The Kremlin Is Employing Unusual Tactics In Upcoming Russian Duma Election

Sep 16, 2021
Originally published on September 16, 2021 4:38 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now a look at some tricks at play in the upcoming Russian elections. Three days of voting start tomorrow to determine the new parliament and city governments across the country. NPR's Charles Maynes reports from Moscow on the tactics being used to confuse people about the choices on the ballot.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: When it comes to Russia's elections, little surprises Boris Vishnevsky.

BORIS VISHNEVSKY: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: A veteran politician with the liberal Yabloko Party in St. Petersburg, he's seen all sorts of tricks over three decades in politics. And yet, this caught his eye. Amid his current campaign for reelection to the city legislature, his two opponents are also named Boris Vishnevsky.

VISHNEVSKY: (Through interpreter) These people changed their names, legally, to mine just to stop me. This has never happened before.

MAYNES: Neither has this - for their campaign posters, the imposters adopted Vishnevsky's, let's call it, signature look - a scraggly beard and receding hairline. The Russian internet finds that funny. Boris Vishnevsky does not.

VISHNEVSKY: (Through interpreter) It's not funny at all because people can really get mixed up.

MAYNES: This has been an unusual political season, one notable not only for tactics aimed at keeping opposition candidates from winning, but also off the ballot.

DMITRY GUDKOV: Of course, the Kremlin wants to do everything possible just to get rid of strong Kremlin opponents.

MAYNES: That's opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov. Gudkov served in the parliament, the Duma, less than a decade ago and was planning to run again. Instead, he's now in exile in Europe after he was detained and threatened with criminal charges.

GUDKOV: I get some warnings from people close to the Kremlin who said if I didn't leave, they would start pressure against the whole family.

MAYNES: Behind all the election tricks and intimidation lies the deep unpopularity of the Kremlin's United Russia party, says Boris Kagarlitsky of the Moscow School for Social and Economic Sciences. And it's at a critical juncture. If President Vladimir Putin is to extend his more than two-decade hold on power when his current term ends in 2024, Kagarlitsky says a pliant Duma is a must.

BORIS KAGARLITSKY: The people are angry. And if you let them vote, even under the rules which existed before 2020, they will vote just everyone out.

MAYNES: Today, Putin, currently self-isolating over exposure to the coronavirus, issued a video appeal for Russians to let their voices be heard. And technically, voters have choices, even several new parties on the ballot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Putin has campaigned for United Russia in the runup to the vote, promising cash payments to the military and pensioners should the party win. Sprinkling a three-day vote calendar with pruned candidate choices, the polls show United Russia will retain its majority. But there's still some suspense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: That's Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin critic who's in jail. He and his supporters are banned from running, but they have a plan. It's called Smart Voting. They've made a list of candidates they've determined are most likely to beat United Russia candidates, and they're urging people to vote for them no matter their politics. That includes asking people to vote for communist or nationalist candidates to the dismay of pro-democratic activists. But some old-school liberals still made the cut.

VISHNEVSKY: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Like St. Petersburg's Boris Vishnevsky - the real one.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEL'S "KNOW YOU DON'T") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.