Boris Vishnevsky’s toughest opponents in Sunday’s municipal elections in St Petersburg might be two other men with exactly the same name as his.
Vishnevsky, a senior member of the liberal Yabloko party, which opposes President Vladimir Putin, has found himself on the wrong end of what he says is a classic spoiling tactic: two other men have registered as Boris Vishnevsky and are standing against him, apparently to confuse voters and hamper his chances. The “new” Vishnevskys changed their names and even appear to have the same balding heads and grey beards.
“It’s political fraud,” the original Vishnevsky said in an interview. “It means the government candidates’ support is so low they can’t win honestly and they have to use dirty tricks . . . These people have no reputation and no conscience — they’re relying solely on administrative resources, not public trust.”
His situation illustrates the pressure on Russia’s opposition ahead of the September 19 vote, when voters across the country will choose a new national parliament in what critics describe as the country’s least free poll for decades. Several regional legislatures and governorships are also up for grabs.
The elections have acquired added significance because it is the last vote before Putin’s term expires in 2024. With rocketing food prices and slumping real incomes, the Kremlin is eager to demonstrate strong support for the president.
The outcome of the election is in little doubt. Analysts say it is unlikely that any parties bar the four Kremlin-controlled groups already in the Duma, or lower house, will take up the 450 available seats. United Russia, which supports Putin, is expected to retain its super majority — more than two-thirds — in the Duma, the lower house of parliament.
Many opposition candidates have struggled even to get on the ballot paper. Dozens have been barred from running for office, many over ties to jailed activist Alexei Navalny, whose Anti-Corruption Organization has been declared “extremist” by a Russian court.
Even candidates with no ties to the anti-graft campaigner have been kept out of the election. The reasons given include failing to register properly and, in one case, owning shares of two publicly traded Russian companies that were ruled by electoral authorities to be “foreign assets”.
Those opposition parties allowed on the ballot say they are victims of a dirty tricks campaign redolent of Russia’s chaotic 1990s. The Communist party, the largest opposition party in parliament, said it had been “smeared” after receiving a bizarre endorsement from a convicted criminal notorious for holding two teenage girls captive in a basement.
The attacks on the opposition suggest the Kremlin is jittery over its popularity. United Russia has an approval rating of just 29 per cent, among its lowest since 2006.
Putin is not a member, apparently to protect his higher approval rating from the party’s toxic brand. This year, the party list is headed by the popular defence and foreign ministers, Sergei Shoigu and Sergei Lavrov, whose high approval ratings should in theory help them boost turnout.
Putin has remained coy on whether they would leave their ministerial posts to become MPs, which analysts consider unlikely as it would amount to a significant demotion. In what appears to be a pre-election giveaway, Putin has announced a $7bn cash handout to pensioners and members of the security services.
“Obviously, Putin’s rating is falling and his support inside the government is also falling. So it’s not just scared of itself but of a split on the inside — the risk of internal scandals, links, palace coups, and so on,” said Alexander Kynev, a political scientist.
In response to the crackdowns, Navalny’s allies have urged supporters not to vote for United Russia but for some of the Kremlin-approved alternatives allowed on the ballot. An app developed by the campaign suggests suitable candidates.
The goal is not to change policy but, as Navalny wrote in a message from prison that his team posted to Instagram, to vote tactically to illustrate United Russia’s lack of popularity.
“The point of Smart Voting is not to get 40 or 50 per cent of the vote but just to get 16 per cent from the people who would vote against United Russia anyway and make sure they get together to give their vote to one candidate — the one who has the best chance — instead of throwing it away,” Navalny wrote.
The Kremlin has accused Navalny of being a CIA agent bent on destroying Russia and painted any attempts to boost his smart voting campaign as foreign interference. “Obviously, it’s a constant risk for us. There’s no doubt they’re going to try to interfere in the elections. Thank God, the system of mechanisms that hedge those risks has been set up sufficiently,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters.
Russia has banned the app and complained that US-based internet platforms had not removed the banned search results for smart voting, even summoning the US ambassador on Friday to warn him it had “irrefutable evidence” of American tech giants “violating Russian laws” linked to the election.
Kynev said the smart voting, which Navalny credits with depriving United Russia of 20 out of 45 seats in Moscow city council elections two years ago, could prove decisive — if not nationally, then at least in enough seats to embarrass United Russia and the president.
“Look at the Kutuzovsky district [in western Moscow],” a place where protest sentiment is relatively high, Kynev said. “There’s a candidate from Yabloko and a candidate from the Communist party — one of them would get an extra 15 per cent [and win].”
But Vishnevsky said the spectacle of his two doppelgängers was evidence the Kremlin was willing to go to new lengths to stop the opposition getting on the ballot.
“These people aren’t independent. They changed their name and their appearance because they were told to — and they would have changed sex if they’d been asked.”