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Critics Say Political Opposition Silenced in Russia

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Critics Say Political Opposition Silenced in Russia

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Critics Say Political Opposition Silenced in Russia

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

Russians vote for a new president on Sunday, and Vladimir Putin's chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is certain to win. The head of Russia's electoral commission has admitted not all the candidates had equal media coverage. Critics won't be surprised by the observation. They say the Kremlin has taken no chances, that it has silenced the opposition.

NPR's Gregory Feifer is investigating reports that voters are being forced to vote for the Kremlin's top candidate. He traveled to the industrial city of Tula, south of Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER: Don't take your samovar to Tula. That's the Russian equivalent of taking coal to Newcastle. Famous for its production of the traditional Russian tea urns, this depressed industrial city is part of Russia's Red Belt, previously a rock bed of support for the Communist Party, where evidence of the country's vast oil and gas wealth is nowhere in sight.

(Soundbite of truck)

FEIFER: Ancient-looking trucks rumble down potholed-ridden streets through a wasteland of decaying 19th century factories and Soviet concrete. But besides the diesel fumes, there's something else in the atmosphere of this city. Many here are afraid even to speak to a Western reporter.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

FEIFER: 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.

Mr. ALEXANDER LESNIKOV (People's Democratic Union): (Through translator) The opposition is under fierce attack. 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.

FEIFER: Lesnikov says he's under constant harassment. Police have raided his office, shut down his industrial cleaning business, even confiscated his driver's license. Lesnikov says some local restaurants won't even 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.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: 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.

Ms. DALIA VOLKOVA (Student): (Through translator) Companies are forcing their employees to vote for a candidate they don't necessarily support. If you don't do it you get fired. This election is absolutely unfair.

FEIFER: 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.

Ms. ANNA MIKHANCHIK (Radio Journalist): (Through translator) 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.

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

Mr. IVAN MILOFF: (Speaking Russian)

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

(Soundbite of street)

FEIFER: Back 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.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Tula.

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