WASHINGTON — Shortly before the Sochi Olympics, the Russian government surprised many by granting amnesty to 20,000 prisoners including high-profile opposition activists like Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot and recently jailed members of Greenpeace. That was followed by the even more surprising release of President Vladimir Putin’s longtime antagonist, tycoon-turned-activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
It seemed at the time like a fairly transparent bid for some good publicity ahead of the international media’s arrival in Russia for the Olympics. And given the events that have transpired in the three days since the games ended, those suspicions now seem confirmed.
On Monday, hundreds — including Tolokonnikova and Alykhina — were arrested in Moscow for protesting against sentencing of seven men on charges related to the mass protests that broke out around Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012.
Tuesday, a number of prominent opposition leaders, including activist and blogger Aleksei Navalny and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, were sentenced to several days in prison for resisting arrest during the rally.
Navalny — one of the most dynamic and effective leaders Russian opposition leaders to emerge in years — is in a particularly delicate position. In July he was sentenced to five years in prison on embezzlement charges, but was released, pending appeal, following protests against the sentence, which was widely seen as politically motivated. Navalny’s current sentence is only seven days, but it wouldn’t be too surprising to see him returned to jail for longer.
Russia continued to some extent to crack down on activists during the games, but now that the global spotlight has lifted from the country, it seems more likely that the gloves will come off, particularly with the opposition looking to events in neighbouring Ukraine.
Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.