MOSCOW -- The term "soft authoritarianism" has replaced "managed democracy" in describing Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime. Even Putin's defenders have reservations about calling Russia a democracy anymore. They usually explain that Russia's very special circumstances require a very special kind of democracy. Putin himself reportedly talked about "Russian-style democracy" in responding to President Bush's concerns about recent political developments here (concerns expressed when the two presidents met in Chile in November).

The current Russian-style democracy is very special indeed. Political competition has been eliminated, checks and balances done away with, and the public effectively alienated from its government. In fact, the Kremlin has no longer maintained even the appearance of democracy since Putin canceled gubernatorial elections and switched to a system of governors of his own choice. Today the important question about Putin's regime is whether the "softness" of his style of rule will last or whether things will gradually get harder.

Apart from the campaign against the Yukos oil enterprise and its executives, Putin has been sparing with repression. His menacing tone, threats of prosecution, the ever-increasing number of state security service people in government positions and, of course, the example of Yukos proved to be enough to intimidate the elites and cleanse the political scene of significant opposition.

But lately there have been alarming signs that the regime may be slipping toward harder methods. Several more people -- medium-rank executives or lawyers -- were arrested in the Yukos case late last year. (Two of them are women; one, who has two small children, is in jail, while the other was released only because she developed a serious medical condition, and she remains under travel restrictions.)

Academics Igor Sutyagin and Valentin Danilov received long prison sentences on trumped-up charges of espionage.

And members of a radical political youth group were sentenced to five years for breaking into a government building and smashing several pieces of furniture. Other members of the same group committed a similar action and have been charged with a state crime (violent seizure of power) that could bring them 20 years in prison.

These cases have little in common. The recent Yukos arrests seem to have been provoked by the exasperation of prosecutors unable to conclude the campaign against the jailed former head of the firm, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the company itself. The Yukos case has dragged on much longer than the Kremlin expected, and the cost to Russia's economy and international prestige has been enormous.

According to the lawyers in the cases of Sutyagin and Danilov, the academics were tried by specially selected juries. Danilov's case is especially outrageous, because he was acquitted and then retried by a new jury. Their harsh sentences (15 and 14 years, respectively) are a message from the state security service, anxious to show who's boss.

Severe punishments for radical young activists came in time for the "orange revolution" in Ukraine and probably are prompted by the fears of Kremlin rulers that their power might be challenged by angry crowds.

As the regime in Russia has shut out political competition, Kremlin aides have increasingly resorted to oversimplified and inefficient methods of governing. When these primitive attempts at solutions lead to failure and crisis, Putin and his aides, instead of rethinking their policies, give in to frustration and fury.

The destruction of Yukos, the heavy-handed interference by the state in the economy and the disastrous Ukraine policy are repelling investors, neighbors and foreign partners. Putin's executives are unable to win respect on the world scene or to ensure steady economic development at home -- but they can put their domestic enemies in jail. And as failures accumulate, the urge to blame it on "hostile forces" grows stronger, as does the desire to punish the "enemy."

Putin has not meant to be a repressive leader. Even though some among his aides may be more vengeful and hawkish than others, his regime mostly rests on corrupt bureaucrats who are unlikely to unleash mass repression because they realize that they could in turn fall victim to it. What causes alarm is the increasing tendency to turn to arrests, jailings and severe sentences.

Those arrested in the Yukos case, the young radicals and the academic "spies" cannot be described as a political opposition in the strict sense of the word. Rather, they fell victim to the Russian ruling elite's hatred, its desire for revenge or its fears. The jailing of political opponents, while common enough now in Belarus and the countries of Central Asia, has not become accepted practice in Russia; for the most part, the Kremlin's intolerance of public critics has been limited to verbal threats. But the risk of slipping into an ugly repressive cycle is growing, and it no longer seems improbable that we'll see people arrested and imprisoned for voicing dissent or engaging in peaceful political protest.