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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Kremlin critics seek fringe election wins amid ‘clones,’ bribes and blackouts

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Boris Vishnevsky has been in politics for some 30 years. In that time, he thinks he’s participated in at least that many electoral campaigns.

So when Vishnevsky — a central opposition figure in St. Petersburg fighting pro-Kremlin candidates — started campaigning for this year’s legislative elections, he wasn’t expecting any surprises. 

Then he saw a voting poster in his district. Not only did the two candidates next to him share his name, they also had similar receding hairlines and salt-and-pepper beards.

The real Boris wasn’t seeing triple: the others had changed their names and even their physical appearance to confuse opposition-leaning voters.

“It would be funny if it weren’t so sad,” Vishnevsky, who is a member of the liberal Yabloko party and running for a municipal seat, told POLITICO by phone. “It went beyond what I thought would be considered acceptable.”

The tactic, quickly memed across the internet, reflects the potential undercurrent of insecurity coursing through the Kremlin ahead of Russia’s legislative elections, which kick off Friday and culminate Sunday.

While the broader outcome is all but secure — Russian authorities have waged an unprecedented crackdown on opposition politicians, activists and independent media to ensure that President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party retains legislative control — the fight to get there has injected a degree of last-minute uncertainty over what might happen at the edges this weekend. 

To avoid splitting opposition support, Russia’s best-known Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny, has trumpeted his Smart Voting app and website, which directs disaffected voters toward one candidate per district — whoever is United Russia’s biggest rival. And on Thursday, Navalny’s team released a video accusing longtime Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is making the rounds for United Russia, of having a mistress. Even state-run polls show sagging popularity for United Russia.

The Kremlin has hit back with a slate of dirty tricks. Russia’s internet censor Roskomnadzor recently blocked access to the Smart Voting platforms. And the authorities have waged a months-long campaign to slap stigmatizing labels such as “foreign agent” and “undesirable organization” on opposition figures and independent media.

And, of course, there are the “clone” candidates — a Kremlin favorite. 

“I knew they would fight me hard, and play dirty,” said Vishnevsky.

Putin wants a calm 2024

The Kremlin’s end-goal is to preserve a dominant role for United Russia in parliament for the next five years.

The support is especially important because the next parliament will be in place when Putin’s term ends in 2024. And the Russian president wants a legislature that will act as a docile conduit for whatever comes next.

“The aim is to gather a parliament of patriots, free of anyone deemed suspicious,” said political analyst Yekaterina Schulmann, who studies Russia’s legislative process for the Chatham House think tank. “And for there to be peace and quiet after the election: no protests, riots or scandals.”

In a tongue-in-cheek remark, Schulmann compared the horizontal red line featured on the national election poster to the heart monitor reading of a patient with cardiac failure. 

Indeed, outside of the controlled political mainstream, all forms of protest are being nipped in the bud.

Navalny has been in jail since he returned to Russia in January after surviving a poisoning attempt with the nerve agent Novichok. And his entire movement has been banned as extremist, even as it continues to operate. Many Kremlin critics have fled the country, choosing exile over time in courtrooms or behind bars. Even pro-Kremlin parties have seen their ranks purged of candidates with too much popular appeal.

While the strategy of rooting out opposition has paved the way for a United Russia win, in the eyes of many Russians it has also further discredited an electoral process already marred by a history of tampering and machinations.

“Elections in Russia are like a circus. There are clowns, there’s an audience and there’s the owner of the circus. Whoever goes to vote is a clown,” a caller from St. Petersburg recently told the Ekho Moskvy radio station, explaining why he wouldn’t be casting a ballot.

A crack in Kremlin confidence?

And yet, in the weeks leading up to the vote, the “owners” of the circus appear to be suffering from a bout of last-minute performance anxiety. Roskomnadzor’s last-ditch efforts to suppress Navalny’s Smart Voting platform have caused outages in the Apple App Store and Google Docs. 

But the platform has survived — to the extent that it can. While only a handful of truly independent candidates have been allowed onto the ballot, the platform is still trying to guide voters to different candidates, most of whom will belong to one of Russia’s so-called “systemic” opposition parties: A Just Russia, the Communist Party or the Liberal Democratic Party. 

Although individual members of those parties sometimes rebel at a local level, in the State Duma they consistently toe the Kremlin line.

Still, the latest crackdown suggests the Kremlin may be losing confidence in its model of “managed democracy.” The model allows a handful of chosen parties to serve as an outlet for voters with gripes or thirst for change, while keeping United Russia comfortably in the saddle.

It worked especially well in the 2016 parliamentary election, when United Russia won a supermajority with 334 of 450 seats, buffered by a surge of patriotism following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. 

Perhaps hoping to tap into similar rally-around-the-flag sentiments, United Russia has trotted out Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, two political heavyweights, to make the party’s case. Meanwhile, Russian officials have vaguely claimed to have “incontrovertible evidence” of foreign interference, even calling Smart Voting a Pentagon project, without providing evidence. 

Russia isn’t united behind United Russia

Amid Russia’s falling spending power, polls suggest the Kremlin’s saber-rattling rhetoric might not be the panacea it was several years ago. 

A recent poll by the independent Levada Center showed the number of Russians who prioritize higher living standards over Russia’s status as a “great power” is higher than ever.

“There’s a level of tiredness around the topic of military victories,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a Russian political specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, told Ekho Moskvy radio. “Everyone has long supposedly been defeated. Supposedly there is interference from all sides and there are ‘foreign agents’ everywhere, but that alone does not have a huge mobilizing effect.”

Meanwhile, even state polls show support for United Russia dropping to roughly 30 percent, well below its 2016 mark.

To offset United Russia’s flagging popularity, the authorities have adopted a two-pronged approach.

The first prong: pressuring and luring Putin’s core electorate to the booth. 

There have been cash handouts to pensioners, police and soldiers. Others can enter to win an apartment or a car in a post-vote raffle. There’s also the possibility to vote electronically — another way to boost turnout among certain demographics. 

The second prong: shunning opposition-leaning voters

This scheme includes keeping opposition candidates off the ballot and deflating Russians’ already shaky belief in the electoral process. As a result, many wary of Putin’s party won’t come near a polling station.

“You mobilize people who work for the state, while at the same time disgusting the urban opposition-leaning electorate by undermining their faith in the election so that they stay at home,” said Schulmann, the Chatham House analyst. 

In St. Petersburg, Vishnevsky said his doppelganger opponents actually gave him extra publicity, but he conceded that some of his voters might also fall victim to the trick.

Still, he vehemently refuted any suggestion that the election is not worthy of showing up to vote.

“Of course this is a real election,” he said. “There is a real choice, for my party Yabloko for example, which we hope might garner enough votes to enter parliament. Our task is to fight.”

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