Russia Holds First Elections Since Ukraine Invasion

MOSCOW – Russians began voting on Friday in the first nationwide elections since the invasion of Ukraine in an atmosphere of wartime censorship and repression, with the Kremlin trying to assure the public that it was business as usual.

Voting for local and regional governments across the country includes the first municipal elections in the capital Moscow since 2017, when the opposition won a sizable minority of seats despite dominance. of the Kremlin in the political system and accused of fraud. But the ranks of the opposition have since deteriorated further. Many anti-government politicians have fled the country while others have been arrested or prevented from running by the electoral commission.

“Real competition this year is one of the lowest rates in a decade,” according to a evaluate, evaluate, evaluate by Russia’s independent election watchdog, Golos.

Although President Vladimir V. Putin has dominated Russian politics for two decades, he has long relied on fiercely competitive elections to try to legitimize United Russia rule. his best. And while those elections were rife with fraud, vote counting processes in big cities like Moscow have remained transparent, making them an opportunity for Kremlin critics to voice their grievances. even if a major opposition victory is almost impossible.

After upheavals in the Russian economy from international sanctions over the Ukraine war and inflation, the question is whether that logic still holds true. Critics say Mr Putin has done everything in his power to prevent his opponents from being able to repeat their modest success five years ago.

“In the end, for the first time, elections are completely meaningless,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. Almost no one was allowed to participate, he added, referring to the opposition.

The election is also a test – albeit a diluted one – of jailed opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny’s ability to influence Russian politics from within.

Navalny’s team of exiled advisers has recommended that candidates in each of Moscow’s constituencies try to beat the Kremlin’s preferred candidates – a campaign they call “smart voting”. “. And although the government has blocked access to the website that lists the proposed candidates, Russians can still access it using a VPN or smartphone app.

The current elections are being held over three days on Friday, Saturday and Sunday – a schedule that opponents of the Kremlin say makes the vote more vulnerable to fraud. because it’s hard for election observers to keep an eye on the polls the whole time. The government also allows people to vote online, making it easier for everyone to falsify the ballots, according to critics.

Nearly all regions of the country are choosing city representatives, legislators or regional governors, or some combination of those offices.

Vladimir, a cameraman, was one of the few to vote Friday at polling station 148 in Moscow, a school in a good neighborhood. He said he voted for the incumbent, an independent who promised to tackle the problem of careless e-scooter drivers speeding along downtown sidewalks.

“This man can work, listen and solve problems,” Vladimir, 63, said outside his polling station. Like other Russian voters interviewed, Vladimir requested that his surname be retained to protect him from possible retaliation.

However, Vladimir said, he is not confident that the voting process will be transparent.

“I don’t like electronic voting,” Vladimir said. “I think manipulation is possible.”

For years, Russia has suppressed opposition movements and limited space for anti-Kremlin candidates on the national political stage. So opposition leaders have sought smaller roles in local and regional governments where they can still make a difference.

But officials took a long time to stop the opposition candidates by jail them with accusations of spreading disinformation about the Ukraine war or accusing them of petty crimes that kept them from running for office.

Andrei Z. Morev, 47, was elected head of the city council in Moscow’s central Yakimanka district in 2017, when he and other candidates from the opposition Yabloko party won seven of the eight seats in the city. there. He has said he expects to be re-elected this year.

But in August, the local election commission removed him from a list of registered candidates, saying he was affiliated with an extremist group because he had a sticker on his car promoting it. smart voting report.

The website of the smart voting campaign was blocked by the government ahead of the national parliamentary elections in 2021 for its links to Mr Navalny’s organizations, all of which are considered “extremist” by the Russian government. legally.

But Mr Morev said he was always critical of Mr Navalny’s initiative, and that the sticker had been put on his car by two men who later alerted police.

Mr Morev said the judge refused to review the CCTV footage in which he said the sticker had been planted. The judge sentenced him to 15 days in prison, effectively ending his campaign.

“They were so scared of us,” he said, “they didn’t want to give people a choice.”

Morev’s party, Yabloko, estimates that a fifth of its candidates have been prevented from running for office for various reasons. And some independent candidates who could run for office face external pressures amid the climate of fear in Russia today.

Yulia Katsenko, 30, is running against a group of independent candidates in her home district of Vostochnoye Biryulyovo south of Moscow, where Putin’s United Russia won all the seats in the municipal elections last year. 2017.

When she started campaigning, her former employer – a charity affiliated with the state-owned Sberbank – pressured her to quit the campaign or quit her job. She said she argued that she was not a high-profile candidate.

“They don’t care,” she said.

So she quit her job and continued the campaign. Mr Navalny’s “smart vote” campaign listed Ms Katsenko among the proposed candidates.

Despite the Russian government’s crackdown on the opposition, some critics of the Kremlin and the Ukraine war are still on the ballot. And while they are unlikely to win, Mr. Navalny’s advisers say they believe it will be difficult for the Kremlin to put on paper a strong display by some of them that will show opposition. war.

An adviser to Navalny in exile, Vladimir Milov, said in a phone interview from Vilnius, Lithuania: “It is very difficult for Moscow to organize some kind of complete spoof system at the polling stations. . “I see great enthusiasm from activists, candidates and many voters, and even under these conditions, they want to do something.”

Marina Litvinovich, a political strategist who was Yabloko’s candidate for the Duma, Russia’s lower house, in last year’s elections, said that due to the complete absence of independent print media and strict censorship laws, This year’s election campaign only serves one value. purpose: opportunity to talk to voters.

“My campaign last year showed that, while protests are prohibited and even a personal pick, meetings between voters and candidates are still allowed,” she said. “Of course, elections are not free or fair and people don’t see them as such,” she added.

Some voters said they doubt their participation can actually make a difference. But for others, voting is an act of protest.

Anna, a 20-year-old student, said: “I was planning to vote, saying she wanted to see political change in her country. “It’s my duty as a citizen.”

She added: “It is hard to believe that the elections will be honest. But it’s still important to do something – and this is something they can’t catch you.”

Valerie Hopkins reports from Moscow, Anton Troianovskifrom New York, and Alina Lobzinafrom London.

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