Some bad news for Putin as Pussy Riot heads to jail

A judge has sentenced three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot to two years in prison for their "punk prayer":

"The girls' actions were sacrilegious, blasphemous and broke the church's rules," Judge Marina Syrova told the court as she spent three hours reading the verdict while the women stood watching in handcuffs inside a glass courtroom cage.

She declared all three guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, saying they had deliberately offended Russian Orthodox believers by storming the altar of Moscow's main cathedral in February to belt out a song deriding Putin.

The U.S. State Department has issued a statement expressing concern over "both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences." Protests have been staged in several cities -- some less productive than others -- and a number of prominent activists including chessmaster Garry Kasparov were reportedly arrested in Moscow.

While the reaction from Pussy Riot is driving the news today, President Vladimir Putin is likely a bit more concerned by another headline. The president's popularity has hit a record low according to the Levada Center, an independent pollster: 

Less than half of Russians (48 percent) approve Vladimir Putin's performance as president, down 12 percent since the last survey in May, whilst 25 percent said they were unhappy with his work (up from 21 percent in May).

The results show a major fall in Putin’s approval rating since his first two terms as president, when it was on average was 65 percent, with just 15 percent reacting negatively to him. His popularity peaked at the end of 2008 when it reached 80 percent, with just 10 percent against.

His popularity hit an all-time low of 55 percent in winter 2005, when the government introduced a program to monetize social benefits.

This is likely driven more by economic factors than democracy -- the ruble tanked against the dollar last week, though it's recovered a bit over the last few days thanks to rising oil prices. Putin probably won't face too much of a public backlash over the Pussy Riot verdict. According to another Levada poll, "6 percent had sympathy with the women, 51 percent said they found nothing good about them or felt irritation or hostility."  



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