OK, fine, no surprise: Vladimir Putin won the battle. The three women of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years behind bars – not for their incendiary remarks about Putin per se, but, ostensibly, for their blasphemy against the Russian Orthodox Church.
However, the interesting question is not about this particular skirmish, but about the larger war. Will the Russian people continue to tolerate the Kremlin’s persecution of the opposition? Or will they somehow make clear that any leader – including Putin – who harasses his followers risks his own personal and political well-being?
The external reaction to the sentencing was immediate and it was harsh. Governments from around the world, as well as human rights groups, let it be known and in no uncertain terms that however outrageous their behavior, punk rockers were not criminals and ought not to be treated as such.
But the question of course is not what happens outside Russia, but inside. Will this event be galvanizing – will it galvanize the Russian opposition to protests that are ever more expansive and strident?
It’s impossible, of course, to precisely predict. But this much is clear even now. First, Putin is running at least slightly scared. He has already gone on record as opposing punishment for Pussy Riot that is unduly harsh, and in fact the two-year sentence is less draconian than it might have been. (Moreover, it’s likely at some point to be cut shorter.)
Second, the internal opposition will not likely forgive or forget. This episode is yet another arrow in the quiver of prominent protesters such as Aleksei Navalny and Gary Kasparov (who was taken from outside the courtroom in a paddy wagon!), more evidence if any were needed that Putin is an autocrat in the ancient Russian tradition.
Think of Russia early in the 21st century as in the process of evolution – not revolution. What this means is that change is slow. What this does not mean is that there is no change at all.