MOSCOW, July 26 – Russian socialite turned Kremlin critic Ksenia Sobchak said on Thursday a Moscow court had refused to return some 1.5 million euros ($1.82 million) confiscated during a raid on her apartment ahead of a June protest against Vladimir Putin’s rule.
The search was part of an arsenal of tactics employed against the opposition since Putin’s return to a six-year term on May 7. Comparisons have been made to the Soviet Union’s treatment of dissidents, and around 1,500 Russians held a protest against detentions in central Moscow on Thursday.
The carnival-like atmosphere that reigned at a wave of winter opposition protests was absent, and protesters said fear of arrests and reprisals had kept many people away.
“My parents tell me, ‘What, are you crazy? Don’t go. They’ll call you in for interrogation, why are you going?’ But my conscience doesn’t let me do otherwise. Should I hide, while our friends are in jail?” said 23-year-old Konstantin.
Russian authorities detained two more activists on Thursday in an investigation into clashes between police and protesters at the May 6 demonstration on the eve of Putin’s inauguration.
Twelve are in custody in the case, but dozens of activists say they have had their homes searched or received summons for interrogations – part of a wider crackdown signalling Putin, a former KGB officer, may have lost patience with the protests.
“It is absolutely clear that Putin is simply offsetting his drop in popularity and the worsening economic environment with a crackdown in order to keep control,” Alexei Navalny, a protest leader who arrived in a suit straight from a meeting of the board of state-controlled airline Aeroflot, told Reuters.
Navalny, an anti-graft blogger and shareholder activist who has campaigned for better corporate governance at state firms, was nominated in June to the influential post at one of Russia’s flagship companies by Alexander Lebedev – a 15 percent Aeroflot shareholder and owner of British newspaper The Independent.
Sobchak’s own spectacular fall from grace with TV channels, where she was long a favoured host of numerous reality shows and dubbed “Russia’s Paris Hilton”, is widely seen as an example of the potential consequences of joining the anti-Putin opposition.
In the polarised climate, the daughter of Putin’s former mentor, the late St Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, has now been largely sidelined from all major national TV outlets.
Police searched Sobchak’s apartment and the flats of other protest leaders, including Navalny, rifling through personal belongings for hours, as part of the investigation into violence at the May 6 rally – although she did not attend the protest.
During the raid, the 30-year-old Sobchak said, police confiscated approximately 1.5 million euros worth of various currencies which she kept in cash in paper envelopes.
“The court’s decision: refusing to return the money,” Sobchak said on Twitter, saying she would appeal the ruling.
The court had justified its decision with concern that she might use the money to finance future “mass riots”, she added.
Several prominent civil rights campaigners have quit Putin’s human rights council in recent weeks in protest over a flurry of new legislation they say is part of a Kremlin campaign to stifle political opposition and broadly roll back civic freedoms.
Under a bill fiercely criticised by the United States, all non-governmental organisations (NGOs) receiving funding from abroad must register as “foreign agents” – a term echoing the adversarial rhetoric of the Cold War.
Russia will also see stricter defamation laws and tighter control over the Internet, with anti-Kremlin campaigners saying officials could now shut down web sites deemed inappropriate without any court orders – a major concern for an opposition mainly organised via social networking sites.
The Russian parliament, controlled by Putin’s United Russia party, also rushed through a law that would slap huge potential fines on organisers and protesters participating in any rally where city regulations were violated.