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Liberties, logic suffer in Vladimir Putin’s Russia

Enforceable or not, restrictions rising as president’s popularity soars

Russian President Vladimir Putin

ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin

MOSCOW — They’ve banned some synthetic lace lingerie, and now they’re taking aim at high-heel shoes. They’ve made it unlawful to use foul language on stage, and they’re mulling a ban on mixing foreign words into Russian sentences. Protesting in the streets can get you five years in prison; so can sending certain retweets.

Russian leaders have drastically ramped up their crackdown on freedom of expression in recent weeks, with an avalanche of restrictions on what people can do, wear, say, and where they can do it. The measures are in turns sinister, xenophobic, patently unenforceable, and absurd.

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Many of the restrictions tighten the grip of Vladimir Putin and coincide with a spike in his approval rating, which hit a six-year high of 86 percent in late June. Pollsters attribute the increase to a wave of national pride following his annexation of Crimea in March, and his tough stance in support of pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine.

Bolstered by that popular support, Putin and his parliament have ignored the protestations of Russia’s increasingly embattled opposition, whom the president has dismissed as “a fifth column.” Already in control of print and broadcast media, authorities in recent weeks have sped up efforts to control the Internet, blocking, co-opting, or shutting down websites with content critical of the president.

“The system has gone mad since Crimea,” said Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist and activist who helped organize anti-Putin protests amid claims of fraud in 2011 parliamentary elections.

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Much of the new legislation is aimed at limiting dissent. For example, a bill toughening penalties for disorderly conduct — the routine and unchallengeable charge against anyone detained during a street protest — can mean a five-year sentence for anyone who has been arrested on that charge more than once.

But some of the rules would exert control in more subtle ways. A measure that would prohibit advertising on paid television — one of 60 bills the lower house rammed through last week before going on vacation — could force independent cable operators out of business.

Another bill parliament approved last week reflects the growing sense of mistrust of the Internet, which Putin recently described as a “CIA project.” It would require Russians to store personal data only on servers within Russia. As written, the legislation would seem to make it unlawful for Russians to make online purchases from companies based outside the country, which raises a fundamental problem with many of these new rules. They seem impossible to enforce.

For example, how can anyone prevent Russians from using their credit cards to reserve a hotel room online in New York or Paris? How many word police would have to hit the streets to enforce the proposed ban on foreign words in the Russian language? A proposed ban on palm oil raises the question of how government regulators plan to scour Russian kitchens.

And if someone is wearing polyester panties purchased from the Victoria’s Secret online catalog, who is going to uncover that fashion faux pas?

Russians have trouble taking all the new rules seriously.

“These laws lead to laughter,” said Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, an independent polling agency.

But within the arbitrary nature of the new rules lies their danger to civil society.

“Russia is not a law-governed state, so laws are a tool of intimidation rather than a legal instrument,” said Maria Lipman, a Moscow-based independent political analyst.

For example, a new law Putin signed last week that punishes retweets of material deemed “extremist” leaves open the question of who decides which tweets are extremist, and for that matter, what that word means. As a result, Lipman said, the law can be arbitrarily applied. The absence of independent courts and legislatures at any level give the accused almost no chance of acquittal.

Not all of the bans are necessarily rules that wouldn’t find support in the United States: for example, the prohibition of alcohol in sports stadiums, and limits on the amount of advertising on cable TV, public smoking, and profanity in public.

But the common thread in the rules reflect a bias against the norms of Western liberal democracy that has become a focus of Putin’s leadership.

Before the Sochi Olympics, Putin announced that Russia would become a bastion of “conservative values.” The annexation of Crimea added meat to Putin’s argument that Russia has the heft to be that bastion. And Putin’s many threats to intervene in support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have resonated with Russians.

Putin “has a powerful message to ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking people: We won’t abandon our fellow Russians abroad like we used to,” said Sergey Armeyskov, who blogs on Russian culture.

But in that message lies a threat to Putin’s seemingly unassailable position. Recent setbacks to pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have forced the question of whether Putin will act on his threat to intervene militarily.

On Saturday, as rebels abandoned a stronghold in Slovyansk to the advancing Ukrainian forces, Denis Pushilin, a pro-Russian leader, tweeted, “Putin’s words about protecting Russian people were beautiful but those were just words.”

If Ukrainian forces stage a long and bloody siege of the remaining rebel-held cities, Donetsk and Lugansk, Putin could find himself under pressure to act on his threats.

“Putin can hardly ‘retreat’ now,” Lipman said. “He can’t switch back to a more permissive, less nationalistic, or less anti-Western mode.”

But if Russia intervenes more forcefully and overtly, that would work against Putin’s other long-term problem. The Russian economy is at a slowdown — the International Monetary Fund in April said it had entered a recession. Foreign debt markets have been closed to Russia since the annexation of Crimea, and further economic isolation would be unlikely to please the Russian oligarchs whose businesses are integrated with international markets.

Popular concern over the economy and rampant corruption contributed to Putin’s lowest approval rating since he came to power in 2000: 61 percent, measured in December 2013 by the Levada Center. Grazhdankin said it’s hard to imagine Putin’s approval rating dropping far below that figure, one any US president would love to have.

But while Putin rules supreme over a system that churns out haphazard laws with impunity, some question whether that rating is a good sign.

“The question is, where is Russia heading? This is the key problem with Putin — he is unable to deal with this issue,” said Pavel K. Baev, a Russia specialist at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. “Holding power has become the goal in itself, and there is a deep underlying feeling that this cannot end well.”

David Filipov can be reached at David.Filipov@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.

 Clarification: An earlier version of this story should have specified that the ban on synthetic lace lingerie extends only to underpants.

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