UK & World News

  • 25 July 2014, 10:07

Russia's Putin Clamps Down Amid MH17 Dissent

They're laying flowers outside the Dutch embassy in Moscow, and with them they're leaving notes.

Again and again you see the words: "Please forgive us." One says: "It's our fault".

There are people here who are genuinely concerned about the direction Russia is heading under Vladimir Putin, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to make their voices heard.

On the same day as he promised to do everything to help the MH17 investigation, the Russian president passed a new anti-protest law, increasing the penalty for repeat breaches to up to five years forced labour or imprisonment, or a one million ruble fine.

Another law targeting "extremist language" makes retweeting information deemed "offensive" punishable by up to five years in jail.

The vast majority of people here, more than 90%, get their information from TV news - and Russian media is increasingly subject to heavy state control.

For the last week it has been broadcasting a steady stream of "questions Kiev must answer" and Russia's theories about the Malaysian airliner crash.

"We are always right, I mean Putin, we trust him," one middle-aged woman told us, "and whatever America or Ukraine are trying to blame him for, they are not right."

Vladimir Putin has rarely been more popular in Russia.

The latest polls put his personal approval rating at 83% - up 29% from last year, boosted by his annexation of Crimea, which was a wildly popular move at home.

His presidency has coincided with a massive increase in the price of oil, and for many a tangible increase in their standard of living, especially when compared to the chaos and economic turmoil of the 90s.

But despite the fast cars, huge oil and gas revenues and the perception of wealth, Russia's economy is beginning to look increasingly fragile.

The IMF has estimated Russia's growth this year will slow to 0.2% and the value of the ruble has fallen.

Capital flight for the first seven months of this year has reached $75bn (44bn) - one and a half times the cost of the Sochi Olympics.

Russian economist Alexander Orlov explained: "Previously the growth of wages, of real income, was positive, but now that the economy is slowing down to almost zero, there is no real growth in income, in wages, but inflation is still going up."

"And with the ruble depreciation, we could see much higher inflation going forward."

Fifteen new names and 18 entities are to be added to the EU's sanctions list this week, while German officials have warned sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy could follow by the end of the month unless Russia acts quickly to defuse the crisis in eastern Ukraine.

Russia doesn't want more sanctions, but neither is it likely to reverse its mistrust of Petro Poroshenko's government in Kiev, or "the Kiev junta" as it is known in Moscow.

Russia fears that Ukraine, under its new pro-Europe government, will move towards the EU, and maybe one day NATO.

Mr Putin said himself this week: "No matter what our foreign colleagues are saying, we see what is really going on."

"The number of Nato troops on the territory of eastern European states is being demonstratively reinforced."

For all that Mr Putin knows he needs to be seen to be co-operating with the investigation into flight MH17, that doesn't mean he will abandon his long-term ambitions in Ukraine.

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