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 embattled opposition groups admit the Kremlin has left them few options or resources ahead of the Sept. 19 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 сandidates not approved (by the authorities) become State Duma deputies and members of regional legislatures,” Leonid Volkov, 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 re-election 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, Putin's biggest critic who dented United Russia's dominance in regional legislatures in recent years, is serving a 2½-year 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 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-year-old 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 run for the Duma, was removed from a Warsaw-bound plane just before takeoff from St. Petersburg and taken to the southern 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 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.”
Daniel Kozin in Moscow and Tanya Titova in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed.