TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Behind bars in penal colonies or in self-exile abroad, Russian opposition figures vow they will still put up a fight against President Vladimir Putin as he seeks yet another term in office in an election in March.
Although they believe Putin will be declared the winner no matter how voters cast their ballots, they say they hope to undermine the widespread public support he enjoys, turn popular opinion against the devastating war he unleashed on Ukraine, and show those who oppose it already that they are not alone.
“No one but us will step into this battle for the hearts and the minds of our fellow citizens. So we need to do it and win,” imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said in an online statement relayed from behind bars.
Putin, 71, announced Friday that he will run for president again, to pile another six years onto his two dozen in power. He could even run again in 2030.
The vote is scheduled for March 15-17, with his victory all but assured. The vast majority of opposition figures are either imprisoned or have fled the country, almost all independent news outlets have been blocked, and any criticism has been muted by a slew of repressive laws adopted over the last decade.
“This is, basically, a guarantee that (the Kremlin) can declare any result whatsoever,” said Nikolay Petrov, visiting researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, in an interview with The Associated Press.
Some activists agree there is no point in trying to influence the election's outcome. They say they will take advantage of the election campaign to press their views about Putin and his government — a time when “Russians will be more politically active than usual,” according to Leonid Volkov, Navalny's top strategist and chief of staff.
“Our task is to make sure that the issues we will be able to raise and bring into the public agenda in January, February, March stick — stick with Russians even after the election,” said Volkov, who left Russia several years ago.
To that end, Volkov and his team launched a project called “Navalny’s Campaigning Machine.” The idea is simple — talk to as many Russians as possible, either by phone or online, and convince them “to turn against the candidates we hate: candidate Putin and candidate ‘War,’” as Navalny himself put it in an online post announcing the project in June.
In late October, the project already had about 170 volunteers making the calls, Volkov said, and was conducting a survey to figure out the specific grievances and needs of people in order to tailor talking points they would use in future phone calls.
Volkov said that out of the thousands of calls already made, only a handful of people said they were completely content with everything happening in Russia and beyond.
Others had at least one complaint. “Someone is discontented over the war, someone is discontented with the economic situation, someone is unhappy with the health care system, social justice — lots of things,” Volkov said.
There are questions that “the authorities can’t answer,” and by raising them with the Russians, the team hopes to cause “political problems” for the Kremlin, Volkov said. The authorities' inability to address these issues "will elicit frustration and pain, political problems for Putin that will only grow,” he added.
On the eve of Putin's announcement, the team placed a number of billboards — in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other Russian cities — that read “Russia” and “Happy New Year,” with links and QR codes leading to a website titled "Russia without Putin.” The website urges people “to convince at least 10 people to act against Putin” and talks about various ways to campaign.
The Anti-War Committee — another opposition force that unites prominent activists in exile such as former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, chess legend Garry Kasparov and former lawmakers turned opposition politicians Gennady Gudkov and his son, Dmitry Gudkov — also plans a campaign called “No to Putin!”
Gennady Gudkov told AP that the general goal of the campaign is to explain to Russians “what the future could be like without Putin” — no war, no repressions, with the government focusing on things like the economy, science and education.
A possible election day tactic, Gudkov said, could be to urge Putin critics to go to the polls at a specified time so that long lines form to show how many people oppose him: “If the country, the elites, the world will see long queues of people who clearly disagree with Putin’s policies, it will be enough.”
One group, however, believes there is mileage in putting forward candidates to challenge Putin at the polls. A project called Our Headquarters, launched by several activists helping those fleeing Russia to settle abroad, promises to support “democratic candidates with an antiwar position.”
Project coordinator Andrei Davydov told AP that they can offer help to prospective candidates with the campaign and the procedural side of things, like assembling a group of 500 people required by law to put forward an independent candidate, or with gathering and verifying 300,000 signatures needed to register on the ballot.
To get support from Our Headquarters, a candidate must oppose the war and be willing to release political prisoners and implement democratic reforms in Russia, Davydov said. The project has already endorsed one candidate: Yekaterina Duntsova, a journalist and lawyer from the Tver region north of Moscow, who once was a member of local legislature. Davydov said they were in talks with a few others.
“We need to give people hope, to give people a chance to speak out. There are no other legal possibilities (to speak out) in Russia these days, other than by supporting an antiwar candidate,” he said. “The minimum task is (get) people to understand that there are many of them, and they need to act, to defend their position."
A more ambitious goal is to register an opposition candidate to challenge Putin on the ballot, Davydov said. “We will work toward a result, a victory, and see what happens,” he added.
Navalny urged his supporters in an online statement to go to the polls on election day and vote "for any other candidate" — a strategy akin to the one he proposed in 2012, when Putin ran for president after a four-year hiatus as prime minister due to presidential term limits. That balloting, as well as an election for parliament months earlier, brought out huge protests that spooked the Kremlin and led to a crackdown on dissent.
Then, in 2018, Navalny called for a boycott of the balloting after he was barred from the race.
Since then, Navalny's team organized a voting strategy of promoting local candidates with the best chance to defeat those backed by the Kremlin's United Russia party. It has not yet been used in a presidential election.
Navalny's ally Ivan Zhdanov told AP the team will propose some other actions on election day, but refused to give details.
Maria Pevchikh, head of the board of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, urged the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom to “make Putin’s reelection more painful” by promising sanctions against any celebrities endorsing him.
“It’s one thing to change your profile picture and say you are on the Putin Team. It’s a completely different thing to actually lose everything, including your bank accounts, for participating in Putin’s ‘election’ campaign. We must increase the cost of such a decision,” she said. Governments have not responded publicly to her proposal.
Petrov, the researcher, believes the Kremlin's biggest fear from the election would be that Putin's image might be damaged.
The election “must happen quietly, calmly and show that the people accept the authorities the way they are. And in this respect, it is very important to the Kremlin to avoid any hiccups, scandals, that may cast doubt on the result that will be declared,” Petrov said.
Emma Burrows in London contributed.