Russia clamps down on opposition before elections

October 29, 2011

Last Halloween, the opposition here put together a daring demonstration, portraying Vladimir Putin as Count Dracula and President Dmitry Medvedev as Frankenstein. Lesser officials were turned into a collection of werewolves and mummies, and licking their lips they boiled and drank the people’s blood — in the form of cranberry juice.

“People laughed,” said Evgeny Legedin, one of the organizers. “That is the strongest weapon against a dictator. They can’t stand it.”

A year later, Yekaterinburg’s activists are paying for their fearlessness. Legedin is in England, seeking political asylum. Maxim Petlin, an outspoken city councilman, is in pretrial detention on bribery charges. Sergei Kuznetsov, a longtime dissident, has fled to Israel. Another activist made his way to Britain last week. A fifth critic, Igor Konygin, keeps up the fight, threatened with arrest at any time.

“The authorities believe people should all think the same way,” said Konygin, who has already endured one jail sentence. “So everyone who shows opposition is in jail. It’s a sign to everyone else.”

Legedin said the authorities in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, where the Bolsheviks murdered the last czarist family, became less tolerant than usual over the last year as this December’s parliamentary elections began to loom. The ruling United Russia party considers anything less than 60 percent of the vote unacceptable failure. In 2008, he said, a presidential envoy was sent from Moscow to clamp down.

If United Russia shows any vulnerability, the whole calculation of Russian politics changes. The party represents Prime Minister Putin’s grasp on the country. And, as he plans to return to the presidency after elections in March, he wants to look stronger than ever with the economy and social contract showing strain. That leaves little room for independent officeholders.

On Thursday, a liberal politician, Leonid Volkov, was disqualified from running for the regional legislature after a handwriting analyst ruled that 77 signatures on a petition were false — Volkov calculated it took 7.5 seconds to examine each one, given when the expert was called in. Eventually 154 were disqualified, some because the names had been signed at a faster speed than the dates next to them. Volkov is suing.

In February, Petlin, an activist member of the liberal Yabloko party, was accused of taking a bribe from a well-connected development company to drop his campaign against the construction of a shopping mall that would destroy a park and encroach on a cemetery.

When he was charged, a hundred people filled the courtroom, said Vyacheslav Bashkov, a member of a public commission that monitors human rights in the Sverdlosk region’s prison system, eager to prevent his detention while the investigation proceeded.

“It was almost a small revolution,” Bashkov said. “He was set free.”

Petlin, now 38 and the only Yabloko member in the 28-seat city Duma, kept battling the shopping center. On Aug, 26, his freedom was revoked and he was taken to pretrial Detention Center No. 1, which is so overcrowded, Bashkov said, that each cell holds twice its capacity. People sleep on the floor, or take turns on the beds. Tuberculosis and hepatitis are rampant. “We are talking about innocent people who haven’t been tried,” he said.

A few days ago, with prosecutors still unprepared to try him, Petlin’s detention was extended until Dec. 22.

“I think he had an idea about the scale of the corruption,” said Petlin’s wife, Tatyana, “but none of us could even imagine this.”

Delayed consequences

Petlin was part of Strategy 31, which organized the Halloween protest and demonstrates on the 31st of every 31-day month in support of Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly. Other cities more often than not refuse permission for the rallies and haul away the demonstrators, but Yekaterinburg has allowed them. Here, the consequences come later.

In mid-July, investigators accused Legedin and Konygin of slander, a criminal offense, for holding up a picture of the chief prosecutor in a public square along with a sign saying “No to Corruption.” The offense carries a prison sentence of up to three years.

Legedin was frightened. Earlier in the summer he had applied for a British visa, hoping to visit England in August or September. When it arrived in August, he left. At Heathrow airport, he asked for political asylum, leaving behind his job at a pharmaceutical company.

“I didn’t want to leave my country,” he said, “but if I stayed, I knew I would go to prison. I don’t want that.”

Kuznetsov, a 54-year-old human rights activist and journalist, had been campaigning hard on behalf of Petlin, said his wife, Olga Moiseyeva. The authorities had never forgiven him for a successful suit he filed with the European Court of Human Rights, which in 2008 upheld the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in Russia. In May, he began to hear disturbing rumors that the powers-that-be had had enough of him and intended to destroy him. Kuznetsov decided he should flee.

After reaching Turkey and then Israel on tourist visas, he decided he would go on to Britain without a visa, Moiseyeva said. That proved a serious mistake. He was prevented from boarding a flight and arrested. Israel wants to deport him to Russia, she said. He remains in an Israeli prison, trying to find a country that will accept him.

‘Declarations to actions’

Konygin was a lieutenant colonel in the police department in 2003 when his bosses asked him to support them in a scam, he said, signing false documents so they could help themselves to federal funds coming in from Moscow.

“I refused,” he said, “and I was fired.”

Challenging his dismissal, he got his job back. A week later, on Dec. 29, 2004, he was charged with stealing the money — the ruble equivalent of $200,000 — that he had refused to sign off on. After two years in pretrial detention, he was sentenced to four years. Unbeknownst to him, his sister, told he would be freed if there were some restitution, sold her apartment and paid $50,000. It didn’t help.

In September 2007, his parents’ home in a village 25 miles from Yekaterinburg mysteriously burned down. The fire department found no water available, Konygin said. His 70-year-old father died in the fire.

“I was not allowed to go to the funeral,” he said.

After his release on parole in January 2008, he began a campaign to clear his name. Soon the police department filed charges, insisting he repay the remaining $150,000.

Konygin, 43, and his wife now run a digital print shop. His clash with the authorities frightens her, and they argue about it. But they have three children, and he does not want them to hear their father called a thief.

“If we’re ever going to establish the rule of law, we have to go from declarations to actions,” he said. “I decided to act.”

In July, he was accused in the slander case along with Legedin. He intends to stay.

“I was born here,” he said. “It’s my home town, and I love it.”

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