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New Leader Emerges From Anti-Government Protests In Moscow

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Moscow, that city has been seeing some of its biggest anti-government protests in years. Protesters are upset that authorities there won't let opposition candidates run in upcoming city council elections. And during these demonstrations, a new protest leader has emerged. NPR's Lucian Kim met her in Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: After more and more people started taking to the streets of Moscow last month, the authorities gave opposition leaders short-term jail sentences to get them out of the way. That's put the spotlight on Lyubov Sobol, a 31-year-old lawyer who was among the opposition candidates barred from running in the Moscow city council elections. So far, she has avoided jail time and taken up the mantle of protest leader.

LYUBOV SOBOL: (Through interpreter) The government is very afraid the myth they spread via state propaganda will be destroyed; namely, that only 2% of the population supports the democratic opposition and that we have no constructive political platform and just, like, protesting on the street.

KIM: Sobol meets me in the offices of Alexei Navalny, Russia's most prominent opposition politician, who was blocked from running against Vladimir Putin in last year's presidential election. Navalny, who's currently in jail, has been an inspiration for a new crop of political activists, including Sobol, who has worked with him for more than eight years. She took her case directly to a meeting with the head of Russia's Central Election Commission earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOBOL: (Foreign language spoken).

ELLA PAMFILOVA: (Foreign language spoken).

SOBOL: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: Ella Pamfilova, the chair of the election commission was unyielding.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAMFILOVA: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: She said Sobol presented herself as a European-style Democrat, while at the same time blackmailing the Election Commission with threats of street protests. The commission was final in its ruling that Sobol and her fellow candidates had not collected enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Sobol says the authorities have rigged the system to block any independent candidates from running and went on a one-month hunger strike to protest the decision. Back in Navalny's office, Sobol is visibly weak because she still can't eat solid food yet. But she says she gets strength from the hope her now-5-year-old daughter will one day live in a democratic Russia.

SOBOL: (Through interpreter) I want her to live in a country where human rights and freedoms are respected, where the courts are independent and where there is a free press. I want her to live in this country. I don't want to move away.

KIM: Sobol is well aware of the risks of staying. Her husband was assaulted outside their home two years ago, and even though she's avoided jail time for now, the authorities could press criminal charges against her at any moment. I ask her whether she welcomes expressions of support from the West, since Russian state media portray the Moscow protesters as stooges of the State Department.

SOBOL: (Through interpreter) The West has its own interests, and I don't have any hope for help from the West. I think only the people of this country can bring about some kind of change.

KIM: At the same time, she adds, the Kremlin is very sensitive about international opinion, and that may be what's keeping her out of prison.

SOBOL: (Foreign language spoken).

KIM: "People have a lot of pent-up anger and desire for change," she says. But even after the September city council elections, she'll continue fighting for political change.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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