As a new Russian election season begins, the Kremlin’s fraudsters are working overtime

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny sits in a cage during a hearing Feb. 12 on his charges of defamation in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow. (Babuskinsky District Court Press Service via AP) (AP)
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny sits in a cage during a hearing Feb. 12 on his charges of defamation in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow. (Babuskinsky District Court Press Service via AP) (AP)

Over the past week, Russia’s political parties have been submitting nomination papers for their candidates in September’s parliamentary election. In some cases, gathering the documents has proved more difficult than in others.

One such case involves Yabloko, the last (genuine) opposition party that still retains ballot access — a relic of Russia’s brief stint with democracy in the 1990s. Its list of candidates for the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, includes Andrei Pivovarov, an opposition activist held in pretrial detention and facing up to six years in prison on a charge of belonging to an “undesirable organization” (in his case, the now-defunct Open Russia, founded by exiled Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky). Arrested in May onboard a Polish passenger plane (a tactic echoing Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko), Pivovarov is among the nearly 400 individuals in Russia recognized by human rights groups as political prisoners — and the only one to run in this year’s election.

Among the documents required to register for the election is a copy of one’s passport — a mundane task for most candidates, but not if you’re sitting in jail. With a polite smile on his face, the warden promised Pivovarov’s campaign manager to release a copy of his passport within 30 days, hopelessly late for registration. In the end, Pivovarov’s colleagues found a copy elsewhere and met the submission deadline. But even if he makes it onto the ballot (which is far from clear), he will be among the very few representatives of Russia’s opposition to have even a theoretical chance at elected office.

One of the Kremlin’s most durable propaganda narratives — still repeated surprisingly often by journalists and commentators in the West — holds that, for all his faults, President Vladimir Putin remains popular among average Russians. Those who resort to this argument seem to forget a small detail: It isn’t difficult to win elections when one’s opponents are not on the ballot. For years, the Kremlin ensured the absence of strong alternative candidates by any means necessary — from bureaucratic tricks to timely court sentences to, at worst, physical elimination.

Few serious observers doubt that if Putin’s main opponent, Alexei Navalny, were allowed on the ballot, his supporters would have swept hundreds of seats in regional legislatures and in the national parliament. The only time he was actually able to contest an election — in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race — he received nearly 30 percent of the vote. Instead, Navalny is in prison on charges described by the European Court of Human Rights as “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable,” while his party met with nine denials of registration from the justice ministry.

But the authorities didn’t stop there. A recent law signed by Putin — symbolically, and no doubt purposefully, on Navalny’s birthday — bars anyone associated with “extremist” groups from running for elected office at any level, from the village council to the State Duma. Days after Putin signed the measure, Russian courts duly designated Navalny’s organization as “extremist.”

Over the past two weeks, several of his associates — including Oleg Stepanov, his Moscow branch leader, and Ilya Yashin, a prominent municipal lawmaker — were disqualified from the September election under the new restrictions. In a shocking report last month, Golos, a leading election-monitoring NGO, concluded that at least 9 million Russians are formally ineligible to run for any elected office under the various prohibitions put up by Putin’s regime over its two decades in power. (They include 6 million dual nationals as well as 1.1 million people convicted of theft.)

The trouble for the Kremlin is that disqualifying opponents no longer guarantees victory. Such is the level of growing public fatigue with Putin — as there would be with anyone holding on to power into his third decade — that the incumbents are starting to lose even in the absence of an alternative. This was manifested most vividly in the 2019 Moscow City Duma election, when pro-regime candidates lost in nearly half the districts — in many cases, to no-names and spoilers — as voters were looking for any available way to send a message.

As the Duma campaign gets underway, support for United Russia is down into the 20s — and that’s according not only to independent pollsters but to government agencies as well. Quite a dismal result for a regime that holds a complete monopoly over administrative resources, major media outlets and the government bureaucracy. In Moscow, according to the independent Levada polling center, Putin’s party is at 15 percent. Yet the Kremlin is signaling plans to keep its two-thirds majority in the next parliament — a mathematically impossible feat given the poll numbers. Perhaps the only remaining way to make this happen would be outright, old-school fraud. The last time the Kremlin resorted to this, in 2011, Russia saw the largest street protests of Putin’s rule. And this was long before the public’s current restlessness with a man trying to set himself up as president for life.

“This aging and decaying political system is rejected by society,” Pivovarov wrote in a letter from jail last week. “The only thing supporters of change are getting from the authorities are [police] batons and criminal cases — but this strategy is unworkable even in the medium term. If society’s demands are not met, protests will find unexpected avenues. … I am certain that this cannot continue for long.”

Vladimir Kara-Murza is a Russian democracy activist, author, and filmmaker. He is the chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom and vice president of the Free Russia Foundation. He is a contributing writer at The Post, writing regularly for Global Opinions with a focus on Russia.

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