Russia’s parliament elections display Putin’s grip on opposition

Boris Vishnevsky is a slight man with thin graying hair, mournful eyes and a beard. He’s running for parliament against Boris Vishnevsky, a slight man with thin gray hair, mournful eyes and a beard.

Also on the ballot in Russia’s State Duma elections: another Boris Vishnevsky, same hair, same beard, similar eyes.

The latter two Vishnevskys are fakes. They were created by rivals, at least one associated with President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, to peel votes off from the real Vishnevsky, an opposition candidate from the pro-democracy Yabloko party.

Russia’s parliamentary elections — taking place amid Putin’s withering crackdown on opposition — run Friday to Sunday and, to many Putin opponents, are another low-water mark for Russia’s post-Soviet democracy.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is in jail. His electoral network has been banned, and its leaders have been arrested or have fled the country. Dozens of opposition candidates were barred or withdrew from their contests.

Support for Putin’s United Russia party has been hovering around 30 percent, according to the independent pollster Levada. Yet analysts say there is little doubt that the party will take the lion’s share of seats. It is using all its tools to keep its 334-seat supermajority in the 450-seat lower house, the State Duma, and give the Kremlin another docile legislature.

“The signs are very bad. I think this is the worst year in post-Soviet history,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It’s the same regime we have had for many years, but it’s much more repressive and much more cruel.”

“This is full scale authoritarianism,” he added, “not hybrid as it was several years ago.”

The real Boris Vishnevsky believes the shadowy fakes will cost him votes. He got into politics in the late Soviet years under Mikhail Gorbachev, a time of blossoming hope.

“When I hear the words ‘Russian democracy,’ I smile. It’s a sad smile, actually,” said Vishnevsky, sitting in his campaign office, with its newly painted white walls and piles of leaflets. “A lot of people are really furious about this story. They realize they are being deceived.”

Spoiler candidates whose names are similar to a rival are not uncommon in Russia, where names are often similar. But the fake Vishnevskys are unique because they changed their names legally and issued photographs almost identical to the image of the real Vishnevsky.

The aim is to confuse his supporters into voting for the wrong Vishnevsky, making it harder for the real Vishnevsky to beat a candidate from Putin’s United Russia.

In Russia, small decoy parties play a similar role, siphoning off votes to factions that pose no threat to United Russia.

Denis Korotkov, a former policeman and investigative journalist of Novaya Gazeta, identified the fake Vishnevkys using birth dates, addresses and patronymic names (derived from the father’s name), information later confirmed on official election posters to be displayed at voting stations.

One is Viktor Bykov, an aide to the pro-Putin candidate running against the real Vishnevky.

When Korotkov called him, he hung up without comment and did not respond to messages. Little is known about the second fake, Alexei Shmelyov, except that he is the head of sales at a St. Petersburg company and is a former security guard.

Korotkov called the fakes “symbols of this election. Now the whole of Russia is mocking the number of Boris Vishnevskys.”

The head of the Central Electoral Commission, Ella Pamfilova, said the presence of the fake Vishnevskys on the ballot was “shameful” and “a mockery of voters” but that no laws prohibited it.

Even in jail, Navalny has unsettled the Kremlin with his “Smart Voting” website and related app, which directs voters to candidates most likely to beat United Russia.

The app and website have been banned, and Russian authorities demanded that Google and Apple remove the app from their online stores, but they refused. Russia protested to the U.S. ambassador, John Sullivan, that this amounted to “foreign interference” in the election. But Smart Voting endorsements were successfully published Wednesday.

A 25-year-old computer specialist named Andrei, standing in a doorway on a wind-blasted day near the Neva River embankment in St. Petersburg, shrugged about the elections, saying they would bring no reforms.

“I think everyone understands why we need change,” he said, declining to give his full name because of fear of retaliation from authorities.

He was “not surprised at all” about the two fake Vishnevskys. “Of course it’s not normal. People understand that. It’s clear.”

Another St. Petersburg resident, student Karina Rikhviashvili, 22, called the fake-Vishnevsky scandal “comical and sad.”

“They are trying to deceive us,” she said. “I think it shows a kind of disrespect for voters. They think we are stupid.”

Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of Golos, an independent election-monitoring group — which was labeled a “foreign agent” by Russia’s Justice Ministry last month — noted early reports of election irregularities: people offered money to vote multiple times or election workers taught how to rig votes.

He said millions of state employees were ordered by their bosses to vote as directed.

But Russian authorities bristle at criticisms of the process, especially from outsiders. Putin on Thursday urged Russians to vote, calling it a “patriotic civil stance.”

Violetta Grudina, a member of Navalny’s team based in Murmansk, stands as an example of what happens to opposition figures who do not give up.

She has five criminal cases pending against her and has been arrested “dozens of times. I can’t even count.” In August, she was barred from running in municipal elections, also being held this week, and was forcibly locked up in a coronavirus hospital for three weeks, even though she tested negative for the virus.

“It is obvious that this time Putin has destroyed all his political opponents and there will be no honest and independent politicians in this election,” said Grudina in an interview.

A key feature of Russia’s system is tame “opposition parties” such as the Communist Party and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, which are used by the authorities, analysts say, to create the impression of democratic choice without ever threatening United Russia’s dominance.

But some younger Communist Party candidates have started actually to behave like real opposition candidates.

In southwest Moscow, a university mathematics lecturer, Mikhail Lobanov, 38, an urban activist and not actually a communist, is running for the Communist Party against a high-profile state TV host, Evgeny Popov of United Russia.

Popov was ridiculed on Navalny’s YouTube channel for spending $548,000 on his campaign, stocking a local pond with silver carp, planting trees and handing flowers to women. Lobanov crowdfunded $71,200 for leaflets.

Lobanov — who has been endorsed by Navalny’s Smart Voting app — turned up on a wet evening last week to campaign for votes at the carp-stocked pond, where fishermen dangled their rods. He exhorted voters to try grass-roots action, even if elections failed them.

“There’s no democracy in Russia because the majority of people do not have any influence on anything in Russia,” he lamented, saying he was in the race to “show people it is very important to act together.”

A 65-year-old retired teacher who gave her name only as Valentina complained to Lobanov about her dilapidated building. On a pension of $315 a month, she said, she could afford only “coffin slippers,” cheap shoes people buy when burying loved ones. She shuddered visibly at a mention of Popov’s name.

“When I watch his program, he is so evil. I just can’t watch TV any more,” she said.

The silver carp did not impress her.

“So we have fishermen now. That’s fine. But there are things you cannot compare: the conditions in our building — or fish,” she said.

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