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As Putin Rides Wave Of Popularity, Opposition May Get Swept Under


In Russia, President Vladimir Putin is enjoying unprecedented public support for his recent annexation of Crimea. His pledge to protect Russian, speaking citizens elsewhere in Ukraine, by military force if necessary, is also wildly popular. Putin is banking on that support as he moves to quash another perceived threat: His political opponents at home.

NPR Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson went to Moscow for that story.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Thousands of Russians gathered in Moscow 10 days ago to protest against a government crackdown on independent media. Such demonstrations are rare nowadays, given that Russian authorities are prone to turn on anyone who speaks against them. Human rights activists report more than 1,500 opposition arrests since March. And a flurry of bills under consideration by the Russian Duma, or parliament, call for raising fines and stiff jail sentences for unauthorized protesters as well as allowing police to use deadly force at demonstrations.

BORIS NEMTSOV: This is really, very serious and very dramatic problem for Russian opposition. But we must overcome. We have no choice.

NELSON: That's former Russian deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who is an ardent critic of President Vladimir Putin. Nemtsov says he and other opposition politicians who speak out are at grave risk of imprisonment. He likens it to Germany of the 1930s when Adolf Hitler called anyone who disagreed with him a traitor.

NEMTSOV: (Unintelligible) like in the Hitler time, if you are against Putin, you are against Russia. If you are against Putin, you are American spy.

NELSON: Nemtsov adds Putin is counting on his current approval rating, which is over 80 percent, to shield him from criticism as he clamps down on opponents. Another new scare tactic the government is using is to link Russian protesters to pro-Western ones in Kiev, says Russian lawyer Dmitri Agronoski(ph). He represents dissidents who are on trial in connection with violent clashes during a rally two years ago.

DMITRI AGRONOSKI: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: Agronoski says any suggestion of a connection to Ukrainian protestors is laughable given his clients opposed what happened in Kiev's Independence Square. He adds that he doesn't understand why the government is cracking down on the opposition at a time when so many Russians support Putin. Some observers in Russia say it's not only Putin, but his critics who are to blame for why the opposition is in trouble these days.

Confrontan Von Egar(ph) is an independent Russian analyst.

CONFRONTAN VON EGAR: Many people here knew that the alliance of nationalists, leftists and, well, broadly speaking, reformers or liberals that forms during the protests in Moscow and other Russian cities in winter 2011, 2012 was, in the long term, an untenable proposition. And I think that what we've seen in the last few weeks is just proof of that.

NELSON: One vocal critic of government corruption who has turned on the opposition is Galena Koch(ph). She serves on a Moscow district municipal board and met me for an interview at a cafe. The deputy says the current sweep is a good way to get rid of opposition leaders who serve their own interests.

GALENA KOCH: (Through interpreter) I'm against repressive measures, but these people should lose their Russian citizenship. It would make them think harder about what groups they join and if those groups contribute positive things to Russian society instead of just being anti-authority.

NELSON: There are disagreements even within opposition parties about whether or not to support Putin, like in the central-right Democratic Choice Party.

ANATOLI SHAMONSKI: We should not forgive Putin's mistakes just for one Crimea kiss.

NELSON: That's Anatoli Shamonski(ph) who is one of the party's activists. He says he supports the annexation of Crimea, but thinks opposition members who extend that support to Putin are misguided, adding that the opposition should remember he's a repressive leader. That legacy, as well as continuing problems with the Russian economy is what Putin critics say they are counting on to persuade Russians to embrace the opposition once more. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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