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Crimean annexation splits Russia’s weakened opposition even further

State Duma member Dmitry Gudkov, shown outside a Moscow court in February, could not bring himself to vote against Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Dzhavakhadze Zurab/Newscom

If he had voted with his heart, parliamentarian Dmitry Gudkov would have cast his ballot against Russia's annexation of Crimea in the State Duma last week. But instead of going on the record as having opposed Russia's first territorial expansion since 1945, Mr. Gudkov decided to abstain.

"If a politician votes against this annexation, you're not a patriot, according to state propaganda," he said before the vote. "We can be branded as traitors."

Mr. Gudkov is one of a handful of Duma deputies who does not belong to a political party controlled by the Kremlin. But even sitting as an independent, he believed he couldn't vote against what most Russians see as Crimea returning to the country where it has always belonged.

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The bill passed the Duma by a 445-1 vote, with four abstentions. The lone vote against came from Ilya Ponomarev, a long-time – and fearless – opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Gudkov's decision to keep silent is far from unique among Russia's opposition. Many people who stand against the Kremlin on other issues actually support the annexation of Crimea, revealing fractures in a politically diverse opposition coalition that had agreed on little else beyond their dislike of the Kremlin.

Several groups that marched with the opposition in 2011 and 2012 are now organizing in support of Mr. Putin and his moves in Ukraine.

Nationalist leader Eduard Limonov, who has been jailed in the past for taking part in anti-Kremlin protests, has found himself speaking from a stage in favour of Mr. Putin's policies. He said Russia should now move to recover all the territories it lost when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.

The Left Front, another group that played a prominent role in the 2011-2012 protests, organized pickets outside the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow, demanding it recognize Russia's right to Crimea.

"There are serious differences between some activists," said Oleg Kozlovsky, a liberal anti-Kremlin organizer. "On the left and on the right, there are people who support [the annexation of Crimea] – the left because they see it as the USSR coming back, the right because they support the ethnic nationalist part of the campaign."

The internal divisions add to what has already been a difficult 2014 for Russia's opposition. While international attention has been focused first on the Sochi Olympics and then the crisis in Ukraine, the Kremlin has cracked down hard on its domestic critics.

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Opposition leader Alexey Navalny, the only politician who appeals to nearly all country's opposition factions, was placed under an escalated form of house arrest on Feb. 28, banned from receiving visitors or using the Internet or his cellphone. His popular blog was also made inaccessible inside Russia.

The country's few remaining media outlets not under Kremlin control have faced new pressure to toe the political line in their coverage of Ukraine. Earlier this month, the chief editor of the popular news portal was fired after the site linked to comments made by Dmitry Yarosh, a nationalist Ukrainian politician wanted in Russia on "terrorism" charges.

Before that, the head of the Echo of Moscow radio station – a bastion of free speech since the Mikhail Gorbachev era – was fired and replaced by an executive from the state-run Voice of Russia. Kremlin pressure has also caused most of the country's cable and satellite providers to drop the opposition-friendly TV Dozhd, or TV Rain, from their packages, costing the station 85 per cent of its potential audience. Now the station is being forced out of its studio premises after its landlord in the Red October factory complex refused to renew its lease.

The Duma has also passed legislation in recent days that will make it harder for new opposition parties to take part in elections. Another law under consideration would reportedly make it illegal for media to publish "false anti-Russian information," including when covering "events beyond the borders of Russia."

But the worst news for the opposition is that Mr. Putin's popularity has been rising throughout. A survey published last week by the state-owned VTsIOM pollster showed the President's popularity at a five-year-high of almost 76 per cent, up 15 points from the start of the year.

Mr. Kozlovsky said he expected the repression inside Russia to escalate as the crisis in Ukraine develops. "It's all connected. They will use this war as a pretext. They know that the world and the West and probably a lot of Russians won't notice right now."

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In particular, Mr. Navalny – who argued in a New York Times opinion piece that the West should respond to the Crimea annexation with targeted sanctions against Mr. Putin's inner circle – was bracing for more punishment after the United States appeared to take some of his advice on the same day that his article was published.

"There were no illusions. For this joy of [seeing] sanctions introduced against thieves, some will have to pay," someone wrote on Mr. Navalny's Twitter account (with Mr. Navalny banned from using in the Internet, his wife is supposedly posting on his behalf). "I must collect my bags for prison."

Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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