.

Inspections are currently going on in most of the other 20 Russian regions where the company, Oskord International, operates. Without the 200 or so guns – only small pistols and smooth bore rifles, Gudkov says – in the company's arsenal, its security guards have had to stop working.

Gudkov insists the company, which has worked for the United Nations and Russian law enforcement agencies in the past, has sailed through regular inspections every three months for the past decade and has never experienced a problem with its registered firearms or their method of storage before.

"Now our business in Moscow is all but ruined, and we're being hit in the regions," he says. "I have no doubt that this is punishment directed at me for my civic position and my support of the protest movement. What's happening to me is being repeated all over the country in various ways to hundreds of other people right now, most of them not so well known as me. There is one organizing force behind all this, and that is the Kremlin administration."

Yesterday, Gudkov announced that he will be selling the company at a huge loss, wrecking his retirement plans. "I took the path of Khodorkovsky, and now I am really afraid," he told the Moscow daily Izvestia, referring to the fate of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who defied Putin and subsequently was arrested, his business empire destroyed by selective legal actions. Mr. Khodorkovsky, prosecuted in two trials that most independent experts believe were politically motivated, has spent the past nine years in a Siberian penal colony.

'A dress rehearsal for what may be coming'

Activists say the crackdown began early this month with passage by the pro-Kremlin Duma majority of a new law that imposes tough penalties on anyone who takes part in a non-sanctioned political gathering and steep fines for organizers if any infractions occur during a permitted one.

Then on June 11, police raided the homes of eight protest leaders, seizing cash, computers and vast quantities of "political literature."

Since then, more than a dozen people have been arrested and charged with involvement in "disorders" that allegedly took place during a mass protest rally on May 6, the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration for an unprecedented third term as Russian president.

Other odd occurrences include the flight abroad of investigative journalist Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta, after his life was allegedly threatened by the powerful head of the Kremlin's Investigative Committee and Putin protege Alexander Bastrykhin. Mr. Bastrykhin first denied making the threat, but later visited Novaya Gazeta's offices to apologize. "I didn't have the right to explode but I exploded," the pro-government daily Izvestia quoted Bastrykhin as saying.

This week anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, one of the best-known protest leaders, accused the security services of hacking into his cellphone, e-mail and Twitter accounts, using his own computer and iPad that were seized in the earlier raid on his home.

But most worrisome is the creation of a 200-person investigative task force, comprising security officers drawn from all over Russia, to look into the alleged disorders at the May 6 rally.

"We already see a Plan A in action, that involves harassing and putting psychological pressure on various opposition leaders, in the hopes that this will tamp down the protest movement," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "It's a way of showing that nobody can consider themselves safe if they participate in public rallies...

"But much more serious are the signs that a Plan B is being prepared, which would begin with a large-scale political trial of the people involved in the May 6 rally," he adds. "The creation of a 200-strong investigating team is unprecedented; no criminal act has ever brought together this many resources. This is not being done for nothing, there is some purpose here, and that's what people are worried about. They fear that Putin is preparing to shift to a much more authoritarian state, and this is a dress rehearsal for what may be coming. It does remind a bit of the 1930s."

Struggling to hold back

Russian human rights activists say they are not literally comparing the fairly mild police actions they are experiencing with the Stalin-era mass repressions, but they insist that it carries the same whiff of state lawlessness about it.

"Nobody's saying it's 1937 all over again. After all, nobody's getting shot here," says Yury Kostanov, a lawyer with the Independent Judicial Expertise Council in Moscow. "What we're pointing to is the absence of proper legal procedure. Police search and seize first, then begin to formulate a case. Judges follow the scripts written by prosecutors. There is complete arbitrariness about what's happening and we know from our history where that leads. There are good reasons to be worried."

Gudkov says a bigger wave of protests is on the way, probably in the autumn, and it will be powered not only by the middle-class political demands that have brought people into the streets of Moscow so far, but also by growing economic pain across Russia's vast hinterland as inflation inches up and new utility reforms erode working class living standards.

"We need to take steps to prevent radicalization of the protest movement, but how can we do that when the authorities act in such a manner?" he says. "I do not understand the leaders of our country. I'm of the same generation and background as Putin, and I've always been respectful and ready for dialogue. But he's waging war on the younger generation, like my son, Yevgenia Chirikova, Alexei Navalny, Ilya Ponomaryov. All these raids, arrests and different forms of harassment are driving them in a radical direction, and there are no avenues for dialogue other than to take to the streets," he says.

"I'm ready for any possible consequences. Things are flying out of the framework of law. They can strip me of my deputy's mandate, accuse me, wreck me. I don't think this will last long. Putin does not understand how deep the crisis has already become… The main thing is we must prevent the first shot from being fired on any side. If we have bloodshed here, the process will go out of control very fast. It's crucial for the opposition to remain peaceful, and for the authorities to heed this lesson as well," he adds.