* Pussy Riot trial widens divisions in society
* Trust in Putin and his popularity fall
* Vigilante groups take matters into own hands
By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW, Sept 4 (Reuters) - Supporters of the punk band Pussy Riot stand accused of being traitors and Satanists bent on destroying Russia. Their ultra-religious foes are for their part depicted as extremists in the pay of corrupt politicians.
A debate over whether three of the group’s members should have been jailed for dancing to a profane “punk prayer” in a Russian Orthodox Church has deepened a split in society to a degree rarely seen since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
But there is one sentiment that is shared by people on all sides - disappointment with President Vladimir Putin.
Putin is not about to fall. But a recent poll showed his popularity had slipped 12 percentage points since he returned to the presidency in May.
The former KGB spy, whose appeal once embraced the vast majority, is showing signs of concern.
Ivan Ostrakovsky, the leader of a religious group called Svyataya Rus (Holy Russia), has started organising vigilante patrols at night in Moscow because he fears the state cannot protect Russian Orthodox property or the values he stands for.
“Putin is a regular man holding the steering wheel of the presidency. There is no democracy in our country, just a wild satanism,” he said under the golden domes of Moscow’s Church of Christ the Saviour before going in to pray.
“When Putin first came to power, I will say it frankly, I had extremely high hopes. I thought he would come and lift up the country. But by 2008 I realised this had not happened. Maybe there were some positive elements, but very few. Things in the country were again basically going very, very badly.”
Ostrakovsky, a 37-year-old Chechnya war veteran, represents a constituency that has long been the backbone of Putin’s support - conservative, traditional and religious.
He is not alone in his disappointment. Polls show many more Russians opposed the Pussy Riot protest than backed it, but there has been no groundswell of support for Putin over his firm response to their action in allowing their trial to go ahead.
“Support for him is slowly falling and the number of dissatisfied people is growing,” said Lev Gudkov, head of the independent Levada polling group which said last month 48 percent of Russians had a positive view of Putin compared to 60 percent in May.
He said divisions were not new in Russian society. Putin’s position was safe if the economy did not suffer a new crisis and the opposition remained disunited.
Yet social tensions are much more in evidence now than a year ago, before Putin’s announcement last Sept. 24 that he planned to return to the presidency after four years as premier in a job swap with ally Dmitry Medvedev.
That announcement, with its presumption of a right to power, flew in the face of democracy for many Russians, and prompted the creation of Pussy Riot as a radical protest group. Since the announcement, social tensions have been on the rise and the Pussy Riot case has helped stoke them.
Soon after the Pussy Riot trial ended, a group calling itself People’s Freedom took responsibility for the desecration of four wooden crosses that were chopped up in Russia, describing it as a protest against the two-year jail sentences handed down to the three band members on Aug. 17.
In an incident shown on YouTube, Orthodox activists harassed a young man for wearing a Pussy Riot T-shirt in a Moscow subway station. Others raided a museum of erotic art in the capital at night and the museum director, who had backed Pussy Riot, accused the assailants of extremist violence.
A performance of a play about the Pussy Riot trial, attended by the band’s lawyers and supporters, was interrupted in Moscow by a group shouting “Repent!”, witnesses said.
When the words “Free Pussy Riot” were scrawled in blood at the scene of a double murder last month in the central city of Kazan, state television had initially aired suspicions the killer was inspired by the band’s action. Newspapers sympathetic to Putin had also published lurid headlines.
Levada’s Gudkov says Putin still has broad support in the provinces, but the populations of big cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg have largely turned against him since allegations of fraud in a parliamentary election last December touched off protests that have at times drawn tens of thousands of people.
Religious and ethnic tensions are also gnawing away at Russia’s southern edge, where an Islamic insurgency continues despite a second war in Chechnya that was launched by Putin when he was prime minister in 1999.
The 59-year-old Kremlin leader has shown his concern by delivering a series of patriotic speeches calling for unity and religious tolerance, and warning against nationalism.
Although he won almost two-thirds of the votes in the March 4 presidential election, the mood in Russia has changed since Putin’s first eight-year spell as president.
“In his first term, Putin had a policy that just about all society took up - and that was creating a stronger state,” said Sergei Markov, a former parliamentary deputy for Putin’s ruling United Russia party.
“Putin would like to seize the social agenda now but how can he when society is divided into two opposing parts?” Markov, vice-rector of the Plekhanov University of Economics, said. “Putin faces a very difficult problem. The split is serious.”
The Kremlin chief may have opened a Pandora’s box by allowing the Pussy Riot trial to go ahead.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor, says Putin hoped the trial would forge closer ties with the Orthodox Church - Russia’s dominant religion - but could as a result lose control of the forces it unleashed such as religious fervour and nationalism.
“He has risked encouraging hard line and nationalist forces that have no particular sense of loyalty to him. Putin does not understand that this could cost him the presidency,” he said.
Such predictions may sound far-fetched and look far ahead, but Putin himself has in the past two weeks issued the starkest warnings over the rifts in Russian society.
Visiting the central city of Kazan after a Muslim cleric was killed in an attack there last month, he said: “We will not allow anyone to tear our country apart by exploiting ethnic and religious differences.”
This was a reference to the risk of the Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus spreading to other mainly Muslim regions closer to Moscow such as Tatarstan.
It may have been intended to whip up nationalism to rally support behind him. But a flare-up of violence in the North Caucasus could also undermine his authority, which he built up initially by reining in separatists in the second Chechnya war.
Putin has in some ways adapted to the new mood in Russia on his return to the Kremlin. Gone are the macho antics that were once guaranteed to go down well with many Russians.
Back, however, is the haranguing of the West, a tactic which Kremlin sources estimate boosted his support by 12 percentage points in the presidential election.
He has also, as so often in the past, evoked the glories and lions of the past to rally support.
On Sunday, he gave a rousing speech calling for patriotism at an event commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Russian army’s defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Two days earlier, he said Russia needed a “leap forward” to rejuvenate its defence industry, harking back to the 1930s industrialisation led by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin; a drive that established Russia as an economic power, but at the cost of many lives.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin went further, posting on his Facebook page a copy of a 1940 letter from Stalin to gun factory managers warning that workers could be shot for not starting production on time.
Such comments suggest Putin is in no mood for compromise even though taking a tough line against the opposition could further polarise society.
He has already tightened the screws on his opponents by introducing new laws, increasing fines for protesters and toughening the law on defamation. Prosecutors have opened criminal investigations against some of the protest leaders.
In a sign of Putin’s concern about religious tensions, trusted former aide Vladislav Surkov has been named a point man for religious affairs.
At the back of his mind in all his actions will be the opinion polls that show that trust in him is receding after 12 years in power as president or prime minister. As yet, he has not come up with a “big idea” to unite the people.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which is more critical of Putin than most Russian dailies, wrote on Tuesday that the message coming from society was that a new leader - not Putin or Medvedev - will be needed when the president’s term ends in 2018.
“‘We need another person.’ This is already not the previous message that ‘There is no alternative to Putin’,” it wrote.