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Fake Candidates, 'Terrorist Threats,' Detentions: In St. Petersburg, Kremlin Foes Face Minefield Just To Get On The Ballot


Protesters in St. Petersburg on May 1 demand fair elections.

MOSCOW -- For almost a week, Pavel Chuprunov has tried in vain to register as a candidate for September municipal elections in St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city.

But on each visit to the election commission in Chyornaya Rechka, his local district, he says he's met with intimidation, police incompetence, and a whole line of fake candidates blocking entry.

On July 1, he set out once again for the election commission. On his way, he posted a fresh video to a Twitter thread he began on June 27 to document his efforts to participate in Russian politics.

"This is one of St. Petersburg's liveliest streets, but as you can see it's totally empty," he says in Russian as he strolls along an empty street in a button-down shirt and blazer. "You know why it's empty? Because it's f*****g 4 a.m., and I'm going to submit documents for the fourth time."

Arriving outside the commission at 4:30 a.m., he finds the same group of people that had stood ahead of him in line for the previous several days, claiming to be rival candidates seeking to get on the ballot. He asks them how much they're paid for preventing others from registering.

When the election commission opens 5 1/2 hours later, Chuprunov has at least seven other people ahead of him in line.

It was a repeat of scenes he'd witnessed on June 25 and June 27. On June 28, his birthday, he says he waited 12 hours -- from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. -- in a futile effort to register.

"Either the election officials hide from us, or they don't open the door, or they call up fake candidates to stand in line," he told RFE/RL over the phone from outside the election commission on July 1.

Stopping Navalny

Chuprunov, a marketing specialist who has chosen to represent the leftist A Just Russia party because of the hassle of registering as an independent, is one of many opposition candidates in St. Petersburg who allege that the authorities have made a range of efforts -- some inventive, some crude -- to prevent them from participating.

Local and regional elections will be held across Russia on September 8 -- a fresh test of President Vladimir Putin's ruling system that comes weeks after the 20-year mark of his time as president or prime minister of Russia.

The obstacles before those seeking to challenge Putin, the dominant United Russia party, or the system as a whole are not limited to Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg -- they have been on stark display in Moscow and elsewhere months before the vote.

As hopefuls like Chuprunov have sought to register as candidates, their online posts documenting those efforts paint a picture of the elections in St. Petersburg -- where politicians backed by Kremlin-appointed acting Governor Aleksandr Beglov are competing with candidates supported by the regional backers of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny -- as an exercise in frustration and farce.

Beglov, who is running for city governor as an independent, needed to gather 76,000 signatures by July 1 to qualify. On June 20 he announced that he had secured the required amount but would continue gathering signatures "just in case."

On June 21, Navalny's supporters in St. Petersburg published a video purporting to show a group of employees from government institutions copying names of city residents from a registry onto a list of signatories in support of Beglov's campaign for the governor's seat. Some of the women covered up the documents when confronted by a Navalny activist and an accompanying cameraman."

The problem may not be limited to St. Petersburg, either. Activists affiliated with Navalny's organization published a video on July 1 that purported to show a signature-forgery operation in Moscow. In the video, unidentified people are seen writing dozens of falsified signatures of Moscow voters in support of candidates looking to run in city-council elections in September.

A video report from St. Petersburg by Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, showed violent scuffles outside the election commission in the Rzhevka district on June 26.

On June 29, Navalny's backers tweeted footage of police roughly detaining Fyodor Gorozhanko, a candidate in the city's Yekateringof district, while the crowd shouts "On what grounds?" and "what has he done?"

It was the day before the registration deadline in the district, and Gorozhenko said he was making another attempt to submit documents after days spent trying to overcome obstacles placed in his way. But to get into the race, he must first get into the election commission building to register -- and that's no easy task.

"Since June 24 we, our team, visited the election commission daily in an effort to enter. They deny us entry and create all sorts of obstacles," Gorozhanko told independent outlet Mediazona, citing police involvement and the formation of fake lines outside the building's entrance.

The same day, Navalny's supporters reported that another candidate in the district, Polina Kostylenko, had also been taken into police custody after she was detained on charges of interfering with voting procedures.

A third candidate, Yekaterina Fesik, also said she was denied entry to the building.

The following morning, police officially restricted access, citing "information about plans for a terrorist attack." A video from the scene, posted online by Mediazona, shows a policeman cordoning off the area as people laugh at his claims that their lives are in danger.

People inside the building at the time of the alleged report were not evacuated.

Scared Of Losing?

Ilya Gantvarg, a Navalny supporter in St. Petersburg who is running as an independent candidate in the Smolninsky district, told RFE/RL by phone that the campaign against opposition candidates was likely organized by local officials who fear defeat for candidates running for the ruling United Russia party.

Citing three districts where violations have been reported, Gantvarg said: "There are strong candidates there, capable of beating the government candidates without a problem. So since they can't beat them in any legal way, they're unleashing this chaos."

In what appeared to be the first official denunciation of the tactics deployed against opposition candidates, the head of Russia's Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, threatened on June 27 to cancel the municipal vote altogether if reports of misdemeanors continued coming in.

"I've instructed legal specialists to look into that possibility, if this disgrace cannot be stopped," she said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio.

Her words apparently did little to help candidates like Chuprunov, in the Chyornaya Rechka district. He has until July 10 to register his candidacy by the deadline, but he leaves for Moscow on July 6 so time is tight.

"We'll continue to call the police and file complaints," he said, citing methods which have yielded no breakthrough on previous occasions.

Asked why he's so determined to run in elections that critics have alleged will be rigged in favor of Beglov's chosen candidates regardless of who else gets on the ballot, Chuprunov said he was driven by a local kind of patriotism -- pride in his neighborhood -- and a desire to combat corruption.

"This is my little homeland," he said of Chyornaya Rechka.

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