Further Crackdowns on Freedoms in Russia Despite Promised Change

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's president-elect, has preached freedom and the rule of law, and raised hopes for an end to government pressure on opposition leaders, rights advocates and businesses whose assets the Kremlin wants to control.

But events of past weeks are adding to mounting suspicions that Medvedev's presidency may not be all that different from that of his steely-eyed predecessor — Vladimir Putin.

Since Medvedev's election on March 2, authorities have continued to crack down on human rights activists and political critics. Nor did the election halt the targeting of foreign firms that control major Russian assets, like the British-Russian joint venture TNK-BP.

What is not clear is to what extent the events reflect the continuing influence of Putin and his allies or Medvedev's silent support for Putin's policies.

"Medvedev today is Putin yesterday. There is no change in the regime whatsoever," veteran human rights campaigner Lev Ponomaryev said.

Authorities in the central city of Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday seized computer servers of a longtime campaigner against rights abuses in Chechnya. Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, who has been repeatedly targeted for arrest, said the seizure coincided with searches at apartments of several activists from the Other Russia coalition.

In Russia's second largest city, St. Petersburg, a leader of the liberal political party Yabloko was jailed for nearly three weeks for allegedly interfering with police in a case supporters said was tied to his work organizing an opposition conference. A court on Friday ordered Maxim Reznik's release pending trial.

Officials also have searched the party's St. Petersburg headquarters looking for materials that allegedly could be considered extremist — a broad legal term that activists say is used for politically motivated prosecutions.

Other groups report similar pressure. Oleg Kozlovsky, who says he was drafted into the army because of his work with the activist group Oborona, told Ekho Moskvy radio that authorities were trying to evict him from his Moscow apartment, in retaliation for his activities.

Investigators continue to press their case against Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister who was denied a spot on the presidential ballot. Officials accuse him of falsifying signatures on nominating petitions, and his supporters say authorities plans to file criminal charges in an effort to discredit him.

"We've seen in this last two months what the freedom [Medvedev] talks about really means," Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Putin and now a prominent critic, told reporters Thursday. "Are there any examples of real actions, not just words, that someone can use as proof that Medvedev is a liberal person, economically, politically or over civil rights?"

Medvedev has been credited with supporting more liberal economic and business policies. He reportedly supported, for example, easing restrictions in a bill to limit foreign ownership of Russian publishing companies and Internet providers.

But Medvedev also heads the gas giant OAO Gazprom, the state-controlled monopoly that has continued to play hardball tactics in negotiations over contracts to supply Ukraine with natural gas. Europe, which gets most of its Russian gas via Ukrainian pipeline, has accused Russia of using its energy assets as a political tool.

On Thursday, Russia's top security agency announced that two brothers with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship had been charged with industrial espionage involving Russian oil and gas fields. One of the brothers works for TNK-BP, the British-Russian joint venture whose Siberian fields are coveted by Kremlin-allied business interests.

In recent years, the government has used regulatory and criminal investigations to pressure major energy companies into ceding assets to state-controlled companies.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Krivtsov tried to tamp speculation that the arrest of the TNK-BP worker was linked to troubled ties between Moscow and London. "There's no sense in searching for links between events that are in no way connected to each other," he was quoted by RIA-Novosti as saying.

Many, particularly in the West, pointed to Medvedev's background — lawyer, university professor, business executive — hoping that the Kremlin's hard-line domestic and foreign policies might soften with his election.

In a pre-election speech, Medvedev promised to champion media freedom, strengthen the judicial system and reform criminal legislation. He returned to those themes Wednesday in an address before the Public Chamber, an advisory body created by the Kremlin.

"A mature civil society is a vital necessity, a foundation, a guarantee of stable development of our nation," he said. "And our task is to create a system when civil society groups participate in setting the government course and assessing its efficiency."

Some observers wonder if Medvedev is just paying lip service to liberal ideals. Putin himself has warned that the West should not expect Medvedev to be a more compliant partner.

Medvedev won't formally take the reins of power until after his May 7 inauguration, and any change in Kremlin policies and practices — if they come — may come only gradually, and only after Medvedev installs his own team in positions of power.

But Putin is expected to become prime minister, and it remains to be seen whether Medvedev will try to alter his predecessor's course. To do so, he may have to dislodge the siloviki — veterans, like Putin, of the intelligence, police and military services — whom Putin has installed in positions of power.

Meanwhile, debate is growing among Russia's often fractious opposition groups as to how to continue their fight under Medvedev.

Ponomaryev predicted the Kremlin will seek to create a puppet opposition to create the appearance of a political counterbalance and quiet critics. That theory was bolstered earlier this month by a rare public meeting between Putin and Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the national Yabloko party who, like other opposition figures, has been shut out of politics.

Some opposition groups berated Yavlinsky, who defended himself by saying he raised Reznik's arrest with Putin.

"There is a crisis among the opposition," said Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who has waged a determined, though largely ineffectual campaign against Putin. "A party that considers itself to be in opposition ought to behave in quite a different manner."