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Opinion Two high-profile arrests show how the Kremlin plans to fight this year’s election

Andrei Pivovarov, the former head of the Open Russia movement, during a court session in Krasnodar, Russia, on June 2. (AP)

YEKATERINBURG, Russia — Russia’s parliamentary election campaign officially starts in mid-June. Yet the Kremlin made its first move this week by arresting two prominent opposition candidates who were expected to pose a significant challenge to Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.

On Monday evening, security operatives intercepted a Warsaw-bound Polish passenger plane as it was about to take off from the runway at St. Petersburg’s international airport. After climbing onboard, they approached a passenger, told him that he was being detained on a “search warrant” (even thought he had just cleared customs and border control) and led him away. The operation echoed the recent scandal in Belarus, when Alexander Lukashenko’s security services effectively hijacked an E.U. passenger plane to arrest an opposition journalist. Europe’s last two dictators really do have a lot in common.

The St. Petersburg passenger was Andrei Pivovarov, former director of Open Russia, an opposition group founded by exiled Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The movement has come under intense attack from Russian authorities in recent years, with arrests and criminal prosecution of its members. In March, an entire conference hall full of opposition lawmakers and activists (including the author of this piece) were arrested by Moscow police on charges of abetting an “undesirable organization.”

To protect its supporters from further attacks, Open Russia formally disbanded last month — but that didn’t stop the authorities from arresting Pivovarov anyway. (Such petty things as legal constraints never do.) After being interrogated, he was charged with sharing a Facebook post in August 2020 in support of a local election candidate in Krasnodar. The indictment — again, under the “undesirable organization” charge because of a supposed link with Open Russia — carries up to six years of imprisonment.

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The next morning — after a nighttime search in his apartment, with his wife and 4-year-old son watching — Pivovarov was flown, in handcuffs and under police escort, to Krasnodar, over 1,000 miles away, where the court placed him under arrest pending trial. “I think the prosecutor is mocking our state [with this indictment],” he told the judge. “Because if the state can be threatened by a Facebook post, what kind of a state is it?”

While Pivovarov was on his way to Krasnodar, two dozen assault-rifle-wielding officers in Moscow carried out dawn raids on the apartment, dacha and offices of Dmitry Gudkov, a prominent opposition politician and former member of the Russian parliament. Gudkov was detained and placed into custody; two of his assistants were taken in for interrogation. He was released after two days but charged under an obscure law on “causing material harm” that carries up to five years in prison. The reason? His aunt has a unpaid debt related to the rent for a basement she leased from the city of Moscow in 2015. “This was a ‘black mark’ [final warning]”, Gudkov wrote. “If I run for parliament, they will jail not only me but my aunt as well. And for her, at 60 and after covid, it would be equivalent to a death sentence.”

I spent this week in Yekaterinburg for a film screening at the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center. The exhibits here take one back to a different era in Russia — our short-lived period of democracy when elections were fought for real, parliament was a place for debate, and TV networks were free to criticize the government. It was like traveling back to the 1990s. Elsewhere in Russia things are looking distinctly more like the 1970s — and perhaps fast approaching the 1930s.

This new wave of repression comes from insecurity. Putin’s United Russia party is down to 27 percent in the polls nationwide — and to a meager 15 percent in Moscow, where both Pivovarov and Gudkov were planning to run in September’s election. Polls commissioned by the presidential administration show that Gudkov has consistently high support in his district and is likely to win — a prospect especially unwelcome for the Kremlin, as the next parliament will be sitting during the crucial transition year of 2024, when Putin is likely to attempt an unconstitutional power grab in violation of term limits. Kremlin sources are telling journalists that Putin has made clear that the next parliament — just like the current one — should be opposition-free.

It is becoming more difficult for the Kremlin to achieve this. After Putin’s 21 years in power, even once-loyal supporters are growing tired of him — while his backing among young Russians who have never seen any other leader in their lifetimes has collapsed to 20 percent. As the 2019 Moscow legislative elections have shown, the removal of opposition candidates no longer protects Putin’s party from humiliating defeats. In the end, no amount of coercion can stop political change once public sentiment grows strong enough.

Needless to say, it is up to Russians to change Russia. But politically motivated imprisonment is a violation of Moscow’s international commitments — and this week the number of political prisoners (already higher than in the late Soviet era) has grown again. The European Union has demanded that the Kremlin “immediately and unconditionally” release Pivovarov and others unjustly detained. On June 16, during his meeting with Putin in Geneva, President Biden will have a good opportunity to do the same.

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