Russian authorities detained one of the country’s leading opposition figures less than two weeks after the U.S. Senate ratified a key arms-control treaty that the White House promised would help reset ties with Moscow.
Over the weekend, members of Russia’s FSB internal security service disrupted demonstrations in St. Petersburg and Moscow, arresting nearly 130 pro-democracy activists and reversing a policy of tolerating political protests once every 60 days by a coalition of democratic opposition figures in the country.
Among those arrested was Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and the leader of the United Democratic Movement, a political party that favors Western political reforms.
“I understand that this is an attempt to frighten the opposition and frighten my family,” Mr. Nemtsov said in a statement from jail. “I understand that the authorities are enraged and nervous and don’t know how to deal with the opposition. I also understand that we have no right to retreat. And we shall not retreat.”
These arrests followed the sentencing last week of Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a key political opponent of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The sentencing of Mr. Khodorkovsky to six more years in prison culminated a two-year trial that observers criticized as politically motivated.
“Everyone, including the administration, saw this harsh sentence for Khodorkovsky coming from a mile away,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and incoming chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“This is yet another reason why it is so perplexing that the administration insisted on ramming through New START during the lame-duck session of Congress and has also insisted on making concession after concession to Russia despite Russia’s obvious backslide in the direction of tyranny,” she said. “The ‘reset’ has been a total one-way street of concessions from the U.S. to Russia with nothing to show for in return.”
Ms. Ros-Lehtinen was referring to the passage last month of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), an arms-control agreement that President Obama said was critical to efforts to reduce tensions with Russia.
The White House, in a statement, condemned the arrests and said it was surprising to see Moscow reverse its policy on the political demonstrations.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said “we were pleased that Moscow authorities had reversed their previous policy and decided to allow peaceful demonstrations. So we regret that these arrests have taken place, both in Moscow and St. Petersburg.”
Mr. Crowley noted “the importance of embracing and protecting universal values, including freedom of expression and assembly — they’re enshrined in the Russian Constitution — as well as international agreements that Russia has signed.”
However, Mr. Crowley would not say whether Russia’s treatment of political opposition figures is part of the U.S. reset of relations. More tangible gains for the United States from the reset include Russia’s cancellation of the sale of components of S-300 air-defense systems to Iran, despite signing a contract during the Bush administration to do so. Russia also supported the final passage last year of sanctions against Iran at the U.N. Security Council.
Mr. Nemtsov and nearly 130 other activists were sentenced Sunday to 14 days in jail, according to figures provided by Mr. Nemtsov’s party and local media reports. Other opposition figures who were arrested include Ilya Yashin, Kirill Manulin, Konstantin Kosyakin and Eduard Limonov.
David Kramer, the executive director of Freedom House, said he thought some members of the Obama administration believed that human rights issues were a part of the reset policy with Russia.
“I don’t think the Russian government views human rights issues as a part of the reset. We might; they don’t,” Mr. Kramer said.