MOSCOW, Russia — If anyone had hoped Vladimir Putin’s promise earlier this week not to crack down on civil society was genuine, it was surely Sergei Udaltsov.
But any such expectation faded into the stuffy courtroom air on Thursday, when a judge sentenced the firebrand leftist — one of the most colorful leaders of a once-bustling anti-Kremlin movement — to four and a half years in a penal colony for allegedly inciting mass riots.
While the world’s attention remains focused on Russia’s standoff with the West over Ukraine and the downed flight MH17, the Kremlin is quietly but steadily continuing its onslaught against what it perceives to be its enemies at home.
Udaltsov’s prosecution was part of a two-year campaign dubbed the “Bolotnaya Affair” against the participants of a May 2012 mass protest that turned violent, marking the beginning of the end of the protest movement here. Some Kremlin critics believe riot police provoked the violence.
Since then, a dozen participants have been convicted and sentenced to various terms.
Named after the square in which the demonstration took place, the trials have represented the heart of Putin’s latest drive against the political opposition and cultural dissent since his return to the presidency that year.
But Udaltsov’s conviction represents only the starkest contradiction to Putin’s recent pledge that there would be no more “tightening of the screws.”
On Monday, the Justice Ministry beefed up its list of “foreign agents” — the official term used to denote political NGOs that receive funding from abroad — to include some of Russia’s best-known human rights organizations.
Topping the list is Memorial, a venerated civic rights group whose main aim has been to document Soviet-era repression. It also tracks current abuses.
Critics say the moves represent a bad omen.
“The circle is closing in and we’re moving from an authoritarian regime toward a totalitarian one,” said political analyst and veteran dissident Andrei Piontkovsky.
The authorities’ focus is extending to the internet, which has remained relatively free and traditionally served as the virtual meeting place for the opposition-minded.
On Wednesday, Putin signed a law that requires websites to store personal data from their Russian users on local servers, which experts say could pave that way for official control over access to popular social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
There’s been little meaningful resistance.
Thanks in large part to the Bolotnaya prosecutions, the latest crackdown appears to have deterred many activists and frightened the casual protesters who helped swell the anti-Kremlin movement in December 2011.
Today, there are few mass protests as the authorities persist in their prosecution of the movement’s poster child, Alexei Navalny, a charismatic lawyer and anti-corruption blogger.
He was handed a five-year suspended sentence for embezzlement last year, but faces a litany of other criminal charges that supporters say are politically motivated.
“[Putin] is pursuing a clever policy by arresting the leaders,” said Nadir Fatov, a local human rights campaigner, outside the court on Thursday. “It’s a real talent to be a leader.”
The Kremlin’s campaign has accompanied a rising great-power nationalism as Russia’s new state ideology, bolstered by the seizure of Crimea in March and continuing moral — and some say material — support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Polls show more Russians approve of Putin’s policies now than almost any other time during his 15-year rule, something observers ascribe to Moscow’s defiance of Western pressure over its actions in Ukraine.
That’s why the Ukraine crisis has overshadowed any grumbling at home, says political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.
“The issue of human rights doesn’t occupy people’s minds at all,” he said.
“Udaltsov took a stand against the state, received his sentence, and that’s what he deserved,” added Oreshkin, a former member of the Kremlin’s human rights council, about the views of most ordinary Russians.
An overarching theme has connected the Udalstov case to the ongoing geopolitical spat over Ukraine, rooted in the Kremlin’s longstanding distrust of foreign powers it accuses of interfering in its own affairs and those of its neighbors.
In Udaltsov’s case, prosecutors made much of a videotaped meeting with a Georgian politician, who they alleged was helping fund an attempted coup through the opposition leader.
The allegation played off Putin’s longstanding distaste for the so-called color revolutions that swept old administrations from power in Georgia and Ukraine last decade, something he railed against during a Security Council meeting on Tuesday, warning “outside forces” of meddling in Russia’s sovereign affairs.
“Our people, our citizens, the people of Russia will not allow it,” local media reported him as saying. “And they will never accept it.”
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Outside the Moscow City Court where Udaltsov was awaiting his verdict on Thursday, two dozen activists gathered to stage a paltry protest.
It was a marked change from the high-profile trial in 2012 against the punk group Pussy Riot, and even last summer’s prosecution of Navalny, which brought thousands onto Moscow’s streets.
Fatov, the human rights campaigner, was among the few who stood opposite the building holding a banner in support of Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev, his associate who received the same sentence.
Acknowledging the fading support for the protest movement, he struggled to remain positive.
“Temporarily, of course, we’ve lost,” he said. “But the battle for freedom and fairness continues.”