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Russia opposition recalls protests before parliamentary vote

Associated Press Associated Press 13/09/2016 By FRANCESCA EBEL, Associated Press
In this photo taken on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016, Opposition activist, Maria Baronova, poses as she is running for election in the 2016 Russian Parliamentary elections in Moscow, Russia. Baronova's activist nature propelled her into the spotlight as a spokeswoman for the protest organizers. Five years later, the trained chemist is taking her activism in a new direction by running for parliament. (AP Photo/Francesca Ebel) © The Associated Press In this photo taken on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016, Opposition activist, Maria Baronova, poses as she is running for election in the 2016 Russian Parliamentary elections in Moscow, Russia. Baronova's activist nature propelled her into the spotlight as a spokeswoman for the protest organizers. Five years later, the trained chemist is taking her activism in a new direction by running for parliament. (AP Photo/Francesca Ebel)

MOSCOW — Russia is preparing to hold a parliamentary election next week. The last time Russia held one was in 2011, when fraud allegations set off a wave of protests in Moscow, among the largest in Russia's post-Soviet history.

The vote, in which no genuine opposition members won parliamentary seats, galvanized opponents of Vladimir Putin and the dominant United Russia party so much that large protests arose sporadically for five months. It was a time of both anger and hope for Kremlin opponents who had come under increasing pressure since Putin became Russian president in 2000.

But the protest movement effectively ended on May 6, 2012, when police in the area of Bolotnaya Square clashed violently with demonstrators who were protesting the inauguration of Putin for a third term as president the next day. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested, many ended up in prison after trials that dragged on for years and Russian lawmakers soon passed new severe penalties for anyone taking part in unauthorized protests.

As Russia gets ready for the Sept. 18 parliamentary election, here are vignettes of three people caught up in those tumultuous months.

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MARIA BARONOVA

Baronova's activist nature propelled her into the spotlight as a spokeswoman for protest organizers. Five years later, the trained chemist is taking her activism in a new direction by running for parliament.

As an independent candidate and one strongly at odds with the establishment, she holds no expectation of winning, but believes it's worth making a stand.

"I want Russia to be a normal European country, that's it," Baronova said in her office in central Moscow where a photo hangs of benefactor Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon who spent a decade behind bars as Russia's most famous political prisoner. "I want us to have the rule of law, independent courts, good health care — and of course, freedom of speech."

Even if an unexpected victory came to her, she thinks the opposition forces would have little immediate effect on Russia's politics.

"I will not have lots of opportunities to change something in parliament — because even if we have 18, 20 or 30 independent deputies in parliament, there will still be more than 400 deputies from the ruling party, who will push the buttons as Putin says," she said.

Her candidacy hasn't received much support from opposition groupings, she complained, and she said that she's been accused of being a Kremlin stooge for wanting to take part in the political process at all.

The opposition "has always been super-divided: the so-called Russian liberals always have lots of opinions and they are never ready to do a real job," she said.

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ANNA GASKAROVA

When the judge finally gives his verdict, Anna Gaskarova doesn't cry. Almost imperceptibly, her shoulders slump and a sad smile comes to her lips.

In 2013, her husband Alexei Gaskarov was imprisoned for his participation in the Bolotnaya protests, convicted of attacking police at the rally. Since then, Anna has repeatedly appealed for her husband's early release, saying that the allegations are false and politicized.

"I am so used now to hearing the words 'rejected' and 'leave him in custody' that in fact I no longer expect anything new," she said after the latest court hearing in Tula, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Moscow. "But I always hope that a miracle is possible and that the judge will unexpectedly do something the others don't do."

Gaskarov will be released at the end of October, but his wife continued her legal pleas even as the light at the end of the tunnel came close.

"It is just not possible to give up and not do everything you can ... to try to free him earlier than to continue suffering and thinking we could have done more," she said.

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DIANA MACHULLINA

One of the rising younger stars in Moscow's lively arts sphere, painter Diana Machullina was one of the marchers in the ill-fated Bolotnaya protest.

She says she sees the creative process, with its constant demand for change and development, as naturally opposed to the political status quo.

"Contemporary art is opposed to what the government wants, which is to leave things as they are and to protect a status quo which suits them," she said.

But she thinks that many artists have been ground down by the repressive climate that settled in after Bolotnaya, forcing them into self-censorship.

"After Bolotnaya there is definitely censorship and we can't even quantify how far this extends, as many people are censoring themselves so that even before a person tries to do something, he stops himself so we don't even know what could have been forbidden," she said.

"Everything I saw on that day bore out how I feel about those in power. I have always been convinced that power is not good and even changes people who may have come to power with good intentions," she said.

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Kate de Pury and Jim Heintz contributed to this report.

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