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Retired Tennis Star Kafelnikov Joins Growing Group Of Russian Celebrities Supporting Protests

Russian ex-tennis player Yevgeny Kafelnikov (file photo)
Russian ex-tennis player Yevgeny Kafelnikov (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Olympic tennis gold medalist and former world No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov has joined a growing number of Russian celebrities and athletes to speak out against a police crackdown against protesters who are demanding election officials register independent and opposition candidates for upcoming elections to the Moscow city council.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Kafelnikov, a one-time supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin but now a Kremlin critic, said he has participated in the rallies the past two weekends in Moscow, where more than 2,000 people have been swept up by riot police in a show of force sharply criticized by rights activists and many Western governments.

Even though he earned tens of millions of dollars as a professional athlete and gained worldwide fame, the 45-year-old said he took to the streets because he is worried about corruption and the state of democracy in Russia as a whole.

"This isn't some kind of unauthorized action," said Kafelnikov, who won six Grand Slam singles and doubles titles in his tennis career.

"Who can bar regular people from walking in their own city? They aren't setting tires on fire. They aren't breaking shop windows. They aren't demolishing restaurants. Sure, they chant 'Let us in!' but that is not a call for violence," he added.

Moscow has witnessed protests since authorities there in July banned multiple opposition candidates from running in a municipal election scheduled for September 8.

Several would-be candidates to the Moscow City Duma have also faced harassment, including arrests and home searches.

The opposition, many allied with jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, say local officials want to keep them out, fearing they will beat pro-Kremlin candidates.

Local election officials say the rejected candidates submitted invalid signatures among the required 5,500 to get on the ballot.

The Moscow City Duma, which has 45 seats, is responsible for a $43 billion municipal budget and is now controlled by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. All of its seats, which have a five-year-term, are up for grabs in the vote.

The support of celebrities and especially athletes has been a point of pride for President Vladimir Putin, whose sporting exploits are regularly promoted by Russian state media to burnish his macho image at home and abroad.

Many athletes have even stumped for Putin over the years, including during his latest presidential election victory.

But for Kafelnikov, himself once a Putin backer, the treatment of opposition leaders such as Navalny was a tipping point.

'Nazi' State

The opposition politician and anti-corruption crusader was banned from running in the 2018 presidential election, and Kafelnikov says he couldn't remain on the sidelines when the Moscow protests began when his candidate for city council, prominent Russian opposition activist Lyubov Sobol, had her candidacy rejected without cause.

Sobol, who is on hunger strike and a key organizer of the current wave of protests, was taken from a taxi and taken to police headquarters as she tried to make her way to the August 3 protest.

"The choice that I had, I was simply deprived of it. I radically disagree with this," he said.

"So naturally, I will defend my position. I don’t want to live in such a 'Nazi' state, when they just tell you that you can breathe today, and tomorrow you can’t breathe. I don't want this to be the case with me or for my compatriots who also have every right to their own choice," he added, noting that the August 3 march felt like "walking through a concentration camp" with three times the number of guards than protesters.

Despite mass arrests and the heavy-handed police tactics, organizers have said they plan another rally on August 10.

Kafelnikov said he remains optimistic that the protests will eventually bear fruit "because, certainly, the truth is on their side."