With Russian opposition exiled, Berlin becomes center of anti-Putin protest

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BERLIN — As Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, passed the first checkpoint on her way to the Russian Embassy in Berlin to vote in the presidential election, a group of young Russians holding anti-Vladimir Putin posters yelled out: “Yulia, we are with you! Don’t give up!”

Closer to the embassy were the counterprotesters: a group of men and women in their 50s and 60s holding the Russian tricolor and a Soviet flag. They began singing the Russian national anthem to drown out the voices from across the road — youthful activists screaming into their microphones that Putin was a “murderer” for continuing his onslaught in Ukraine.

When a silver-haired woman urged a young couple standing behind her in line to join in the singing, they gave her a sour look; when activists confronted Putin supporters over how they could support the president amid such a destructive war, they replied that he was “defending Russia from NATO.”

As people waited for hours in the German capital to cast their ballots Sunday, in an election where Putin faces no real opposition en route to a fifth presidential term, Russia’s vast ideological divisions were on full display. Younger Russians, many of whom fled their homeland shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, were pitted against older generations who were born or grew up in communist East Germany, or moved to the country after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“People don’t actually have real arguments about why Putin is good, they just come out with these boorish accusations that we are too young and we don’t understand anything,” said Diana, 31.

Like others in this report, she spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her first name, fearing that family members in Russia could be targeted by the authorities.

“Putin’s government is conducting an aggressive war, and our entire country has been equated with murderers even though being Russian doesn’t equal Putin and here in this line, we can see at least a thousand examples of that,” Diana said.

In the background, her friends were loudly arguing with another group of older Russians who came to vote for Putin.

“I lived in Russia, I know what oppression and repression are, and now I live in Germany, a great country where we are enjoying our freedoms,” one friend said to a woman in her 60s, who laughed in his face.

When a EuroJournal reporter approached the woman to ask why she was voting for Putin, she said she “stands with Russia.”

“Democracy is a dirty word, an empty word for me. I’ve lived a long life, and I know what this ‘democracy’ is,” she said. Her companions then whisked her away and told her not to talk to Western media.

Diana drove several hours from southern Germany to cast her vote. Last year, Germany closed down four of five Russian consulates in response to Moscow’s decision to limit the number of German officials in Russia, leaving the embassy in Berlin and the remaining consulate in Bonn as the only places in Germany where Russian citizens could vote.

Hundreds of voters waited up to six hours in a line that wrapped around the embassy for a whole block and zigzagged along barricaded corridors set up by police.

Many understood that Putin’s win was preordained, yet they said it was important to exercise their right to vote.

“I want to cast my vote so that it is not cast for me, and it’s clear that this often happens in our country,” said Elizaveta, a young student, in reference to widespread reports of voter fraud and ballot stuffing that have plagued previous Russian elections. “I was thrilled to see so many people even though I think it’s safe to say we know who will win.”

A concert in front of the embassy saw speeches from most major opposition figures, including exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, highlighting the German capital’s new role as a center for Russia’s opposition in exile.

For Navalny’s team, which now operates from Germany and Lithuania, Sunday was the key day of the three-day election as they urged Russians at home and abroad to come to polling stations for a “Noon Without Putin” demonstration — honoring Navalny’s final call to action before his sudden death last month in a Russian penal colony.

“I see that all these people came to our demonstration at noon because all that time I waited in line, people screamed and chanted words of support, and I thank them all,” Navalnaya said as she exited the embassy. In a recent video address, she said she intends to continue her husband’s work.

“You must all wonder whom I voted for — of course I wrote ‘Navalny’ on the ballot because it cannot just be that Putin’s main opponent, who was already in jail, was killed a month before the election,” she said.

Germany stepped up when Navalny was on the brink of death in 2020, as he fell gravely ill after being poisoned by a nerve agent. Then-Chancellor Angela Merkel immediately offered the Navalny family treatment in Germany and personally visited the politician in the Charite clinic once he woke up from a coma.

In early 2021, Navalny returned to Russia, refusing to become a politician in exile. He was arrested immediately upon landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and later sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges related to his anti-corruption work.

He died suddenly in February at age 47 in a remote Arctic prison. Authorities attributed his death to natural causes; his team accused the Russian government of killing him.

A close Navalny associate, Maria Pevchikh, alleged that he was close to being released in a prisoner exchange that would have seen him and two U.S. nationals swapped for Vadim Krasikov, a convicted Russian hit man serving a life sentence in a German prison. But Putin, Pevchikh said, could not tolerate his main rival walking free.

“In my view, [Navalny’s death] is a sign that the system is slowly crumbling,” Elizaveta said. “It seems that everything is going in that direction, that our autocracy is slowly falling apart.”

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