65 CANDLES

For Putin’s 65th Birthday, a Crackdown on His Opponents

At dawn on Thursday, police rousted and interrogated people connected with exiled billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky—Putin’s ‘real opponent.’

MOSCOW—Thursday morning began with a violent police crackdown on Russian opposition activists all over Moscow. Crowds of policemen raided homes, interrogating opposition activists, terrifying children and family members, breaking and confiscating property.

All of this, as it happens, took place just two days before Russian President Vladimir Putin turns 65 years old, as if somebody wanted to wrap up loose ends, and make sure nobody could spoil his party.

At the apartment of Andrei Konyakhin, a prominent journalist and researcher of major corruption cases, a crowd of police broke in while the family was still sleeping. Konyakhin’s 18-year-old daughter says she will never forget the officials smashing their way through the flat.

By 7:40 a.m., police had finished confiscating computers and other devices, but the interrogations continued for more than eight hours. “Now I have to evacuate our 10-day old baby,” Konyakhin, who leads the Investigations Management Center (IMC), wrote in a text message to The Daily Beast while policemen were still at his home.

Another activist, Polina Nemirovsky, listed the details of the ongoing raids on opposition activists and their family members in a post on Facebook: “The shortest summary of the jubilee celebrations of Vladimir Putin,” the post said, captioning a video showing a policeman sitting on top of another opposition activist, Timur Valeyev.

At 6 a.m. Nikolai Lifshits, a charity activist was awakened by the doorbell and, groggily, he opened up. Five policemen and an investigator knocked him down on the floor. One of the officials twisted his arms and sat on top of Lifshits, who was pressed with face down to the floor. “Who else is in the apartment? What is your name?”

The investigator interrogated Lifshits for six hours about the case of Yukos, once Russia’s biggest oil company. In 2003 Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the owner of Yukos, was arrested at gunpoint in a Siberian airport and imprisoned until the end of 2013, when he went into exile.

Lifshits worked for Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia group from December, 2016, until May this year, as a coordinator of the opposition school for municipal election candidates. Earlier this year the Kremlin banned Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia Foundation, the Institute of Modern Russia and the Open Russia as “undesirable organizations.” A law signed by President Putin declared anybody cooperating with the groups could face criminal persecutions.

“Putin sees Khodorkovsky as his major opponent; the power is not going to accept any rallies, investigative reports, or political training in the regions, ” Alexey Makarkin, vice president of the Center for Political Technologies, told The Daily Beast. “I don’t think that the Kremlin sees the raids as too brutal—some of the policemen are veterans of Syrian war, that is what they consider violent.”

Two months ago Lifshits’ mother, who lived with him, died of cancer. The activist told policemen that he was in mourning, but officials still confiscated his mother’s laptop and iPad, as well as T-shirts and fliers for the presidential campaign of the key opposition candidate, Aleksei Navalny.

“I told policemen again and again that in the last five years of my opposition activity I did not do anything illegal, that I should be treated in a civilized way, but they said that we, opposition activists, are useless people,” Lifshits told The Daily Beast. “On the day after opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow, Russia woke up in a dictatorship where everything is controlled by Putin’s law enforcement agencies.”