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The lone vote

Naomi Conrad / dbMay 1, 2014

In March, 445 Duma deputies approved Russia's annexing of Crimea. Just one voted against the move. Today, Ilya Ponomarev faces hostlities, even from his own party.

Ilya Ponomarev
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/ Detail

No, says Ilya Ponomarev. He's not at all surprised that he's been insulted via social media, called a "traitor", even received death threats. His assistant's apartment was searched, he says.

"I expected something like that could happen." The 38-year-old lawmaker sounds unperturbed. In a vote at the State Duma on March 20, he voted against the annexation of Crimea. He was the only one. The other 445 deputies present for the vote were in favor of the annexation.

The vote followed a referendum in which the majority of Crimea's residents backed leaving Ukraine for Russia - a "so-called referendum" that clearly violates existing international law, says German government spokesman Steffen Seibert.

Ponomarev says he voted against the annexation because he believes it is a strategic mistake. "It leads to a split between Russia and Ukraine." Not only does that provoke war, he adds, but Russia also "loses Ukraine as an ally."

The lawmaker says Russia and the West should stay away from Ukraine. (go here to live blog on Ukraine) "Ukraine should solve its own problems."# Of course, he's not the only deputy who harbors such thoughts, he says, but the others kept a low profile for fear of repression.

Duma Krim Annexion 20.03.2014
Most Russians support the annexation of CrimeaImage: Reuters

Their concern was justified: broadsides against the lawmaker, who represents the city of Novosibrisk, began right after the vote.

Ponomarev remains calm in the face of insults and death threats.

It's all just a concerted media campaign to denounce him, he says, instigated by the government. "They pretend it's actually public anger." In public, he says, he's never encountered negative - "not a single bad word on the street."

Plans for tougher laws

On the other hand, Ponomarev concedes that that most Russians support the annexation. He said he didn't care, and he couldn't have voted against his convictions. History will show he was right, he adds. "I have a crystal clear conscience."

Ilya Ponomarev
'Not a bad word in public'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Not everyone agrees, though. His party, A Just Russia, tried unsuccessfully to neutralize him. Then, the head of the mainly pro-Kremlin opposition party introduced a draft law that would allow the head of the parliamentary group to get rid of deputies who break party ranks.

Ponomarev fears legal consequences. "Of course, that's not likely to be linked directly to the vote. They'll pretend I misappropriated funds, something like that." But the lawmaker is confident he would be able to defend himself. "Don't worry," he laughs.

Is he afraid of being thrown in prison like other critics? Ponomarev is silent for a moment. "Yes, it could happen," he says.

In Russian media, a reporter at a state broadcaster says Ponomarev is only trying to get foreign media attention, that the lawmaker should have known that it was a "bad idea" to vote against the annexation of Crimea.

'Worst repression since the fall of the Soviet Union'

Since his re-election two years ago, Vladimir Putin has taken an extremely harsh stance toward critics.

Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch, understands Ponomarev's fears. She in her colleagues have suffered in Moscow. "Undoubtedly, we're currently seeing the worst repression against critics since the fall of the Soviet Union."

Tanya Lokshina
Lokshina: Moscow is tightening the reinsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The government is using the crisis in Ukraine to tighten the reins even further, Lokshina says. "It's a case of, 'If you're not for us, you're clearly absolutely against us'."

Critics are denounced as traitors to the entire Russian people. At the same time, Russia's leadership is taking advantage of the crisis and the "anti-Western hysteria" to adopt restrictive laws. Over the past weeks, two draft laws aimed at curtailing the right of assembly and the freedom of the press were introduced. "The authorities act fast," Lokshina says.

Ilya Ponomarev is convinced that Russia's state leadership is becoming ever more authoritarian. Four of his assistants requested political asylum in Europe over the past months to escape persecution. "Intimidation is a political reality in Russia," he says.

Does the lawmaker takes precautions for his own protection? "I travel subway, I go on foot. I don't have any security with me, except pretty women. Everything is fine," he says, adding that the public reaction against him is orchestrated. "They pretend it's a grass-roots reaction."