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'Another Day At The Office': Navalny's Campaign Head In Kazan Continues To Fight Despite Repeated Arrests

Elvira Dmitrieva outside the campaign office of Aleksei Navalny in Kazan. (file photo)
Elvira Dmitrieva outside the campaign office of Aleksei Navalny in Kazan. (file photo)

KAZAN, Russia -- Elvira Dmitriyeva walked out of jail in Kazan, the capital of the Russian region of Tatarstan, on September 12 determined to continue doing the very thing that got her thrown into custody in the first place -- campaigning for opposition politician and anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny.

Dmitriyeva, 38, just completed an eight-day jail sentence after being convicted for posting on social media an open invitation for the public to come to Navalny's local campaign headquarters and take his literature. That term came hard on the heels of a 10-day sentence she received on August 23 for the same offense, which was interpreted as violating Russia's laws on holding demonstrations. That sentence, however, was annulled by the Tatarstan Supreme Court after she'd served two days because of lower-court "procedural violations."

Dmitriyeva also served a similar term in March for participating in a national anticorruption protest organized by Navalny.

"I haven't done anything heroic," Dmitriyeva told RFE/RL. "All the [Navalny] coordinators face this kind of thing. It is just another day at the office for us. All these arrests are just part of the job. We knew when all this started that there would be resistance."

Russia's opposition made headlines when independent liberal politicians won about 11 percent of the vote in Moscow district-council elections on September 10. Although the ruling United Russia party maintained its overwhelming dominance in Moscow and swept the elections in every other region that voted, the Kremlin and others interpreted the results as an indication of healthy political competition.

Quixotic Campaign

That would be news to supporters of Navalny, who is attempting to run a quixotic campaign to unseat President Vladimir Putin in Russia's March 2018 presidential election. Election officials have said Navalny will not be registered to compete in the election because he was convicted of felony embezzlement (he dismisses the accusations as politically motivated), but supporters nonetheless have set up more than 60 campaign offices around the country and begun scheduling events and distributing leaflets.

On September 6, the New York-based Human Rights Watch NGO issued a statement condemning the "undeniable" campaign of harassment against Navalny activists that included both police harassment and arrests and attacks by ultranationalist thugs.

"Navalny's campaigners are getting hit from two sides -- the ultranationalist and pro-government thugs who openly attack them with impunity, and officials, who use lame pretexts to detain and harass them," HRW Europe and Central Asia Director Hugh Williamson was quoted as saying. "The message is not subtle and the result is the further elimination of any real alternatives in Russia's political system."

That's a situation that Dmitriyeva knows firsthand.

"I understand that the authorities took all these methods from Soviet times," she said, "when they discredited dissidents and independent thinkers. They might find some way to hurt me but for now I'm just laughing at all this. At some point, I might get angry."

'Very Soviet' Environment

Nonetheless, her time in jail was no picnic. Speaking to RFE/RL, she recalled the first time she entered the cell.

"There is an element of the unknown," she said. "You don't know what to expect. The environment there -- let's face it -- is no fairy tale. Iron doors, everything very Soviet. It is practically the same as being in prison, as far as I understand. They close the door behind you and you are in complete isolation with some complete strangers. There are cameras on the ceiling and the lights never go out. A lot of people find it quite uncomfortable."

Unlike many people who find themselves in jail, Dmitriyeva already knew most of her guards.

"A lot of our people had already served time in that special jail unit," she said, "so all the guards knew me as someone who would visit them and bring them parcels. They always treated me respectfully and you could tell that they were more or less normal people. When they saw me on the other side of the bars, they were naturally surprised."

Dmitriyeva thinks that the police were unhappy with the Supreme Court's August 25 decision to annul her first sentence.

"On August 31, the police came to the office, grabbed me, and hustled me off to court," she said. "It was obvious that they wanted to put me into jail immediately. I certainly had no illusions that they planned to just give me a fine after rushing me off so quickly. They were on a mission to jail me. I don't know why -- maybe someone gave an order to jail me for 10 days and that was all. But the court refused to violate the law and postponed the hearing until I could get a lawyer."

She received her eight-day sentence on September 4.

"Of course, I have no intention of quitting," she added. "It is possible there will be more attempts to discredit me -- I can't exclude that. Even now they are trying to prick me from all sides -- to get me to quit working. But these are stupid attempts."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL Tatar-Bashkir Service correspondent Vadim Meshcheryakov.

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