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Playing the Presidential Campaign By the Ear

Andrei Pertsev sums up the week (January 29 — February 2)

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The campaign to collect signatures required for Boris Nadezhdin to be registered as an official presidential hopeful (he has been nominated by the non-parliamentary «Civil Initiative») has become a rallying point for those Russians who are opposed to the war and the regime in general. He managed to collect twice as many signatures in support of his candidacy as required by law, and has already submitted them to the Central Election Commission (CEC).

Nadezhdin has emerged as the only potential candidate among those who have been allowed to collect signatures in support of his campaign who has been openly criticising Vladimir Putin personally and has opposed the invasion of Ukraine. Such criticism is all the more unlikely when it comes from the candidates representing parliamentary parties. Nadezhdin has taken a risk and monopolized this segment of the political field, which is why the most politically active citizens are lining up at his campaign offices to leave their signatures in his support, while other, more cautious Russians are increasingly looking him up on the Internet. Whether the politician has coordinated his nomination with any representatives of the presidential administration, or whether he has offered his services to the Kremlin eager to fill the niche of a ‘liberal candidate’ with safe slogans — by now these questions seem to be rather irrelevant. At the moment, Nadezhdin is a genuine protest figure who predictably attracts public attention. According to a poll commissioned by the politician’s headquarters from the independent polling project Russian Field, the politician’s rating was just over 10% and, of course, had the potential to rise.

Nadezhdin meets one of the most popular demands of the public, shared not only by politically active citizens, but also ordinary Russians. They, too, are tired of the war and want it to end. The wives of men who have been mobilised are demanding that their husbands be brought home. Nadezhdin promises them just that. People are worried about a new wave of mobilisation and the politician says he will cancel the previous mobilization decree once he becomes president. Last but not least, compared to Putin, Nadezhdin simply looks like a reasonable person. Putin is becoming a comic character, a new Brezhnev of sorts, while the robust and sensitive «man’s man» Nadezhdin, who talks about simple things, comes across as his antipode. It is no coincidence that the internet is full of memes comparing Nadezhdin to the current president. These memes have gone viral, and the comparisons are hardly flattering to Putin. In the photograph of Putin demonstrating the catch of his fishing expedition, the actual fish are smaller than in similar photographs of Nadezhdin; in the photograph of Putin picking mushrooms, the mushroom he found in the forest is not as large as Nadezhdin’s, etc. «Nadezhdin in the sauna,» «Nadezhdin enjoying a beer», «Nadezhdin fishing», etc. — such pictures are circulating on social networks, signalling public yearning for «normality.» Opposition politicians, activists and pundits have so far played an important role in supporting Nadezhdin, drawing attention to the campaign to collect signatures in his support.

The election campaign in Russia, which the Kremlin’s political bloc has planned down to the last detail — from forums, exhibitions and competitions to the list of candidates allowed to appear on the ballot and Putin’s very results — has long since gone off the rails. First of all, Putin chose not to appear and announce that he intends to run yet again at the venues specifically designed for this occasion, be it the «Rossiya» Exhibition and Forum or the direct line, which this year also included a press conference. Then the leaders of the Communist party and the «New People» party refused to take part in the campaign. Now the authorities have received a picture of the queues at Nadezhdin’s headquarters, undermining the only function that the regime ascribes to the «liberal candidates» who agree to participate in the elections: they must demonstrate to both domestic and foreign audiences that the democratic ideas are unpopular with the masses. The result was the opposite — it turned out that thousands of people were willing to queue in the cold to support a «liberal», and his rating at the start of the campaign went from zero to 10%.

The presidential administration is forced to improvise, to play out different scenarios. As we have written elsewhere, its actions are disrupted not only by reality, but also by the actions of Putin himself, who often rejects the steps proposed by the political bloc of his administration. The most likely prognosis for Boris Nadezhdin’s registration is the Central Election rejecting the signatures that his team has collected on the grounds that the signatures allegedely do not meet certain certain formal requirements. This was how the CEC refused to register journalist Ekaterina Duntsova as a presidential candidate. If the presidential administration decides to follow the same scenario, it will mean a simple and logical step: the protest votes will not go to the candidate who clearly opposes the war and Putin. They will be diluted by other candidates who have not run their campaigns on such slogans, and this will be a tactical gain for the Kremlin. But keeping Nadezhdin out of the election will not completely soothe the Kremlin’s headache. Firstly, he and his supporters might decide to encourage their followers to vote for other candidates, thereby reducing Putin’s planned result. Secondly, the consolidation of the protest votes makes it much harder for the authorities to win this year’s Moscow City Duma elections. The more than 20,000 people who gave their signatures in support of Nadezhdin’s participation in the elections are a potential asset for the protest candidates in this campaign. These people are ready for political action and motivated, and this resource will definitely play a role in the Moscow City Duma elections.

Queueing to join the ‘Oprichnina’

The Russian Foreign Ministry has joined the fight against critics of the war and the regime who have fled the country. Previously, the Ministry, through its main representatives — Minister Sergei Lavrov and spokeswoman Maria Zakharova — attacked the external enemy in the guise of the «collective West», but left the internal enemies alone, even if they had left Russia. Now the situation has changed: the Foreign Ministry is trying to join the ranks of those fighting the «fifth column» and demonstrates that it is willing to support Kremlin’s mainstream ideological line. At the request of Russian diplomats, the authorities of states that are more or less friendly to Putin and his regime have begun to refuse entry to opposition-minded artists registered as foreign agents by the state, or to detain them. For example, the members of the band Bi-2, who came to Phuket, an island popular with Russian holidaymakers, were imprisoned in Thailand. The musicians were accused of working on illegal grounds, although the organisers of the show had secured all necessary permits in advance. Initially, the artists were supposed to be deported to Russia and the consulate in Phuket made every effort to do so.

Stand-up comedian Maxim Galkin, who has long criticised the war and the Kremlin, has been banned from entering Bali, Indonesia, another holiday destination popular with many Russians. The rapper Morgenstern was banned from entering Dubai. He has not systematically and directly criticised the war in Ukraine and Putin, but after the protests in Bashkortostan he posted a photo of himself clad in a national costume. It is likely that Sergei Lavrov and his Ministry have not received any special requests from the country’s top leadership to do what they are doing. They offered their services voluntarily, and will clearly no be punished for taking such an initiative. If the reaction of «internal» pro-Kremlin politicians is anything to go by, the Kremlin and the security services were very pleased with the attacks on opposition artists (the notorious Duma deputy Andrei Lugovoi has spoken out at length in support of the Bi-2 band’s imprisonment).

The message being broadcast by the Foreign Ministry and the entire Russian leadership is loud and clear. Initially, the Kremlin wanted the departed artists to return in order to keep their fans feeling that the situation in the country was stable: such signals were sent to them by both representatives of the presidential administration and the government alike. The above mentioned Maria Zakharova stood up for Bi-2 when the band had not yet completely severed ties with Russia. It quickly became clear that the musicians did not want to betray their convictions and did not want to return on the terms set by the authorities (keeping silent about the war and Putin). Within about a year, in the eyes of the authorities, these artists had turned from welcome guests to pariahs and members of the «fifth column», the «internal enemy.» All parts of the power system are fighting this enemy in one way or another, trying to become a new ‘oprichnina‘ – the name used to denote special administrative elite, armed forces, and entailed domain created by Ivan the Terrible (1565−1572) and today a synonym for brutal political police. The Foreign Ministry has joined the queue to join the ranks of the «oprichniki» and seems to have been picked for the job. Lavrov’s office is trying to prevent these artists from gaining any income for performing to Russian audiences abroad. The presidential administration and Duma MPs, who want to confiscate the property of critics of the war and the regime, are acting in much the same way and within the same logic. We can now expect further cancellation of concerts by emigré artists of various genres in other countries that are more or less friendly to the Russian authorities.

Withdrawal after withdrawal

Pro-Kremlin politicians who declared their intention to run in the presidential elections, received permission from the Central Election Commission to collect signatures, and even those among them who had allegedly managed to collect the required number of signatures, refused to register for the campaign and withdrew their candidacies. Sergei Baburin (nominated by the «Russian People’s Union»), Andrei Bogdanov («Russian Party of Freedom and Justice») and Anatoly Batashev («The Greens») did the same. There are indications that Kremlin helped Baburin to collect the necessary signatures, but in the end Baburin declared his support for Vladimir Putin and refused to run. Bogdanov and Batashev offered really murky explanations for their withdrawals. Sergei Malinkovich, a candidate nominated by the Communists, has submitted his signatures. The situation looked absurd, but only at first glance. The Kremlin was clearly working out the scenario of a «diverse ballot», with spoilers for the Communist party (Baburin already played this role once back in 2018), the «Freemason» Bogdanov, and so on. The fact that the presidential administration helped Baburin and Malinkovich to collect the necessary signatures indicates that this scenario is rather likely. But there will not be a parade of different candidates on the ballot paper. There could be several reasons for this. The refusal to register Boris Nadezhdin will have to be justified somehow. Similar problems that the CEC claims to have discovered with the signatures submitted by the Communsits’ Malinkovich could come in handy here. Batashev’s claims that he failed to collect signatures may also prove very useful: you see, even an environmentalist failed to rally support, what can one expect of a liberal in a country rallied around Putin. Moreover, the withdrawal itself looks like a curtsy to the candidates who represent the parliamentary parties. According to the sociological data amassed by Nadezhdin’s team, they are still winning a paltry percentage of support, and spoilers will worsen the already deplorable result even further.

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