Democracy Lab

The Temperature's Dropping for Russia's Opposition

Vladimir Putin is back in the saddle, and the weather is getting chilly again for Russia's protest movement.

MOSCOW -- Olga Romanova, the Russian opposition leader, remained seated as the judge in a Moscow courtroom read aloud the verdict against her husband. She was frantically multi-tasking, text-messaging a crowd of supporters waiting outside even as she blogged about the proceedings on her laptop. Meanwhile, she and her spouse, Alexei Kozlov, carried on a whispered conversation about the recent arrests of their friends in the opposition. When the judge finally announced Kozlov's sentence -- five years in prison for fraud -- it came as no surprise to them. But the verdict undoubtedly sent a signal to the rest of the opposition, who are now struggling to come to terms with Vladimir Putin's return to the Russian presidency after the election on March 4.

On a recent morning I visited Romanova in her home in Moscow's upscale Taganka neighborhood. She lives in a sprawling apartment, filled with antiques -- an abode characteristic of the new breed of middle-class dissidents that recently began taking to the streets. But her cheeks sagged and there were dark rings around her eyes -- all the telltale signs of a night without sleep. Always bright and optimistic in public in her hip outfits and colorful jewelry, the front-line activist Romanova looked more depressed than I had ever seen her. The night before I arrived, she learned her husband was going back to prison.

Moving like a well-tuned machine, Romanova cooked food for her three pets, fixed me a coffee, answered phone calls from politicians and journalists, and flipped through court appeals, newspaper articles, and opposition agendas that she had worked on at night. "Their plan is to lock him up for a few more years but I fear they might kill him on his way to a Siberian prison," she said in broken voice, lighting one more cigarette.

Romanova heads an organization called "Russia Behind Bars," for the relatives of businessmen who have gone to prison on trumped-up charges so that competitors can steal their companies. It's not a rare occurrence. Romanova set up the organization when her own husband was imprisoned a few years ago, and continued even after the Russian Supreme Court overthrew his case and released him last September. Instead of putting a full stop to her political life and going back to the Mediterranean resorts she used to love, Romanova actively promoted her fast-growing organization. Ask her why she goes on and she can only shrug her shoulders: "Stop the struggle? But what will I tell the 60,000 families of prisoners participating in my movement?"

During a few months of political spring last fall and winter, Romanova and her movement showed that Putin's power machine was rotting. Several of the group's appeals came through; some judges canceled their decisions. But after Putin won the election, the street protests weakened, and the grim reality of life as an opposition activist in today's Russia was already rushing back into focus for Romanova and Kozlov (who are shown in the photo above, entering the courtroom on March 13).

Romanova and her husband stayed up many nights discussing whether they should flee abroad or stay. A few weeks ago, Romanova and another sharp critic of Putin's harsh rule, parliamentary deputy Gennady Gudkov, submitted a list of 39 political prisoners to President Medvedev's administration. Now, after Kozlov's verdict, the list has grown longer by one name. "We still have a faint, tiny hope that Putin might take a reasonable, non-repressive course, but this hope is growing weaker," Gudkov said.

Politically, winter is setting in again. Over the past few weeks the police state has reasserted itself. Several anti-Putin art and music activists were arrested. Police raided the offices of the bank that finances the Novaya Gazeta newspaper and froze its accounts. In February, the editor of the Ekho Moskvy radio station -- virtually the only one in the capital that still dares to air critical reporting -- was removed from its board of directors by Gazprom, the state-controlled corporation that owns two-thirds of the company's shares. Meanwhile, prosecutors have investigated whether privately owned Dozhd TV, one of the few independent television broadcasters left, covered recent mass protests in Moscow with the help of Western funding. Those euphoric moments when the opposition was celebrating its new-found strength, just a few weeks ago, suddenly seem far away.

Not that long ago it was highly unusual for Russian businessmen to risk getting involved with anti-Putin movements. Before forming her support group for prisoners' families, Romanova, a former television journalist and editor in chief of the Russian edition of Business Week, featured primarily in a starkly different world: that of the pampered wives of Ryublovka, the road outside Moscow famous for its prestigious gated communities. It was her family's personal catastrophe that transformed Romanova, who drives a Mercedes and frequents luxurious beauty salons, first into an activist, then into one of the protest movement's most charismatic politicians. She admits that just five years ago she "could not think of sitting at the same table" with opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov or Garry Kasparov, the chess master. In her "clichéd opinion," she recalls, they formed a marginal minority that the moneyed classes would be embarrassed to deal with.

Life pivoted after her husband's first arrest. Now she directs her energies to "Russia Behind Bars," raising money online through a Russian version of Paypal to help finance street protests. Before her husband's legal troubles, Romanova sported a chic bob, wore a string of pearls around her neck, and used expensive makeup. These days she's a nervous chain-smoker with a constant air of exhaustion, and admits that she has few occasions to look in the mirror.

In 2009, a Moscow court sentenced her husband Kozlov to eight years in prison, accusing him of fraudulently acquiring shares in an industrial leather tannery. Kozlov argued that his former business partner, a Russian senator who is himself in exile in Israel, had framed him. After the sentencing, Romanova says openly that she paid more than a million dollars in bribes to free her husband. When that failed, she put her skills at publicity to work and formed Russia Behind Bars to join forces with other wives in similar circumstances.

Two years later she was able to declare victory. The Russian Supreme Court overturned Kozlov's sentence in September 2011. But the system did not let him go. Soon enough he was under investigation again, and the prospect of a second trial overshadowed Romanova's activism. At the time of the crisis, a close friend of her family, the economist Irina Yasina, urged Romanova to draw energy from the implicit threat. Today, after her husband was sentenced for money laundering and fraud once again, police took him from her side in the courtroom and escorted him off to prison. Her eyes full of tears, Romanova then spoke soberly to members of the opposition and the press. How can a woman remain a human rights defender, stay politically active, or even think of anything else but the lonely years ahead of her on the day husband is sent off to jail?

Yasina, for her part, says that this is when, in fact, "the dissent ripens inside you." Yasina, a former deputy of the now imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky who once ran his charitable foundation, Open Russia, recalls her own experience. Around the time her philanthropic career was falling apart and her boss was being turned into Russia's most famous prisoner, the beautiful and intelligent Yasina, the daughter of a minister in Boris Yeltsin's government, was brought to ground by a fast-developing multiple sclerosis. She soon wound up in a wheelchair. But she remained an active figure in civil society, marked by her determination to improve living conditions for the disabled.

On a bitterly cold weekend earlier this month, Yasina's wheelchair rolled onto the stage of an opposition rally. Pushing the chair was Romanova, dressed in knee-high boots and a girlish hat decorated with white ribbons, the symbol of Russia's protest movement. When it came time for her to address the crowd of more than 100,000, Romanova yelled into the microphone: "Prison is the place for those who steal now! They tell us we are losers for not stealing enough? Putin is the loser!"

The prospect of prison for her husband rescued a marriage that was falling apart, Romanova has said. A few months before he was arrested for the first time, Kozlov marked her birthday by promising that he would make a billion of dollars by the age of 50. She found his business aspirations crass. "Imagine, not a moon from the sky but the boring billion," she says, shaking her head. But it was the ensuing struggle that brought them together. During the euphoric protests of the past two months, it seemed that no accusations or criticism could dent her optimism -- whether it was the pro-Putin youth activists who abused her for meeting with Michael McFaul, the new U.S. ambassador, or the broadcasts on state TV hinting that activists like her work for American money.

Now, just a few weeks after her appearance on that stage, comes the far more brutal reality of her husband's imprisonment. The moment the judge pronounced the crucial words -- "isolation from society," legalese for imprisonment -- Romanova jumped to her feet, now less the crusading social activist than a wife despairing over her husband's fate. "Damn this court!" she yelled. It's a sense of frustration that is undoubtedly echoed, these days, by many like-minded members of Russia's beleaguered opposition.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Hoping Against All Hope

Tibetans are setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. So is there anything the leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile can do about it?

In early January, a quarter million believers gathered at the sacred northern Indian site of Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment 2,500 years ago, to mark one of the most important events on the Buddhist calendar. Among the crowd were more than 8,000 Tibetans who had defied threats from the Chinese authorities to attend the Kalachakra ceremony, which would be conducted by the Dalai Lama. Spread over 10 days beginning on the first day of the year, the ceremony involved elaborate purification rituals, meditation, and special prayers for peace both within oneself and in the world. Among those attending was Lobsang Sangay, the first secular, democratically elected prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, which is based in the Indian town of Dharamsala. It was his first appearance before such a large gathering since the Dalai Lama passed on his political authority to him in August last year.

Sangay, who is supposed to be a secular leader, is not especially religious. In some ways that is ironic, for these days he is finding that his options for action are limited mostly to prayers for peace. Over the past three years, distraught Tibetans inside China, many of them monks and nuns, have unleashed a desperate protest by setting themselves on fire to express their discontent with increasingly harsh Chinese rule. (To date 25 of them have succeeded in ending their lives in this way.) Sangay, for his part, has never set foot on Tibetan soil; he has seen his homeland only in pictures. So the Kalachakra ceremony gave him a unique opportunity to mingle with his compatriots, many of whom had risked their personal safety to get there, and who were sure to be detained by the suspicious Chinese security forces at several new checkpoints on their long way back home.

On a cold, rainy day, brushing aside warnings by his aides that Chinese spies had infiltrated the pilgrims, Sangay plunged into the crowd. He was mobbed. Hordes rushed forward to greet him, some reaching for his hand while others broke down and cried. Elderly people prayed for him and blessed him, asking him to deliver them from Chinese rule. "It was a deeply emotional experience for me," says Sangay. "I feel fortunate to have their blessings." He will need all the goodwill that he can get, and more, if he is to keep the hope of freedom alive for his people.

For now, that goal appears to be a long way off. Beijing's unrelenting stance toward dissent in Tibet remains firmly in place. The spate of self-immolations and other protests in Tibet and its neighboring provinces has triggered a predictably harsh response, as the government has flooded many parts of the region with armored vehicles and heavily armed troops (many equipped with fire extinguishers to be deployed against would-be human torches). The whole area is under a virtual lockdown in the run-up to March 10, the anniversary of the Tibetans' 1959 uprising against the Chinese authorities. China's increasing economic might has forced crisis-ridden Western nations to fall in line with Beijing. Even the United States, which has traditionally advocated a negotiated settlement in Tibet and often called upon China to respect Tibetans' rights, did its best to humor Xi Jinping, soon to be the next Chinese president, on his recent visit to America. China's crackdown on Tibet was hardly mentioned as U.S. politicians and business leaders rolled out the red carpet for Xi in Washington.

Compare the Chinese leader's stature with that of Sangay. He is a prime minister without a country. He commands no military. He runs his administration on a shoestring budget, most of which comes from donations. No country recognizes his government. His main opponent, the Chinese communist leadership, dismisses him as illegal and unrepresentative. And yet his confidence appears undented. Last year the 43-year-old former Harvard scholar was elected Kalon Tripa (prime minister) by Tibetan exiles scattered in some 30 countries around the world. "This position gives me a megaphone and louder volume," Sangay said recently in Dharamsala. "I use it for Tibet and the Tibetan people as much as I can."

There are hardly any other options at present. As grim tidings of new self-immolations reach his modest office in the Himalayan foothills in Dharamsala, Sangay finds himself with little means for defending his people other than his voice. But even it is failing to stir up governments around the world against the Chinese crackdown.

That reality is depressing enough. But then, Sangay, like most Tibetan exiles, has been used to deprivation and loss from a very young age. He was born in a Tibetan refugee settlement, subsidized by the Indian government, near Darjeeling in the eastern Himalayas. His parents sold a cow to send him to school, where he showed keen interest in his studies. It was during his graduate work at Delhi University in the early 1990s that Sangay developed his interest in the Tibetan freedom struggle and started thinking of a life in public affairs. "We would finish our classes and then land up at Majnu ka Tilla [the Tibetan refugee settlement in north Delhi]," recalls Kaydor Aukatsang, his longtime friend and now his roommate in Dharamsala. "He was active in community affairs and would often join the protests at the Chinese Embassy [in New Delhi]." He became an executive committee member of the independence-demanding Tibetan Youth Congress, considered a terrorist organization by Beijing.

After earning a law degree from Delhi University, Sangay won a Fulbright scholarship in 1995 and landed at Harvard Law School. It was there that he became inspired by the Dalai Lama's attempts to democratize the government-in-exile. The 76-year-old Dalai Lama had begun laying the foundations of a democratic system for Tibetans as early as the 1960s. For nearly 350 years, the successive dalai lamas had led Tibet both spiritually and temporally. But the current, charismatic 14th Dalai Lama (named Tenzin Gyatso), who has lived in exile in India for over 50 years, wanted to separate the two roles and give up his political authority. In a move designed to outsmart the Chinese leaders who want to control his reincarnation, and with it the future of Tibet, the Dalai Lama last August handed over his political function to Sangay, who had earlier won a three-cornered, keenly contested election among some 50,000 Tibetan exiles.

That meant Sangay's physical move from a leafy suburb of Boston to the austere settings of Dharamsala and taking up a job that would fetch him a salary of about $300 a month. It also meant leaving behind his banker wife and their 5-year-old daughter.

Acutely aware of the Dalai Lama's immense popularity and lofty stature, Sangay realizes that to be effective he must come into his own and create a space for himself. He is careful not to be seen as trying to replace the Dalai Lama. "I am here not to fill his [the Dalai Lama's] shoes, because it's not possible," says Sangay. "I will try to make the movement stronger and sustain it after he is gone. We've to fulfill his vision of secular Tibetan democracy. We want to ensure the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet." He also does not fail to reiterate that he adheres to the Dalai Lama's "middle way" policy of seeking meaningful autonomy within China through nonviolent means.

That is a point he always underlines in his talks. And talking is a major activity in his nearly 18-hour workday when he is at his base in Dharamsala. He starts at 6:30, when he gets up and makes coffee for himself, which he relishes on his balcony overlooking the often misty valley below. A 30-minute stint on a treadmill and some stretching exercises keep his 6-foot frame in shape. He flies economy class and carries his own bags. He writes his own speeches.

A lone bodyguard follows him when he goes to his office and when he travels in Dharamsala. But though a direct attack by Chinese agents on Sangay seems unlikely, his government must be constantly on guard against attempts to undermine it in other ways. Last year, the Tibetan community was shaken after huge amounts of cash, including Chinese currency, were found in the monastery of the young Karmapa, a Tibetan spiritual leader of growing popularity and stature, near Dharamsala. The discovery of the money, described as donations by devotees from around the world, prompted speculation of the Karmapa's being a Chinese spy, much to the distress of Tibetans and other Buddhists. Indian intelligence, however, never found any evidence to support those allegations. And now, senior Chinese leader Zhu Weiqun, in charge of Tibetan affairs, has ruled out talks, dubbing Sangay and his government "illegitimate."

Sangay's office is a simple room with a desk and a couple of sofas. A life-size portrait of the Dalai Lama adorns one wall of his office. He often joins other ministers to discuss official matters over lunch. The exile government runs over 40 schools and several hospitals and looks after settlements and monasteries spread across India. Sangay often poses with starry-eyed ordinary Tibetans for a photograph -- an obvious gesture to connect with the people from whom he has been away for nearly 16 years.

Some Tibetans think Sangay has been out of touch with ordinary Tibetans for far too long. "I didn't vote for him," says Palden, a young Tibetan refugee living in Delhi. (Like many Tibetans, he uses only one name.) "He does not seem to have any [administrative] experience." Some others find him aloof. "His stint in America has given him an edge," says a member of the Tibetan Parliament who requested anonymity. "And that can sometimes make him appear arrogant and pompous." Those are traits looked down upon by the generally courteous and deeply religious Tibetans.

Sangay admits that he is not very spiritual and does not have much of a daily religious practice. His knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan literature is rudimentary. But he is trying to improve upon that. It also remains a great challenge for him to inculcate secular values in a devoutly Buddhist Tibetan society. "He comes as a breath of fresh air," says Youdon Aukatsang, a member of the newly elected Tibetan Parliament. "He however has to prove himself and live up to the challenges facing him."

To his credit, Sangay does not underplay the challenges. Responding to the self-immolations entails a delicate balancing act. Like the Dalai Lama, he does not condone suicide -- and yet each new self-immolation generates powerful publicity for the Tibetan cause. He explains at great length how some Tibetans see no other way than immolating themselves to free their people. "I find him quite articulate and impressive," says author and Tibet expert Claude Arpi. "But I am not sure if the Chinese will take him seriously or open negotiations with him." Still, he has shown his readiness to hold talks with the Chinese, he says, "anytime, anywhere." He is also prepared to accept a status for Tibet like that of Hong Kong and Macau under China's "one country, two systems" policy.

There is no sign yet that that is going to happen anytime soon. But bleak prospects do not deter Sangay, who takes a long-term view of Tibet's difficult past and draws strength from the Buddhist understanding that change is inevitable everywhere. He says Tibetans are a sturdy people who have endured many upheavals without losing their optimism and fortitude. Though the 13th Dalai Lama had to flee to India when the Chinese army invaded Tibet in 1910, he was able to return three years later. It seems, for now, that Sangay will need a lot of praying to keep that hope alive for the 14th Dalai Lama.

DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images