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Russian Dissidents Hope Pussy Riot Trial Builds Momentum for Putin Opposition

August 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The political context of the Pussy Riot trial extends far beyond the walls of the courthouse, where three members of a Russian punk band were each sentenced to two years in prison. Margaret Warner talks to Columbia University's Stephen Sestanovich about the broader implications for opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, back to today’s sentencing of three female punk rock band members in Russia and what it says about that country today.

Margaret Warner has that.

MARGARET WARNER: The White House said today it was disappointed by the verdict, and had — quote — “concerns about the way these young women were treated by the Russian judicial system.”

To explore the trial’s broader implications, we turn to Stephen Sestanovich, professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. He served in the State Department during the Reagan and Clinton administrations.

And, Steve, Stephen Sestanovich, thank you for being with us.

Fair to say this trial was about a lot more than what three young women did in an Orthodox cathedral in Moscow?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH, Columbia University: Absolutely. The political context is all here.

This prank, protest, demonstration, performance took place at the height of the protests against Putin in February, when there was a sense of possibility, even inevitability, to the demonstrations and the opposition. Since then, we have — a lot has happened.

Putin has sent a message to the opposition through a number of measures that he’s introduced, fines and raids on offices and the like, that it’s going to be harder for them to operate. Meanwhile, the leaders of the protests have found a lot of their momentum dissipating. They haven’t got a program. They haven’t got any real unity.

And so, six months later, you have this trial. The authorities obviously calculate that they can make — they can use this to portray the opposition as marginal figures, weirdoes. The opposition sees it differently. They think this is an opportunity to show that this — that the regime is just purely authoritarian and arbitrary.

We don’t know how it is going to play out yet, but we — there are some interesting indicators. There was a poll released today that says Putin’s popularity has dropped 12 percent in the course of the summer, his lowest-ranked rating ever.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, it also exposed, it seems, a rift in Russian society over the role of the Russian Orthodox Church. Now, what was that about?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Well, you know, political competition and culture wars often intersect in a lot of countries, including ours.

And the Russian Orthodox Church has been a powerful symbol of national identity for a lot of people. It has gained adherents. More people go to church, including young people, in the 20 years since the Soviet Union collapsed.

But it is also a very rigid and traditional force, and one that has aligned itself with the Putin regime in a way that has made it the target of a lot of the protesters. They have come to see the church as their opponent.

And that’s why you had this performance in the cathedral in February.

For the protesters who were on the streets, who were on the streets today, what Putin is doing is showing that Russia is not an ordinary European country, that there is not the kind of freedom that they have been promised, that the regime can crush opposition at will.

And you see that change in sentiment reflected in the polls, a couple of months ago, almost half of Russians thought that two years, which is the sentence that they got today, would be a fair punishment. That has dropped dramatically over the course of the summer. People don’t like the idea that attractive young women who are mothers of young children and performing music in public, protesting Putin, should be sent to prison.

MARGARET WARNER: So, very briefly, where does this standoff between Putin and the opposition go from here?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Well, they are both trying to calculate how — what their advantages are going to be here.

For Putin, he has to play to his base. His base is traditional conservative Russia now, people who haven’t benefited much from Putinism. And he wants to show that he’s with them. For the opposition, this is perhaps an example of Putin going too far, as he often does. They want to try to capitalize on that.

MARGARET WARNER: So, more to come.

Steve Sestanovich, thank you so much.