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Putin's opponents feel the heat in Russia

Members of the protest movement in Russia tell of ransacked apartments, death threats and other intimidation. Pro-Putin analysts say Kremlin must send a message.

August 15, 2012|By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times
  • Russian opposition activist Maria Baronova, right, cheers for three anti-Putin punk rockers on trial in a Moscow courthouse. She was due at her own interrogation an hour later.
Russian opposition activist Maria Baronova, right, cheers for three anti-Putin… (Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles…)

MOSCOW — When she picked up the phone last week in her new apartment, Maria Baronova heard a cold, metallic voice: "We know that you have moved to a new place, but you won't get away from us."

Two weeks earlier, the same recorded voice told her she needn't bother with her daily routine much longer. "You will die in three weeks," it said.

Tall and blond in a blood-red dress, Baronova was easy to spot among several dozen young protesters Aug. 8 outside a court in central Moscow. Inside, three young female rockers have been on trial for performing a "punk prayer" in Russia'smain cathedral, begging the Virgin Mary to get rid of the country's leader, Vladimir Putin.

Baronova was busy that day. An hour later, she was to be interrogated in her own criminal case. If found guilty of inciting mass disorder, the 28-year-old divorced mother of a 5-year-old son could be sentenced to two years in prison.

Putin's opponents brought tens of thousands of people into the streets in late 2011 and early this year to protest what they say was rampant cheating in parliamentary and presidential elections, and Putin's maneuvers to try to secure another 12 years in power. Since those protests, the Kremlin has launched a campaign that appears aimed at stifling the opposition, relying on physical and psychological harassment, criminal prosecutions and new laws limiting protests.

Pro-Kremlin analysts accuse the opposition of plotting to use violence to bring down the government, and they say the reaction is legal.

Baronova is one of many feeling the heat.

She and 15 others, 11 of whom are being detained, face charges stemming from a protest on May 6, the eve of Putin's inauguration. The rally turned violent. Dozens of people, including 53 police officers, were hurt and hundreds of protesters were arrested.

Baronova accuses the police of provoking the violence and Putin of seeking vengeance.

"We spoiled his holiday and now he is spoiling our lives," she said. While the criminal case against her proceeds, she is barred from leaving the country. She is also being investigated for alleged child neglect.

On a day in early June when only her nanny was home, masked police officers armed with submachine guns climbed onto the balcony of Baronova's fifth-floor apartment and threatened to break down the door.

When the nanny opened the door, Baronova said, they threw her on the floor face down and ransacked the apartment, taking four computers, part of the family archive and even ultrasound images from Baronova's pregnancy.

Police broke into opposition leader Ilya Yashin's apartment the same day. When he arrived home, he said, he found the furniture broken and everything turned inside out, his computers and other personal items missing.

Despite his absence during the ransacking, Yashin didn't avoid an encounter with police. He was visiting another opposition figure, popular television host Ksenia Sobchak, when armed, masked police showed up there. Among other things, they confiscated more than $1 million in cash. Authorities are reportedly trying to prove she planned to use it to finance opposition rallies.

"I am trying to get back my money in a legal suit, but so far to no avail," said Sobchak, who also lost her television jobs and contracts this year.

The opposition has suffered from an inability to build either unity or momentum. Since Putin's inauguration, it has largely taken the summer off, scheduling its next big rally for Sept. 15. In the meantime, the Kremlin has sharply increased the pressure. Yashin said Putin was using all the tools at his disposal to shut down the opposition movement.

Yashin faces a charge of beating a pro-Kremlin activist last year and may soon become one of the prime suspects in organizing the May 6 protest.

Sergei Udaltsov, a left-wing leader of the opposition who spent most of last year in prison for protest activities, also faces a charge of beating a pro-Kremlin youth this year.

And at the end of July, a case was reopened against another major opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, a well-known blogger and lawyer. He is accused of organizing a large-scale embezzlement and if convicted could face 10 years in jail. Authorities say Navalny provided advice to the governor of central Russia's Kirov region that allegedly resulted in timber trade losses amounting to about $500,000.

Navalny said Russian officials are taking advantage of the peaceful nature of the opposition movement.

"They understood that nobody is going to storm the Kremlin, and chose a very rational line of conduct, squeezing everyone in a lawless way over the time period they still have," he said.

Well-established figures in the media and politics are also under pressure.

Tycoon Alexander Lebedev, a major shareholder in the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which has been a vocal critic of Putin, said early this month that he intends to halt all his business in Russia because of the threat of political persecution and move away.

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