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Anti-Putin activists pay high price, but refuse to back down

Courtesy of Maria Gaidar

Harvard University student and anti-Putin activist Maria Gaidar, 29, previously served as vice governor of the Kirov region. She will help manage a crowdsourced website that monitors polling stations across Russia this weekend.

By Becky Bratu, msnbc.com

Maria Gaidar knows first hand about the consequences of being a political activist in Russia.

A fierce critic of Vladimir Putin and founder of the youth opposition movement DA! (YES! in Russian and and acronym for Democratic Alternative), Gaidar was accused by pro-government media last year of fleeing the country after being involved in a car crash that killed a 13-year-old girl. 

“I didn’t hit a girl,” the 29-year-old Harvard University student told msnbc.com.

Gaidar says she has also been detained after taking part in a peaceful dissenters’ march, but she refuses to back down. Gaidar remains a leader of anti-Putin organization The Other Russia as well as the opposition Union of Right Forces party.

“Why would people tolerate something forever?” she asked.

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But despite huge protests amid claims for fraud in the wake of December’s parliamentary elections, Gaidar is among the many Russians with little doubt that Putin will be re-elected as president when the country goes to the polls on Sunday. Putin served as president from 2000-2008 and then became prime minister when a constitutional bar prevented a third consecutive term as president. 

And while the message of tens of thousands who attended rallies in Moscow quickly went from one in favor of fair elections to a straightforward "Putin, go!", the country’s opposition movement has failed to put forward an alternative leader. It also hasn’t coalesced behind one of the four candidates running against him.

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Gaidar credits prominent blogger Alexei Navalny for putting forward an important idea when he encouraged people to go to the polls and vote for anyone but Putin.

Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters, file

Opposition supporters take part in a rally in Moscow on Sunday. Thousands of Russians joined hands to form a ring around the city centre in protest against Vladimir Putin's likely return as president.

“The message is ‘we don’t want this anymore’ and the way to transmit this is by not voting for Putin,” Gaidar told msnbc.com.

However, that is unlikely to be enough to drive Putin from office.

Being an ocean and several time zones away won't stop Gaidar from doing to her part to try to ensure a fair vote this weekend.

Gaidar will help manage a crowdsourced website that monitors polling stations across Russia. She said several thousand people have already signed up as monitors and she suspects irregularities will keep them busy on Sunday.

“Monitoring elections is the right thing to do,” she added. “[Putin] doesn’t have more than 50 percent of support.”

Gaidar says the opposition movement has so far focused on establishing fair elections, not finding leaders. Those who are the best opposition leaders are not always the best leaders of a country, she said, hinting at lessons learned following the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia.

Russia's presidential election takes place on Sunday, Mar. 4. Rock Center Correspondent Harry Smith journeyed to Moscow where he met blogger Alexei Navalny, a vocal opponent of Vladimir Putin and his party United Russia. Navalny has galvanized protesters through social media and uses his website to expose alleged political corruption. The prospect of Putin returning to the presidency has generated protests in Russia not seen since the fall of Communism. The surging public outrage has left some wondering if a movement is afoot in Russia similar to that of last year's Arab Spring. 

“Right now the protest is very healthy,” said Gaidar, who is the daughter of former Russian prime minister Yegor Gaidar.
“This revolution is Russian and pragmatic. People understand what they want and they’re asking for it.”

'Party of crooks and thieves'
Among those leading the charge toward reform is Navalny, a 35-year-old lawyer and blogger who thrives on exposing corruption and often targets Putin’s United Russia party. He calls it “the party of crooks and thieves.”

Following December’s elections, Navalny and other activists took to the Web to post reports of the alleged abuses, sparking even more outrage. On the second day of rallies, Navalny was arrested on charges of obstructing traffic after giving a speech in front of thousands of protesters. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail.

“I think that corruption has been a constant irritant which kept on building along with resentment,” Navalny told NBC News' Harry Smith. “Putin’s mistake is that he engineered an electoral fraud in the city of Moscow so obvious and arrogant that it was taken by the people as a slap in the face.”

While Navalny was in jail, the rallies grew even larger. "Of course, we were very upset that we could not be there,” Navalny said. “But we could not believe that such things were really taking place in Moscow.”

Anton Golubev / Reuters, file

Prominent blogger Alexei Navalny, left, listens to opposition leader Garry Kasparov during a meeting on January 31.

Navalny was released on Dec. 21, and an even bigger protest followed on Christmas Eve.

“At the demonstration I said that right now we can go and take the Kremlin, which frightened many people. But it was true,” Navalny told Smith.

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The activist said the government “did everything to make sure we did not exist.” He told Smith there is a car that always follows him around, and another that follows his wife.

“And it's very funny because they are changing plates on the cars but they are not changing cars,” he explained.

But Putin’s press secretary downplayed Navalny’s importance.

“[Putin] wouldn't over exaggerate his importance,” Dmitry Peskov told Smith.

If Putin wins on Sunday, he could run for another six-year term in 2018. A victory then would mean Putin had chalked up 24 years in power out of the 33 years since the collapse of Communism.

Generous social spending
While the anti-Putin movement is unlikely to change the results of this election, experts agree the protests have eroded Putin’s legitimacy.

Over the past decade, Putin benefited from a high approval rating, an economy that performed relatively well and an apolitical public that he kept under control through generous social spending.

“All three of those things are gone and not likely to return,” Timothy Frye, director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, told msnbc.com.

While the opposition has grown in recent months,  Putin continues to do well in the countryside, among older voters, the empowered bureaucracy and people who are dependent on the state for their livelihood, but he has lost the support of the middle class and the urban population fed up with the endemic corruption. At the same time, his campaign strategy has been to appeal to the core rather than court the opposition.

“If there is no rigging, he would probably win half of the vote anyway,” Maria Lipman, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment Moscow Center, told msnbc.com.

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Navalny has said he would participate in the political process if elections were open to anyone who wants to run.

Gaidar, who is currently pursuing a mid-career masters degree in public administration at Harvard and who previously served as deputy governor of the Kirov region, says she doesn’t have any political ambitions. Being a politician in nowadays Russia is like hitting your head against a wall, she said.

But Gaidar does plan to return home after she completes her studies and try to enable change within the system.

“In five to 10 years we’re going to live in a different Russia,” she said. 

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