Critics Say Political Opposition Silenced in Russia

Russians are preparing to vote for a new president on Sunday in an election Vladimir Putin's chosen successor Dmitri Medvedev is certain to win.

Critics say the Kremlin has taken no chances. They say the government has silenced the opposition and many Russian voters, especially those in outlying cities and regions, are being forced to vote for Medvedev.

In the town of Tula, south of Moscow, many are afraid even to speak to a Western reporter.

One exception is Alexander Lesnikov. He runs the local branch of the opposition party, the People's Democratic Union, whose leader, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, was barred from running in the election.

"The opposition is under fierce attack," he says. "We live in an authoritarian system, but it's clear we're moving toward outright totalitarianism. What else can you conclude when police brandishing machine guns and handcuffs stop you on the street, take you away and refuse to give any reason why?"

Lesnikov says he's under constant harassment. Police have raided his office, shut down his industrial cleaning business and even confiscated his driver's license. Lesnikov says some local restaurants won't serve him out of fear. Under those conditions, he says, Sunday's presidential election is a farce.

The only group with enough popular support that could exert real opposition here is the Communist Party. But even its members praise Putin.

The authorities' biggest concern is that voter turnout won't be high enough to make the election appear legitimate. To help generate interest, city officials have organized a mock political debate in a Tula college auditorium. But some participants say the exercise is meant only to provide a facade of democracy. Student Dalia Volkova says her parents have been pressured to vote for Medvedev by their superiors at work.

"Companies are forcing their employees to vote for a candidate they don't necessarily support," she said. "If you don't do it, you get fired."

Doctors, military personnel and others who work for the state are under the greatest pressure to vote.

While the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, keeps a close watch on Tula's residents.

At least two people interviewed for this report were questioned on the same day, among them local radio journalist Anna Mikhanchik.

"I can't report about what's going on because my managers have agreed with the authorities about what we can cover. Journalists who don't comply simply don't work."

On a frozen lake near the city center, a fisherman cuts a hole in the ice on a raw winter day. Nearby, stern-faced pensioner Ivan Milov sits patiently with a fishing line in hand. Asked what life is like here, he mutters angrily.

"What's life supposed to be like on a pension of less than 200 dollars a month?" he says. But asked for whom he'll vote on Sunday, he repeats the official line: Dmitri Medvedev, because he's helped Putin bring stability to Russia.

On Tula's streets there are almost no campaign advertisements. Analysts say the Kremlin doesn't need them because the president appoints the country's regional governors, and their subordinates are tripping over themselves to deliver votes for Medvedev.

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