MOSCOW — When a smirking Vladimir Putin told journalists shortly before his return to the presidency in May that he would "certainly tighten the screws" on Russia's protest leaders, no one in the opposition was entirely sure how serious the former KGB officer was.
Now they know.
This week, prosecutors charged opposition leader Alexei Navalny with large-scale embezzlement in an old case that leaves the anti-corruption activist facing up to 10 years behind bars. The move was the latest in a series of actions against leaders of the unprecedented protests against Mr. Putin that have rocked Moscow since December's disputed parliamentary elections.
"There is no doubt that this case is politically motivated," Mr. Navalny's attorney, Vadim Kobzev, told The Washington Times. "There is no basis for the charges and no chance of a fair trial. Navalny is likely to get seven years."
Mr. Navalny is a charismatic 36-year-old lawyer who made his name as a blogger exposing official graft. His relentless online mocking of Mr. Putin and other top officials was the inspiration for a rebirth of political activism in Russia after the widespread apathy of the 2000s. He has served two short jail sentences for protest-related activities in recent months.
Old case reopened
Prosecutors say Mr. Navalny's actions, while working as an adviser to the governor of a central Russian region, caused a forestry firm to sustain losses of more than $500,000 from April through August 2009. Mr. Navalny called the charges "strange and absurd" because authorities already have investigated the accusations twice without bringing charges against him.
He was released after questioning Tuesday on a pledge not to leave Moscow. No date has been set for a trial.
The charges were filed just days after Mr. Navalny accused Alexander Bastrykin, Russia's chief investigator, of concealing illegal foreign business interests. The accusation was the latest in a series of public potshots Mr. Navalny has taken against Mr. Bastrykin, a university classmate of Mr. Putin's. Mr. Bastrykin scolded prosecutors in early July for closing the case against Navalny "on the sly." The case was reopened shortly afterward.
Opposition figures have likened the Navalny case to that of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsy, who has been in prison for almost 10 years on fraud charges that he says were revenge for his support of opposition parties. The Kremlin denies that his imprisonment was politically motivated.
"The trumped-up charges against Navalny are vivid proof of the fact that political repression is under way in Russia," fellow protest leader Yevgenia Chirikova told The Times. "Whenever people start to open their mouths, they are immediately targeted."
Leaders of the protest movement have faced a number of legal, business and financial problems since Mr. Putin returned to the Kremlin on May 7 for a third term as president, after serving four years as prime minister.
Socialite turned dissident Ksenia Sobchak lost an appeal last month to force investigators to return about $1 million seized from her plush Moscow apartment during a raid in June. Three women from a punk-rock group face up to seven years in prison for a protest against Mr. Putin in Moscow's biggest cathedral.
Leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov was sentenced to 240 hours of community work in July for assaulting a pro-Kremlin activist, a charge he denies.
Opposition lawmaker Gennady Gudkov said he was forced to close his 20-year-old private security firm after pressure from authorities.
About 3,000 people rallied in downtown Moscow last week to call for the release of 14 suspects detained after violent clashes between Putin opponents and police near the Kremlin in May.
Speakers at the rally, including Mr. Udaltsov, warned of a "return to 1937," a reference to the height of political repression under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Those fears were echoed this week by Russian tycoon and Kremlin critic Alexander Lebedev, who said the charges against Mr. Navalny indicate that the country is on the "brink of political repressions."
In July, Mr. Putin signed two laws that opponents say are attempts to stifle mass protests planned for the fall. One law re-established criminal penalties for libel, and the other gives the government the power to ban websites deemed damaging to minors.
vsay the website law is far too wide in scope and open to abuse.
Kremlin 'testing the waters'
In June, Mr. Putin also approved a law greatly increasing fines for protest-related offenses. The legislature is also expected to approve a bill that would force nongovernmental organizations that are funded from abroad and engaged in politics to declare themselves "foreign agents."
"During June and July, we have seen the shift to a harsher type of political regime," said analyst Lilia Shevtsova at the Moscow-based Carnegie Center think tank.
"The Kremlin is testing the waters to see whether they can apply repression without provoking a Western reaction or society to take to the streets again. But it's not a dictatorship yet because the authorities are unsure if they can rely on the security structures."
Ms. Chirikova urged the United States to protest the charges against Mr. Navalny by introducing sanctions against Russian officials. She also criticized the White House for putting business ties with Moscow ahead of "the human rights of the Russian people."
She said the threat of jail time would do nothing to stop her involvement in the protests against Mr. Putin's 12-year rule.
"They've already tried to take away my children and my small engineering business," she said. "But when you see what is going on in your country, there is no other choice but to struggle."