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Moscow - Less than three months after starting his historic third term as Kremlin chief, President Vladimir Putin has imposed a new clampdown on civil society that is sending Russia to an uncertain future.
Russia's lawmakers have broken up for the summer recess and its political leadership are heading for their luxury Black Sea dachas with Putin's opponents facing a new reality of harsh restrictions on civil society.
Since beginning his third term at a lavish inauguration on May 7, Putin has all but dismantled any lingering legacy of his younger predecessor Dmitry Medvedev who had briefly raised hopes of a liberal transformation of Russia.
A string of laws hastily pushed through the Kremlin-controlled parliament seen as a bid to quash dissent are so tough that many analysts speak of the onset of reaction after the unprecedented opposition protests in the last year.
“The regime is shifting gears as it moves to a much tougher authoritarian rule, with a possibility to switch to a dictatorship,” said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
“This is the president's anti-constitutional putsch that means that authorities cannot retain their position even in the conditions of limited freedoms and pluralism,” she told AFP.
During his earlier two terms at the Kremlin between 2000 and 2008, the former KGB officer curtailed liberties, emasculated media and cancelled election for regional governors.
His rule also saw the jailing of Russia's former richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in what many saw as a case of political vendetta.
The announcement of Putin's return to the Kremlin and fraud-tainted parliamentary polls last December triggered unprecedented protests against the leader's decade-long rule.
In a largely unprecedented show of defiance, many everyday Muscovites mocked Putin during the winter protests, with some home-made banners alleging the 59-year-old strongman uses Botox to preserve his looks.
Taken aback, Putin promised several concessions including the return of gubernatorial elections.
But once his move to the Kremlin was signed and sealed, the parliament rushed through several laws giving Putin new powers to crack down on the nascent protest movement even before he marks 100 days in power in mid-August.
One law will force internationally-funded non-governmental organisations to carry a “foreign agent” tag in a move expected to stigmatise scores of charities and other groups.
Another law sharply raises fines for misdemeanours at opposition protests, while a third piece of legislation would allow the government to block access to blacklisted Internet sites. Parliament also voted through a bill recriminalising slander and libel with massive fines.
The move comes after Putin's predecessor Medvedev, now Putin's prime minister, decriminalised slander and libel just six months ago.
“It is as if someone hit the rewind button,” wrote political commentator Mikhail Fishman.
“The Medvedev thaw today looks more like a piece of ham or butter which has been left in the sun and heat for a couple of hours Ä it's rotting and melting pretty much with the same speed.”
Signs are multiplying that the Kremlin would no longer brook dissent. On the eve of a protest in June, authorities raided the homes of several opposition leaders from anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny to the glamorous TV host Ksenia Sobchak.
Three members of all-girl punk band Pussy Riot who called for Putin's ouster in a Moscow cathedral in February were ordered this month to stay in pre-trial detention until January and could face up to seven years in prison.
In a huge irony, their trial is taking place in the Khamovnichesky Court in western Moscow, the same courthouse that was the scene of the second trial of Khodorkovsky.
Adding to the sense of pressure in society, one lawmaker recently proposed forcing media financed from abroad to carry a “foreign agent tag.” Another lawmaker suggested that any offenders of morality be criminally prosecuted.
“This is a reaction to the 'revolution' and to attempts to win changes at a time when the regime does not want any,” said political commentator Yulia Latynina.
The same confrontational mood is evident in foreign policy as the Kremlin stubbornly refuses to support sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rejects foreign interference into what it says is domestic affairs of sovereign nations.
Putin, mindful of the fall of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, is hardly enthusiastic about popular uprisings ousting long-standing strongman leaders.
The Carnegie Moscow Centre's Shevtsova said the degree to which the opposition would be able to consolidate in the face of the crackdown after a summer lull could become the bellwether of Russia's future direction.
“Autumn is awaiting us. A big experiment will begin - just how successful authorities would be in intimidating society and plugging all the holes in a boiling kettle.” - Sapa-AFP