Los Angeles Times

Putin critics stifled as election nears

Russian authoritie­s have clamped down on the opposition with a parliament­ary vote coming Sunday.

- By Daria Litvinova Litvinova writes for the Associated Press.

MOSCOW — In the months before Sunday’s parliament­ary election in Russia, authoritie­s unleashed an unpreceden­ted crackdown on the opposition, making sure that the best-known and loudest Kremlin critics didn’t run.

Some were barred from seeking public office under new, repressive laws. Some were forced to leave the country after threats of prosecutio­n. Some were jailed.

Pressure also mounted on independen­t media and human rights activists: A dozen news outlets and rights groups were given crippling labels of “foreign agents” and “undesirabl­e organizati­ons” or accused of ties with them.

The beleaguere­d opposition groups admit the Kremlin has left them few options or resources ahead of the Sunday election that is widely seen as a key to President Vladimir Putin’s effort to cement his hold on power. But they still hope to erode the dominance of the ruling United Russia party in the State Duma, or parliament.

“We still want to take a lot of seats away from the United Russia so that a lot of candidates not approved [by the authoritie­s] become State Duma deputies and members of regional legislatur­es,” Leonid Volkov, a top ally of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, told the Associated Press.

The election is crucial because the Kremlin wants complete control over the next parliament, opposition politician­s and political analysts say. The Duma chosen this year will still be in place in 2024, when Putin’s current term expires and he must decide on running for reelection or choosing some other strategy to stay in power.

“Putin loves to maintain uncertaint­y and make decisions at the last minute,” says political analyst Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwrit­er.

“No one will know until the last minute what he will do in 2024,” Gallyamov said. “Will he run himself once again or put forward a successor? … Will it be another constituti­onal reform, or will a new Cabinet need to be approved, or election laws need to be changed? … All roads must be open to Putin; he must feel that his options are not limited by anything. For that, the parliament must be absolutely obedient.”

It’s equally important to eliminate any risk of lawmakers supporting possible protests in 2024, Gallyamov said, because a directly elected institutio­n opposing the Kremlin alongside demonstrat­ors could take the conflict to another level.

It won’t be easy, however, to preserve United Russia’s dominance in parliament, where it holds 334 of 450 seats.

A poll by the independen­t Levada Center showed only 27% of Russians are prepared to vote for the party. Thus, steamrolli­ng the opposition and using administra­tive leverage is the only way, Gallyamov said.

Navalny, who is Putin’s biggest critic and dented United Russia’s dominance in regional legislatur­es in recent years, is serving a 2½year prison sentence for violating parole for a conviction he says was politicall­y motivated. That followed his return to Russia from Germany, where he was treated for a poisoning by a nerve agent that he and many Western nations blamed on the Kremlin, which denies it.

Navalny’s top allies were slapped with criminal charges, and his Foundation for Fighting Corruption and a network of regional offices have been outlawed as extremist organizati­ons.

That has exposed hundreds of people associated with the groups to prosecutio­n. The parliament also quickly rubber-stamped a law barring those with ties to extremist organizati­ons from seeking office.

As a result, no one from Navalny’s team is running, and many have left the country. About 50 websites run by Navalny and his associates have been blocked, and dozens of regional offices are closed. Several other opposition activists were not allowed to run because they supported Navalny.

Another prominent Kremlin critic, former lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov, was briefly arrested in June along with his aunt on fraud charges. Gudkov said he had planned to run in a Moscow district against a less popular United Russia candidate, but authoritie­s pushed him out of the race.

“They took my aunt, found some alleged 6-yearold debt she owed for a rented basement, added me to the case, arrested the two of us for two days, and made it clear that if I don’t drop out of the election and don’t leave the country, they will imprison me and my aunt,” Gudkov told the AP. He then left the country.

Authoritie­s also jailed Andrei Pivovarov of the Open Russia opposition group financed by Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovs­ky, a Putin critic who moved to London after spending 10 years in prison on charges widely seen as political revenge.

Pivovarov, who had planned to run for the Duma, was removed from a Warsaw-bound plane just before takeoff from St. Petersburg and taken to the city of Krasnodar. He was accused of supporting a local candidate last year on behalf of an “undesirabl­e” organizati­on and jailed pending an investigat­ion.

Open Russia shut down several days before Pivovarov’s arrest. In a twist, Pivovarov was allowed on the ballot of the liberal Yabloko party even though he will remain behind bars through election day. Allies say it will be next to impossible for him to win.

“They destroyed everyone, who was at least somehow visible, as potential political players,” said Marina Litvinovic­h, a human rights activist and one of the few Kremlin critics running.

Litvinovic­h was a longtime member of the state Public Monitoring Commission that observes the treatment of prisoners and detainees but was removed after exposing abuses of jailed Navalny supporters. She decided to run in a Moscow district in place of Yulia Galyamina, a prominent politician who was convicted in a criminal case last year and barred from running.

Litvinovic­h told AP it’s difficult knowing that at any moment, “you could be barred from the race, or targeted with a raid tomorrow, or become implicated in a criminal probe.”

“But we’re trying to overcome that feeling and move forward,” she said.

Navalny ally Volkov echoed her sentiment.

“It’s not a very pleasant feeling, when a giant, very heavy, very dumb elephant is galloping towards you,” he said.

Despite the crackdown, Navalny’s team still plans to deploy its Smart Voting strategy — a project to support candidates who are most likely to defeat those from United Russia. In 2019, Smart Voting helped opposition candidates win 20 of 45 seats on Moscow’s city council, and regional elections last year saw United Russia lose its majority in legislatur­es in three cities.

Volkov said it’s been harder to promote Smart Voting, with dozens of websites blocked and people intimidate­d by the crackdown: Online registrati­ons for the project soared a year ago after Navalny’s poisoning, but there are fewer this year.

There have been record downloads, however, for the team’s smartphone app, which is much harder for the authoritie­s to block.

Others plan to continue advocating against voting for United Russia. Pivovarov’s allies decided to proceed with his campaign even though he is jailed. Last month, they opened campaign offices in Moscow and Krasnodar, using cardboard cutouts of Pivovarov to greet supporters.

“For us, this campaign is a megaphone,” Pivovarov’s top ally, Tatyana Usmanova, told AP at the Moscow office opening last month.

“What Andrei was striving for is that as many people as possible understood that they shouldn’t vote for United Russia, that the elections are unfair .... Now we have a legitimate opportunit­y to talk to people about it all.”

 ?? Valentin Egorshin Associated Press ?? WORKERS PAINT over an image of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg. Because of a Kremlin crackdown, no one from Navalny’s team is running in Sunday’s parliament­ary election.
Valentin Egorshin Associated Press WORKERS PAINT over an image of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg. Because of a Kremlin crackdown, no one from Navalny’s team is running in Sunday’s parliament­ary election.

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