Activist emerges as new leader of Moscow election protests

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Lyubov Sobol

In this photo taken on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, Russian opposition activist Lyubov Sobol gets up after her interview with The Associated Press in Moscow, Russia. Every movement is difficult for the exhausted and frail 31-year-old political activist, who on Wednesday ended a month-long hunger strike. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

MOSCOW (AP) — After a monthlong hunger strike, it’s a struggle for Lyubov Sobol to even raise her hands. Every gesture is difficult for the frail 31-year-old political activist.

This summer’s wave of anti-government protests in Moscow propelled her to the forefront of Russia’s opposition movement. Her name rang out on the streets of the capital, packed with demonstrators angered by the refusal of election authorities to allow independent candidates, including Sobol, on the ballot for the Moscow Duma, or city council.

Sobol has been the prime target of attacks by both the Kremlin-friendly media and election officials.

“The attitude to me is different because I work harder than others and I don’t let people get away with lies,” Sobol told The Associated Press. “I’m not afraid of telling people to their face what I think of them.”

Moscow has been gripped by weekly protests for more than a month over the nearly two dozen candidates from across the political spectrum who have been excluded from the Sept. 8 election.

The numbers continue to grow: the Aug. 10 rally was Russia’s biggest in eight years, and heavy-handed police tactics against peaceful protesters illustrates just how jittery the Kremlin is about the movement. More than 2,000 people were detained, and videos of riot police beating protesters were widely circulated.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov broke a month of silence Monday, praising the police and saying President Vladimir Putin has not spoken on the subject because he views the rallies as too insignificant to worry about.

Sobol, bespectacled and with a pony tail of platinum blond hair, has emerged in what has mostly been a leaderless movement, galvanized by the authorities’ disregard for voters’ rights. Protesters have been chanting her name at the rallies as well as slogans rich with wordplay: Lyubov literally means “love” in Russian.

A graduate of Russia’s most prestigious law school, she has been behind some of the most visible anti-corruption investigations run by the country’s undisputed opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.

She uncovered ties between the Russian government and St. Petersburg tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin, years before the U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller indicted him for allegedly funding the internet trolls involved in interfering with the U.S. presidential election in 2016. She led a campaign this year against Prigozhin’s catering companies that were linked to an outbreak of dysentery in Moscow schools. Prigozhin denied any wrongdoing in the troll farm and his companies deny they were to blame for the dysentery outbreak.

Sobol was also one of the founders of Navalny’s hugely popular YouTube channel that now boasts an audience rivaling Kremlin-controlled TV stations.

Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s top strategist who has known Sobol for nearly a decade, describes her as a tough and “strong, remarkable leader” who “always stands her ground.”

One of Navalny’s original disciples, Sobol has worked with him on various political and anti-corruption campaigns since 2011. In a blog post Friday from jail, where he is serving a sentence for calling an unsanctioned protest, Navalny said he was “happy that a new, full-pledged political leader has been born.”

She rejects suggestions of a solo career and says she is more focused on the common goals of the protest movement, not personal ambitions.

“What’s important to me is to bring to life the ideas that I came to work here for,” she said, sitting in Navalny’s office in Moscow. “I want to live in a country where rights and freedoms are respected, a country with independent courts and independent media.”

During the recent protests, Sobol appeared to be one step ahead of the other opposition figures, going on the hunger strike, staging a sit-in at the offices of the Russian Election Commission and plunging into a heated and emotional debate with the commission’s head.

The mother of a 5-year-old, she has attracted a backlash as well: Prigozhin-controlled media have portrayed her as a bad parent. One election official compared her to a bedbug.

So far, the Kremlin has shown no willingness for compromise over the independent candidates, and Sobol’s decisive, if not radical, approach is a natural response to that, said Tatyana Stanovaya, nonresident scholar at the Moscow Carnegie Center and head of the R.Politik political analysis firm.

“This decisiveness is called for,” Stanovaya said. “But Sobol could alienate some liberal voters because of her emotionally charged, negative style.”

Volkov rejects that, saying Sobol’s rhetoric matches the protest mood: “It’s the right thing to do and that’s what’s needed right now.”

The Moscow protests follow major rallies in Russia’s fourth-largest city of Yekaterinburg that pushed the government to scrap plans to build a cathedral in a popular park. Thousands in towns and villages in northwestern Russia have turned out since winter against a government plan to dump garbage from Moscow in their pristine forests. Residents of Siberia have demonstrated against the government’s response in tackling sprawling wildfires.

The Moscow protests appear to be far angrier than those against vote-rigging in 2011-12 that died down after Putin’s re-election and the launch of criminal cases targeting a group of demonstrators.

After the recent demonstrations, 13 people face the more-serious charge of rioting, even though there has been no violence on their part or little damage to property. Protesters also have reported being approached by the military draft office and debt collectors after their detentions.

“I see that people are angry. They are on the verge, they’re ready to stand for their rights and keep on fighting,” Sobol said.

She dismissed comparisons with the Hong Kong protests that have been marked by increasing violence by demonstrators.

Sobol said she can picture an even tougher Kremlin crackdown, including a ban on social media that helped mobilize the rallies. She doesn’t rule out a more violent turn to what have so far been peaceful protests, because the rougher police tactics are undermining any remaining trust in authorities.

“Russia is impossible to predict,” she said. “The society is tired. It can blow up.”

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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