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Monday, January 21, 2008

At Last, the MSM Gets Around to Kozlovsky

The Chicago Tribune reports (their story has been translated into Russian and circulated on the Russian wire) on Oleg Kozlovsky, a mere three weeks after we broke the news. Well, better late than never, at least he hasn't been killed yet. Now, how about the Washington Post, New York Times, LA Times . . . or is that too much too hope for?

Oleg Kozlovsky has needled the Kremlin for two years, heading up an opposition youth movement, helping organize rallies against President Vladimir Putin and criticizing the regime in a Russian-language blog he puts out. Now Russian authorities have finally found a way to silence him.

They drafted him.

Kozlovsky is legally exempt from conscription and has the documents to prove it. Nevertheless, on Dec. 20 police waited for him to leave his Moscow apartment, hauled him off to an enlistment office, and within 48 hours shuffled him off to a nearby military base where for a year he'll serve in a Russian army notorious for its brutality to conscripts.

"Our private conversations with enlistment officers leave no doubt that there were direct instructions from the FSB [the Federal Security Service, Russia's intelligence agency] to do this," says Pavel Shaikin, a fellow activist at Kozlovsky's group, Oborona. "And there's no doubt that the real reason for this happening is Oleg's work as an activist."

With Russia in the midst of a pivotal election season, evidence is mounting that the country's small but energetic community of pro-democratic youth activists is under siege from a government bent on snuffing out any hint of grass-roots opposition.

Young Russians working for youth opposition movements report being harassed or threatened by intelligence agents, and police who have warned them to abandon their activism. In some cases, authorities have urged youths to inform on their colleagues' activities.

In the case of Kozlovsky, his colleagues say authorities relied on a surefire way to shut down his activism and send a message to others about the risk of remaining in opposition youth groups. Conscription is dreaded by young Russian men who have read too many stories about bases that tolerate slave labor and draftees maimed or killed in hazing episodes.

Draft a 'painful issue'

Youth opposition groups like Youth Yabloko and Oborona are poorly funded and tiny compared with the armada of pro-Putin youth groups that the Kremlin has nurtured. But with the election of a new president to replace Putin slated for March, youth opposition leaders and human-rights activists say authorities are taking no chances.

"They are afraid of anything and everything," says Lyudmila Alekseyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group and one of Russia's most prominent human-rights leaders. "They disperse even the smallest of pickets. They feel they have no other recourse but to intimidate and threaten. And they know that for Russian youth, the draft is a very painful issue."

Kozlovsky, 23, is not supposed to be drafted because his studies at Moscow State University included graduation from a program that made him a lieutenant reservist, Shaikin said. He is only supposed to be called into service if Russia's army reserves are mobilized.

Kozlovsky's exemption didn't appear to matter to three Russian law-enforcement officers who whisked him off the street Dec. 20. After expedited processing that bypassed a medical examination that draftees usually receive, a Russian security service vehicle took Kozlovsky to a military base in Ryazan, 121 miles southeast of Moscow.

Officials at the Izmailovsky District Military Registration and Enlistment Office where Kozlovsky was processed declined to comment on his case. While it appeared to be the first instance in which Russian authorities used conscription to clamp down on youth opposition groups, youth leaders report that government intimidation of their members has been on the rise recently.

Last fall, two investigators with the Russian Interior Ministry's organized crime unit summoned to their office Anastasia Fazulina, a 17-year-old student and activist with Youth Yabloko. The investigators wanted Fazulina to become their informant within Youth Yabloko.

When Fazulina refused to help them, the investigators resorted to threats. "They said, 'We know where you live, so you'd better cooperate with us.'" Fazulina still refused to cooperate and left, but the episode deeply worried her.

"It's made me a bit hysterical," Fazulina said. "I feel like we are back in Soviet times."

Warning, then death

Last fall, Yury Chervockhkin, a 22-year-old activist with former chess champion Garry Kasparov's Other Russia opposition movement, told colleagues that Russian authorities were warning him to curb his activist work. On Nov. 22, Chervochkin called Alexei Sochnev, a colleague who runs a media Web site, to report he was being followed by officers with the Interior Ministry's organized crime unit, Sochnev said. A half-hour later, Chervochkin was found brutally beaten outside his apartment building in a Moscow suburb, Sochnev said. Chervochkin died 18 days later. No arrests have been made.

Youth opposition members say their activism won't wither in the face of growing intimidation. Natalya Kirilenko, who has worked for both Youth Yabloko and Oborona, says the government's clampdown on youth opposition may actually be "a good sign. If they're fighting us, it means that they're afraid of us and that we're capable of accomplishing something."

Kirilenko has had her own encounter with Russian security services. In the summer of 2006, an FSB officer asked to meet her at a Moscow cafe. "He wasn't rude," said Kirilenko, 23. "He was friendly, excessively friendly. He said he knows everything about me and my family." Kirilenko said the officer, who introduced himself as "Alexei," described in detail a trip she had made as a freelance journalist to Russia's North Caucasus region in 2002 -- every person she had spoken with, every building she had visited. He asked her for information about both youth groups, especially Oborona. When Kirilenko resisted, the officer mentioned her family. "He said I should cooperate because anything could happen to my family," Kirilenko said. "He said, 'I know your father drives a car, and that's dangerous. Anything can happen to someone who drives a car.'"

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