This has been a difficult year for Yevgeny Arkhipov even by his tough standards.

苏州半永久

Earlier this month, security service officials collared the opposition-minded human rights lawyer as he was boarding a plane to attend a conference in Ukraine.

His transgression was to have owed $US100 ($A95.50) in alimony. Mystified, he returned home only to be informed by the authorities that he owed nothing. He believes the debt was made up as a pretext to stop him from helping raise the profile of the country’s eight-month protest movement abroad.

“They’re worried the international community will accuse them of carrying out political repression,” he said wearing a suit in his small four-desk office overlooking a railway station in central Moscow. “They have a blacklist and I’ve ended up on it.”

Friday’s sentencing of three members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot to two years in jail did much to call attention to Russian authoritarianism by dominating headlines around the world. But the apparent moves against 33-year-old Arkhipov show the authorities are also acting more quietly behind the scenes.

They were the latest in a series of steps that, taken together, look very much like a co-ordinated crackdown on what’s being billed as the political awakening of Russia’s burgeoning middle class.

It began soon after Putin returned to a third term as president in May. Last month, parliament rushed to pass three bills widely criticised as tools for quelling dissent on the last day before its summer break.

The State Duma increased fines for breaking laws governing protests, recriminalised slander and libel and labelled NGOs receiving non-Russian funding “foreign agents.”

One of the measures reversed an initiative passed seven months earlier under then-President Dmitry Medvedev, who has styled himself as a liberal.

The actions followed moves against some of the country’s leading opposition figures, whose houses were searched before they were called in for questioning.

However, Arkhipov’s recent troubles indicate the clampdown is also aimed at lesser-known figures.

Founder of the Association of Lawyers for Human Rights and an outspoken Kremlin critic, he has gained a reputation as a staunch rights defender.

He has represented groups of various leanings, including the Primorye Partizens, a band of vigilantes in Russia’s Far East, and activists arrested during a notorious nationalist riot steps from the Red Square in December 2010.

Now he is defending an activist who was arrested during protests against Putin’s inauguration that escalated into violent clashes with riot police on May 6.

Arkhipov credits himself with winning the release of one of the defendants by exposing procedural violations by the authorities, but he says he’s now being silenced.

“The investigators made us sign an agreement not to divulge secret information from the investigation,” Arkhipov says.

“What does that mean? That to the end of our days neither I nor my team can speak about evidence about our clients’ innocence or official falsifications.”

Lawyers at Arkhipov’s group are defending all 11 activists on trial in the case.

The general crackdown is getting some attention at home. Nezavisimaya Gazeta echoed common opinion about its purpose in a recent article about pressure on opposition youth group leaders and lawyers headlined: “Fear as Medicine Against Rallies.”

However, analysts are divided about whether the Kremlin is micromanaging the crackdown or whether political clans within the elite are pursuing opposition targets on their own initiative.

Some believe personal revenge is playing a role.

Among those targeted, the anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny has waged a public campaign against the powerful head of the Investigative Committee, an agency that has taken the lead in targeting opposition figures.

Alexander Bastrykin is also close to Putin, so accusing him of illegally owning a property empire abroad was highly risky territory.

Days after Navalny published documents that appeared to corroborate the allegation, investigators accused him of embezzling $US500,000 from a state timber company when he was an adviser to a regional governor.

The charges, which carry a punishment of up to 10 years in jail, date back to 2009 in a case that’s been opened and closed numerous times for lack of evidence.

Navalny’s firebrand rhetoric has helped thrust him to the front of a protest movement that unites disparate groups by their resentment of Putin.

Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center said charging such a high-profile figure would require at least tacit approval by the Kremlin.

“I don’t believe a development as politically sensitive as this one is unfolding without the Kremlin’s knowledge,” said Lipman. “It falls so smoothly into the general trend.”

The opposition plans to hold its next major rally on September 15. Turnout will provide an important gauge of the clampdown’s impact.

Arkhipov, who sides with more radical members of the opposition such as the writer Eduard Limonov, believes moves to crush moderate factions will begin in earnest after the summer lull.

He’s pessimistic about the effect it will have on the protests’ future.

“They’ll tighten the screws completely by New Year’s,” he said before referring to the opposition’s symbol, a white ribbon. “There will be nothing left of it but shreds.”