Europe

Russia's opposition defies brutal intimidation

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Media captionA woman is seen with a wad of ballot papers inside her anorak (activist mobile phone footage)

Stanislav Pozdnyakov only went to monitor a municipal election in Balashikha, just outside Moscow, as a kind of practice-run for the parliamentary ballot next year.

He ended up being beaten so badly he needed emergency surgery to remove his spleen.

Earlier that day he had filmed how he and other monitors spotted a woman apparently trying to rig the vote. In the footage she was caught with a wad of ballot papers stuffed inside her anorak.

Each slip had been pre-ticked for candidates loyal to President Vladimir Putin.

At one point on the video, an apparent accomplice rushes up and grabs the papers.

Internal bleeding

But the main drama that day is not caught on camera.

Image caption Stanislav Pozdnyakov was attacked after monitoring a local election in Russia

"A group of big men in tracksuits came up to us, with their hoods pulled over their eyes," Mr Pozdnyakov recalls, from a hospital ward in Moscow.

He was rushed in last week after he collapsed with internal bleeding.

"I don't know how long they beat me for, because I lost consciousness when they broke my nose and I woke in a pool of blood," he says.

The attack, by up to eight men, took place in broad daylight outside the polling station.

"I don't know why they did it. Maybe they were in training, like we were," he guesses. "They want to be prepared."

Prepared, perhaps, to prevent a repeat of the mass protests that swept through Moscow three years ago.

Image copyright AP
Image caption There were big protests against alleged electoral fraud in Russia in 2011 and 2012

That was when vote-rigging at parliamentary and presidential elections brought huge crowds on to the streets. The evidence had been caught on film by activists like him.

They were the biggest protests since the early 1990s, sparking talk of a "Russian Spring".

But in May 2012 police clashed with protesters on Bolotnaya square, not far from the Kremlin. Hundreds of people were detained, many seemingly at random.

The mayor's office refused permission for a mass rally on the square to mark the anniversary, offering a far-flung suburb instead. That is a common tactic now.

President Putin has also approved strict new anti-protest laws since his return to power, with hefty fines and detention for violations.

So on Wednesday night, only a hard core showed up to demonstrate in central Moscow.

Image caption Protests on Wednesday were held under the watchful eye of security forces

"We're here in solidarity with those who were detained on Bolotnaya," explained Sergei Sharov-Delone, one of the group waving banners and photographs of those still in custody.

"But we also want to show that civil society still exists here, downtrodden but not destroyed."

As they chanted for the prisoners' freedom, armed police hovered nearby and poorly disguised, plain-clothed officers filmed from all angles.

Later that evening, Mr Sharov-Delone was one of dozens detained as they moved their picket to Bolotnaya square.

Support for Vladimir Putin remains strong across the country. Last year's annexation of Crimea gave him a big boost, even among some who previously rallied against him on the streets.

State-controlled media paint opposition groups as Western-backed traitors bent on ruining their country.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption President Putin retains support among many Russians, boosted by the annexation of the Crimea

And the clampdown on protest has played its part.

But the mass demonstrations of 2011-2012 revealed that the Russian president is not infallible.

That is why activists like Stanislav Pozdnyakov remain defiant, despite the danger.

He plans to return to election monitoring once he is well again, because he is sure that the opposition spirit has not died - it has just died down.

He believes another fraudulent vote could be the spark that reignites the protests.

"Those who were scared have already left Russia," Stanislav insists, from his hospital bed. "The ones still here are not afraid. The threats won't work."

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