Tue, Dec 12, 2017 - Page 9 News List

The Russians risking all to oppose Vladimir Putin

The campaign of opposition politician Alexei Navalny is gathering steam ahead of next year’s election, but his supporters face threats and intimidation

By Shaun Walker  /  The Guardian, KEMEROVO, Russia

Illustration: Yusha

It has been a rough couple of months for Ksenia Pakhomova, a bright-eyed, garrulous 23-year-old from the Siberian mining town of Kemerovo, Russia. Her boyfriend was kicked out of university, her mother was fired from her teaching job at an arts school and her grandmother was threatened with dismissal from her job at a gallery.

To top it off, someone plastered notices with her photograph in public places near her home, complete with her mobile number and an offer of sexual services.

All of this appears to be linked to Pakhomova’s job: She is the regional coordinator for the presidential campaign of Alexei Navalny, an opposition politician who wants to challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin for the presidency in elections in March.

Putin on Wednesday last week finally declared his candidacy in a long-expected announcement and is likely to win comfortably. Standing against him are a familiar cast of political has-beens and a few spoiler candidates whom few Russians are taking seriously.

Navalny will most likely be barred from standing due to a criminal conviction in a case that was widely seen as politically motivated, but the 41-year-old anti-corruption campaigner is ignoring this.

Instead, he has chosen to engage in the kind of enthusiastic, grassroots campaigning that has been absent from Russia in recent years: real politics, in short. He has embarked on a marathon of trips across the nation’s vast expanse, holding rallies and setting up campaign headquarters.

The liberal opposition has traditionally made few inroads in places like Kemerovo, a tough, working-class region four hours by plane from Moscow.

Here, Navalny is attracting the support of a different kind of Russian from the chattering, Moscow intellectual class that many see as the natural supporters of the democratic opposition.

Navalny’s supporters are mainly young Russians who have known little in their lifetimes except a Putin presidency.

Pakhomova, who studied law at university, said she was not particularly political until earlier this year, when she started watching Navalny’s videos.

She was particularly horrified by a video alleging staggering corruption on the part of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, which led to major protests in Moscow and other cities earlier this year.

In Kemerovo, she began volunteering for the local Navalny campaign and in time she was appointed head of the local office.

“Everyone in Russia knows that officials are corrupt, but when you see the details, how openly they think they can do it, it’s shocking,” she said.

Ksenia’s mother, 46-year-old Natalia Pakhomova, said she was warned in September that she should prevent her daughter from working for Navalny, but refused.

At the end of October, she was removed from her job on the pretext that anonymous parents had called the local administration and complained that teachers at her school were soliciting bribes. She had worked at the school for 26 years and in April had received a medal from the local governor for her service.

Natalia’s 67-year-old mother, who works as a gallery attendant in the local art museum, was asked by her boss to talk her granddaughter out of working for Navalny and was also threatened with dismissal. She is on sick leave, which Natalia said was due to frayed nerves from the incident.

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