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How The Kremlin Silences Youth Protests Ahead Of Elections

Little room is left for the movement led by Alexei Navalny to challenge Vladimir Putin's bid for reelection.

January 28 protests in Moscow
January 28 protests in Moscow
Pavel Lokshin

KALININGRAD — In mid-January, Oleg Alexeiev noticed agents from the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) lurking in front of his apartment in Kaliningrad. The next thing he knew, the 22-year-old was sentenced to 20 days for promoting "illegal action."

The charges refer to the demonstrations organized by prominent activist Alexei Navalny in late January, which demanded a boycott of the upcoming presidential election. Alexeiev, a member of the Navalny staff in the Russian Baltic Sea enclave, had also called for participation in the demonstration and as a result, wound up in jail.

In the weeks leading up to the March 18 election, the Kremlin fears a rebellion coming from among the nation's youth. Although polls show that President Vladimir Putin has a comfortable lead among young voters (two-thirds, between the ages of 18 and 24, say they plan to vote for him), his approval ratings among youth are far lower than among other age groups.

The young Russians who have mobilized for protests should not, in any case, be underestimated. There is growing dissatisfaction with Putin among the youth, with laments about the lack of career opportunities for most, while society's advantages are enjoyed by children of Kremlin-friendly elites.

Cases like that of Alexeiev have become part of everyday life in Russia. Almost daily, the human rights platform OVD-Info documents new reprisals against Navalny's mostly young followers and collaborators. Nationwide, house searches are taking place, and people continue to be arrested: sentences of 20 days or 30 days. In Tomsk, Siberia, a protester was fined 2,000 euros participating in a demonstration.

Navalny, the undisputed head of the anti-Putin opposition, has been barred from the election because of a felony conviction (which he says was politically motivated,) has since called on citizens to boycott the vote. The 41-year-old lawyer and leader of the Progressive Party has committed himself to the fight against state corruption and has been sent to prison on several occasions, most recently in October for 20 days.

Alexander Dobralski, Oleg Alexeiev's lawyer, calls the jailing of his client an "illegal deprivation of liberty." But, Dobralski adds that his young client is proud to have been imprisoned like Navalny, his role model. "In Russia," says Dobralski, "any professional politician of the opposition, unfortunately, has to be prepared."

The Kremlin is banking on repression, through various channels. For example, Alexeiev was also kicked out of university during his sixth semester studying law. The Emmanuel Kant University of Kaliningrad justified this with his allegedly poor academic performance. Russia's Association for Student Rights is also dealing with Alexeiev's case.

Navalny supporters are being pressured at other universities, as well. Those who openly sympathize with him have been threatened with dismissal, while a medical academy in St. Petersburg has called on its students to avoid taking part in any of Navalny's actions. The Ministry of Education and Science in Moscow has refused to comment on these events.

Any professional politician of the opposition has to be prepared.

Not only are political activists themselves targeted, but so are their relatives. In Siberia, for example, a friend of Navalny activist, Natalia Pachomowa, was kicked out of college after she refused to withdraw her registration for a demonstration. Her mother, an award-winning teacher, was fired after 20 years on the job.

Provocative non-political actions are tolerated. A homoerotic parody in the Volga city of Ulyanovsk caused a scandal, but had no serious consequences for the students: They got away with a warning. Anyone who protests against Putin, however, faces real risks. Russia plans to spend some 21 million euros on "patriotic education" by 2020. The Kremlin invests in special "cadet classes' to educate children to be obedient and to prepare them for a military career. There are also Soviet-style military-style sports clubs for youth and young adults.

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