NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia -- Two unknown attackers entered the headquarters of the liberal opposition Novosibirsk-2020 election campaign and threw a bottle containing an unknown liquid with an acrid odor onto the floor.
"It is impossible to be in that space," one of the campaign activists told RFE/RL shortly after the September 8 incident. "We called the police, but they haven't come yet."
Some 50-60 people were in the room at the time, participating in a training on election monitoring. Two were taken away by ambulance.
"We know who did this and why," campaign leader Sergei Boiko, who heads the local office of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny in Novosibirsk and who is running for the city legislature, wrote on Facebook where he posted a security-camera video of the incident. "But even this will not save United Russia."
The attack came just days before voting in regional elections across Russia that in the Novosibirsk region will include choosing a new regional legislature and a new city council. And it came less than three weeks after Navalny himself fell desperately ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow following his poisoning involving a deadly Novichok nerve agent.
Navalny was evacuated to Germany on August 22 and is recovering in a Berlin hospital. In the meantime, his supporters and allies are gearing up for the local elections, which Navalny considered a key stepping stone to undoing the ruling United Russia party's stranglehold on power and to paving the way for a strong opposition showing in the national State Duma elections set for 2021.
"[President Vladimir] Putin has a formal mechanism that he uses to pass and rewrite laws -- United Russia," Navalny said in a July 1 video laying out his strategy for undermining Putin's rule in the wake of the adoption of a controversial package of constitutional amendments that could enable him to remain in office until 2036. "It controls the federal parliament. It controls all the regional parliaments and the municipal parliaments -- even though for a very long time now, it has little support. Everyone hates them."
Novosibirsk Oblast Governor Andrei Travnikov heads the regional United Russia list and, Navalny's supporters say, is a prime example of the party's weak standing.
"Travnikov was sent here from Vologda [in 2018]," said Navalny activist Daniil Markelov, who was disqualified by local election officials from seeking a seat on the city council. "Every second person here spits when he hears that name. We know how elections are run -- state-sector workers are mobilized, military units vote en masse, etc."
From its already weak position in 2018, United Russia's popularity has fallen even more perilously in recent months, particularly after it spearheaded the national plebiscite on the constitutional-reform package and took the political heat for a wildly unpopular reform to raise retirement ages. In addition, the party has taken the blame for the ongoing domestic consequences of the global coronavirus pandemic.
In recent elections, including the current 2020 campaign, many United Russia candidates have run as nominal independents to avoid association with the tarnished brand.
The party took an extra hit in Novosibirsk when Navalny's anticorruption organization issued an expose video on corruption among United Russia bureaucrats in the region. The film was Navalny's last major project before his poisoning and was released on August 31. It has garnered nearly 5 million views and been widely discussed in Novosibirsk.
United Russia currently holds 50 of 76 seats in the Novosibirsk regional parliament and 33 of 50 in the municipal council of Novosibirsk, Russia's third-largest city with a population of more than 1.6 million.
Early voting was being conducted on September 11 and 12, with September 13 the official election day.
While analysts say it is unlikely the ruling party's majorities can be broken in the current campaign, opposition activists believe they can make inroads in preparation for the Duma elections next year. Parties with party-list representation at the regional level can participate in the Duma elections without collecting signatures.
Navalny's supporters point to the 2019 city legislature elections in Moscow, where non-United Russia candidates were able to take 20 of 45 seats, despite the controversial disqualifications of many Navalny-backed would-be candidates.
"Although we weren't able to break United Russia's majority in the Moscow City Duma, the deputies that we did get in there are making our work in future elections in Moscow much easier," former Deputy Energy Minister and leading Navalny associate Vladimir Milov told RFE/RL.
The liberal opposition's strategy is a program called "smart voting," under which candidates most likely able to defeat their ruling-party rivals are identified regardless of their party affiliations and opposition-minded voters are encouraged to cast their ballots for them. Voters can type their addresses into a free cell-phone app at the polling station and get a list of smart-voting-endorsed candidates they can support.
"Our strategy is to increase the turnout among protest voters and to make sure those votes are concentrated for a specific candidate and not scattered," Markelov said.
But opposition candidates in Novosibirsk have faced a hardball campaign against them. Before he was disqualified on August 31 after election officials disqualified some of the signatures his campaign submitted, Markelov and his volunteers faced violence and intimidation.
"I was the only candidate [in this race] whose kiosks were attacked during the signature phase and after," he told RFE/RL. "Every day thugs came to us, destroyed our tables, cut our banners with knifes, and attacked our volunteers. One of them was even bitten."
After Markelov's campaign filed a formal complaint with the regional Interior Ministry, police guards were finally assigned to his kiosks.
"The attacks stopped, but it was the last three days of our campaign," he said.
On September 4, unknown assailants attacked and beat Communist Party city legislature candidate Maksim Startsev. The party said two men approached him from behind as he was returning home and struck him in the back of the head.
On September 1, Governor Travnikov ordered officials to check the finances of Konstantin Tereshchenko, a candidate for the regional legislative assembly. Tereshchenko, the only opposition candidate running in his district in the town of Barabinsk, said the order was intended to intimidate him.
In August, Boiko and another Novosibirsk 2020 candidate were fined after a court determined that their campaign kiosks were unsanctioned "pickets." Police cited them for "participating in an unsanctioned demonstration" for speaking with voters.
Although it is a long shot, Markelov is appealing his disqualification in the federal courts. If a decision comes his way after election day, he hopes to force a new ballot. In the meantime, he continues to campaign for other opposition candidates, despite his family's fears for his safety.
"I have nowhere to go outside of Russia," he told RFE/RL. "I was born here and will fight for this country. If you don't get involved in politics, politics will come to you."
"I don't think the [public's] desire to fight back, to replace Putin's government is going to disappear," he adds, looking ahead to the 2021 State Duma elections. "It may take on new forms. But I am sure that [Navalny] will recover. And whatever his condition may be, he will always be our leader and an example in this fight."