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With Elections Still Months Off, The Kremlin Sends A Chilling Signal

Police detain a participant of the Municipal Russia conference in Moscow on March 13.
Police detain a participant of the Municipal Russia conference in Moscow on March 13.

MOSCOW -- Mikhail Kovyazin, a 48-year-old independent municipal deputy from the city of Kirov, had modest plans when he decided to attend the Municipal Russia conference of independent lawmakers in Moscow on March 13-14.

"I planned to tell them about the situation in the village of Sergeyevo, where the bus wasn't running in the winter because the road is too dangerous," he told RFE/RL. "How together with local residents, acting completely legally, we were able to get the road fixed and restore this connection."

Instead, Kovyazin found himself -- like all of the other nearly 200 people from 56 regions who were in the hall when the event opened -- detained by Moscow police and shuffled off into a police van. He found himself sitting next to prominent opposition leader Ilya Yashin for several hours, getting a firsthand account of the political situation in the Russia of President Vladimir Putin from a close associate of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

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Like the other conference participants, Kovyazin was written up for allegedly participating in an event organized by an organization deemed "undesirable" and banned in Russia. The organization in question is the London-based Open Russia foundation funded by long-imprisoned former oil tycoon-turned-Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

If the administrative charges are confirmed in court, the detainees -- who were all released within about 15 hours of being detained -- face fines from 5,000 to 15,000 rubles ($70 to $210). With all the participants detained, the conference was canceled.

'Harsh And Excessive'

Like many of those who were detained on March 13, Kovyazin connects the police raid with the elections to the State Duma, the lower chamber of Russia's parliament, which must be held by September 19. According to a poll conducted by the independent Levada Center and released on March 11, the ruling United Russia party -- through which Putin's government maintains a near monopoly on political power throughout the country -- was polling at just 27 percent support.

"I believe the reason for such harsh and excessive actions by the authorities is fear," Kovyazin said. "All of this is happening in the run-up to a new election season. The authorities are afraid of change, so they are trying to suppress any manifestation of independence."

Ksenia Fadeyeva, a municipal deputy from Tomsk who was also detained at the conference, agrees, connecting the crackdown directly with United Russia's ratings nosedive. "They understand perfectly how the elections this fall are going to look," she said. "Independent candidates will show up and they will have to be denied registration under a variety of pretexts because, God forbid, they should lose. I think the authorities are very nervous right now."

Kirill Prokorov is an activist from Karelia. In 2018 he lost an election bid for the Petrozavodsk city council, but he was invited to the Moscow forum as a potential future candidate. He told RFE/RL that the police raid may have been intended to send a message to people like him.

"Everything was carefully planned," he said. "They didn't get the event host to cancel it in advance. They waited until the event started, until everyone was there, in order to be able to detain everyone."

"I had the feeling they wanted media coverage," he added, "in order to pressure active and potential candidates so that they would think about their future in this county, so that they would understand that everything is under control."

Andrei Pivovarov, the executive director of the Russian organization Open Russia, which is no longer legally connected with the London-based group with the same name and which was an organizer of the Municipal Russia forum, called the police raid "a demonstrative use of force."

"The purpose was to publicly show their strength," he said. "The is an election year and the authorities' popularity is low. The majority of people at the forum were municipal and regional deputies who are planning to run in the elections."

Police-Van Politics

The purpose of the forum, said Anastasia Burakova, coordinator of the United Democrats group that also was an organizer of the event, was to bring together like-minded people from across the country "so they could build horizontal ties and share ideas and experiences."

In that regard, the police raid may have backfired, Karelia activist Prokorov said. "I did some excellent networking in the police van," he told RFE/RL. "I spoke in depth with deputies from many cities. I learned about how they carried out their election campaigns. I now have contacts with everyone with whom I shared those six hours. My goal was achieved."

Viktor Vishnevetsky, an environmental activist and municipal deputy from Syktyvkar, in the Komi region, had a similar experience. "I planned to speak with other environmental activists at the forum and find out what is happening in their regions," he said. "In the end, that's just what happened, although not in a conference hall but in a police van and later at a police station."

"Now even educational events and exchanges of opinion are illegal," he added. "We can't meet openly anymore, and since there's nothing we can do about that, we will have to change formats. Online is one possibility. More closed and informal meetings could be another."

"Of course, opposition-minded people can't stop exchanging opinions," he added. "We just need to find new ways."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Moscow by Yelena Vladykina and Gleb Yarovoi of RFE/RL's North.Realities. RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir and Russian services and Current Time also contributed to this report

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