- Associated Press - Sunday, June 10, 2012

MOSCOW — Helmeted riot police round up hundreds of protesters, including some whose only apparent crime is wearing white ribbons of opposition.

A teacher who spoke out about election rigging is dragged into court and fined.

Now a new law awaiting President Vladimir Putin’s signature raises fines for participating in unauthorized protests 150-fold, to nearly the average annual salary in Russia.

Mr. Putin has cracked down on the opposition since returning to the presidency, and he seems to be betting that by threatening demonstrators with prison time and harsh fines he can quash the street protests that have posed an unprecedented challenge to his 12 years in power.

His strategy faces a major test Tuesday, when the opposition plans its first mass demonstration since he began his third presidential term May 7.

Some opposition leaders contend that the tough line will help their cause by fueling anger and bringing more people out for this week’s protest.

Others say the repression will scare away the middle-class protesters who turned out in the tens of thousands for peaceful demonstrations this past winter.

Mr. Putin, for his part, is refusing any talks with the opposition.

“He understands only one language, the language of force, and therefore he perceives any normal discussion and any rational compromise as personal weakness,” said Yevgenia Chirikova, an environmental activist who has campaigned against Kremlin-backed road construction that is destroying a forest outside Moscow.

Protests rise and fall

Ms. Chirikova and Ilya Yashin, who recently spent 15 days in jail for leading unsanctioned protests, were among a group of opposition leaders who met Thursday in Moscow to discuss the implications of the new law, which would increase fines to $9,000.

Mr. Yashin tried to ease worries, saying protest leaders would collect donations for those punished, as was done within hours when St. Petersburg teacher Tatyana Ivanova was fined $1,000 last week.

Ms. Ivanova was found guilty of damaging the reputation of an education department official she had accused of pressuring her and other poll workers to falsify the December parliamentary vote.

The anti-Putin protests broke out after the December election, which observers said was riddled with fraud in favor of Mr. Putin’s party, and continued in the run-up to the March presidential vote.

As many as 100,000 people turned out in the frigid cold for demonstrations demanding free elections, and the streets of Moscow rang with cries of “Russia without Putin” and “Putin is a thief.”

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