KIEV: Vladimir Putin’s Russia is morphing into a “dictatorship” intent on punishing and sidelining critics ahead of parliamentary elections, says Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition figure who recently fled to Ukraine.

The 41-year-old former lawmaker unexpectedly announced on social media on Sunday that he had crossed Russia’s borders and was headed for Kiev to shield his family from Kremlin reprisals for his politics.

His decision to go into exile is the latest by several high-profile Kremlin opponents who left recently, also to EU member Lithuania, and comes amid a broader sweep of independent media and civil society groups.

Gudkov left after spending two days in custody over a housing dispute and unpaid rent from 2015 that had also embroiled his 60-year-old aunt, who was detained as well.

Fleeing Russia, he called the criminal case that could have seen him jailed for up to five years “fabricated”.

“Russia for some time already has been an authoritarian state, but we are moving much closer now towards a dictatorship,” Gudkov said in the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

Gudkov announced earlier this year that he intended to run in a parliamentary vote in September, in which the ruling United Russia party is expected to struggle, primarily over economic woes.

He said that “people close to the Kremlin” had called his father and wife, telling them he must leave the country before the ballot or else they would be thrown behind bars.

Wearing a white shirt and a black suit jacket, Gudkov, who spoke calmly said he understood perfectly why the Kremlin wanted him out.

“They wanted me to leave so I wouldn’t bother them while they — Putin’s regime — falsified the elections,” he said on a cafe terrace in Kiev.

Gudkov, whose father was also an opposition-minded lawmaker, said the Kremlin was expecting protests to erupt following the vote, which he said Kremlin-linked parties would win despite widespread discontent.

For that reason, he said, the Kremlin can’t afford to have opposition figures in the county that are capable of mobilising people.

The sweep of Putin’s critics means however that few critical voices remain.

“The opposition has been destroyed in Russia,” Gudkov said.

Alexei Navalny, the most prominent opposition figure over the last decade was jailed in February on old fraud charges his supporters said were politically motivated.

A Moscow court was considering whether to designate his anti-corruption organisation extremist, a ruling that would criminalise its work and remove supporters from Russia’s political landscape.

Another well-known anti-Kremlin campaigner, Andrei Pivovarov, was removed from a Warsaw-bound plane in Saint Petersburg last week minutes before takeoff.

Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2021

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