Just days ahead of the next opposition rally on 12 June, President Putin signed into law Friday a hotly contested bill to dramatically increase fines on illegal protest actions and no sanctioned rallies.
United Russia deputies in the Duma (parliament) introduced the bill after the violent rally on 7 June just two days prior to the inauguration of Putin’s third term as President. The event ruined the Kremlin plan for a quiet but majestic ceremony with police shutting down city streets and suggestions that ordinary citizens leave town for a declared 4-day holiday. Most citizens stayed in town however and violence erupted after police aggressively confronted a larger than expected crowd of demonstrators.
The bill was approved by a vote at midnight Thursday by 241-147. While previous fines were generally less than $100 (US), the new law sets fines as high as 300,000 rubles, approximately $9,000 (US). Opposition leaders charged with organizing unsanctioned rallies will face fines of 1 million rubles.
Political observers said that the new fines might backfire on the Kremlin and energize the opposition but the government is hoping that the fines, which will now average more than the average Russian earns in a year, will discourage citizens from joining in the widespread street protests growing in strength across Russian cities. Evidence of widespread fraud drove hundreds of thousands of demonstrators onto the streets in December after flawed parliamentary elections and the rally movement continued through the March presidential election and beyond.
Last month the independent Levada Centre, a research organization, showed that just 15 percent of Russians support the protest marches, however public support for the opposition is growing. The demonstration march on 7 May was so large that it caught the Kremlin off guard with the number of demonstrators and the age of the average marcher was more mature than the government has expected, prompting fear in the Duma that if left unchecked the demonstrators could at some point force changes in the ruling government.
12 June is a public holiday known as Russia Day (День России) and government offices will be closed however the expected police presence for the rally will be large as the Putin administration has moved toward more of an authoritarian response when dealing with opposition.