Last week Vladimir Putin and his guest Jean-Claude Van Damme spent an afternoon watching a kickboxing tournament in St. Petersburg. Between bouts, the Russian president excused himself to receive updates from his Interior minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, on a no less violent event across town. There, 8,000 of Putin's security forces, in newly issued black visors and riot gear, were busy breaking the heads of some 2,000 protesters marching near the city center. By the end of the day, 400 opposition protesters were in jail; more than 40 were hospitalized. It was the fourth such march in a month that police goons had ruthlessly crushed on the Kremlin's orders.
Is Russia moving toward dictatorship? It certainly looked that way last week after the latest violence against peaceful demonstrators in Moscow and St. Petersburg. After years of slowly tightening state control over the media and squeezing political opposition, Putin has taken a sharp lurch into something beyond mere authoritarianism. "This is a turning point," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few remaining anti-Putin Duma deputies. "Everybody who had doubts before can see now the true face of their leader."
If so, it's not a pretty sight. In the run-up to parliamentary elections in November, Putin's ideologues have set out to eliminate all real independent parties and replace them with fake "opposition" groups that operate with official sanction. The Kremlin calls this "managed democracy." In fact, it's an eerily familiar borrowing from the darkest days of the Soviet empire. In place of real opposition, Putin has created Potemkin parties—just as in the old East Germany, where he once worked as a KGB officer. One is Fair Russia, a pseudo left-wing party designed to take votes from the rapidly dwindling Communists. Another is Civil Power, a so-called liberal party. Meanwhile, United Russia, the "party of power," dominates the Duma and counts most governors and bureaucrats as members. Aspiring government officials are required to join the party or face damaging their careers. The three parties differ on policy—but all are loyal to Putin.
The few independent parties left outside this neat system are feeling the heat. In Moscow last week, a large rally by the Kremlin-backed youth group Nashi (Ours) went smoothly ahead, unbothered by police. By contrast, a much smaller march organized by A Different Russia, a loose coalition of some of the country's last remaining bona fide opposition groups, was targeted for a crack-down. Police summarily arrested anyone deemed "suspicious," dragging dozens into vans before they could even join the rally. One of its leaders, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, was bundled into a police bus along with dozens of others, including NEWSWEEK Russia reporter Aidar Buribayev, who now faces charges of "participating in an unsanctioned march." In St. Petersburg, a police baton broke former city Duma deputy Sergei Gulayev's hand in five places. Police chased down and beat every pedestrian they could, including pensioners. "My father fought against Hitler; now Putin's cops beat people for no reason," says 52-year-old Aleksandr Kazantsev, who had been shopping with his wife when they saw crowds of people and thousands of police running toward them down a street in St. Petersburg. Kazantsev suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung after a policeman kicked him repeatedly. "I have never been to a demonstration, but from now on I will attend every one. We need to fight this; otherwise we'll wake up one day in North Korea."
The mystery is why Putin would bother. Another Russia is weak and divided. Putin's own popularity remains a sky-high 81 percent. His minions control every instrument of power. Part of the answer may be that Putin and his team have never been public politicians. Putin was plucked from an obscure job in Boris Yeltsin's presidential administration and groomed as the old man's successor. Unlike Yeltsin, he has never been on the campaign trail, never had to work a crowd or answer hostile questioning in debates. It's also clear that the idea of uncontrolled, unfettered opposition goes against everything Putin and the KGB men who dominate the Kremlin have lived by. In the aftermath of last week's beatings, Kremlin officials took refuge in that hoariest of autocratic dodges: the protests were sponsored by foreign conspirators plotting to undermine Russia. "We will absolutely not tolerate any revolutions financed from abroad," declared a senior Kremlin aide not authorized to speak on the record.
The beatings aren't likely to be the end of it. Kasparov has been summoned for questioning by the FSB, successor to the KGB, in order to determine whether some of his recent public statements amount to illegal "calls for extremist action." Other opposition activists, including Andrei Sidelnikov, leader of the youth group Pora (It's Time) have been arrested and questioned as well. Police also raided a U.S.-backed NGO that trains journalists and news management at Ren TV, the last semi-independent television station. Meanwhile, the Russian Information Agency has introduced strict new censorship procedures for all political news.
Perhaps the Kremlin knows something the rest of the world—and many Russians—don't. Despite Putin's personal popularity, polls show that 65 percent of Russians are unhappy; 53 percent disapprove of the government, and nearly 30 percent live under the World Bank poverty line. Behind the façade of "managed democracy," there's a brewing discontent that some experts warn could turn ugly under the right conditions—say, a sudden drop in oil revenues. "Only a tiny group got rich during Putin's presidency," complains St. Petersburg pensioner Boris Liftishtein, 62, whose leg was broken by police. "The rest of us are unhappy and poor." Perhaps that's the real reason Putin doesn't trust his people. If they ever find a real voice, he and his clan might be out of a job.