KRASNODAR, Russia -- Politician Andrei Pivovarov stands for hours on end inside his campaign headquarters, hands on hips and one eyebrow raised as if in a perpetual state of surprise at the authorities’ decision to register his candidacy in an election he considers rigged.
From morning till night, a small band of supporters comes to take selfies with the aspiring lawmaker, discuss his long-shot bid to unseat his Kremlin-backed rival, and replenish the stock of campaign materials bearing his main political slogan: “Freedom Trumps Fear.”
The irony is that the former head of the now defunct opposition movement Open Russia isn’t even a free man. The Pivovarov inside the campaign headquarters is merely a shiny, life-size cardboard cutout of the candidate -- the man himself languishes in a cell at the city jail five kilometers down the road.
“It’s an unusual campaign, admittedly,” says Miliya Kashapova, Pivovarov’s campaign manager in Krasnodar, a provincial capital in Russia’s south to which Pivovarov had no obvious ties before his jailing. “No one knows him here. And most of us know that it would take a miracle for him to win.”
Pivovarov’s bizarre campaign from behind bars is emblematic of the build-up to Russia’s upcoming elections, which will take place on September 17-19 and determine the make-up of legislative bodies across the country as well as the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.
Through an unrelenting campaign of intimidation and criminal prosecutions the authorities have purged the electoral field of all but a select few government critics, and much of the country’s beleaguered opposition movement has largely resigned itself to defeat. Against this backdrop, campaigns like Pivovarov’s have set themselves a goal far more modest than victory: to raise awareness of the ongoing crackdown among an apathetic public.
“The real opposition is virtually nonexistent in this election. But the fundamental fight is over the narrative, and for the hearts and minds of the people,” said political analyst Abbas Gallyamov.
“The regime will win,” he added. “But it will win at the expense of its own legitimacy.”
In May, Pivovarov, 39, was yanked off a Warsaw-bound plane preparing for takeoff at St. Petersburg airport and arrested for his involvement with Open Russia, a group financed by exiled tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky that was declared “undesirable” and outlawed by Russia in 2017.
A judge ordered him sent to a pretrial detention center and he ended up in Krasnodar, where city politics are dominated by ruling party United Russia and Pivovarov’s name means nothing to most residents. But while opposition activists were being barred from ballots across the country, Pivovarov’s candidacy was unexpectedly approved.
“The fact that he managed to register as a candidate, to mount a campaign, to reach his supporters from behind bars -- I don’t remember such a case in modern Russia,” said Pivovarov’s lawyer, prominent attorney Sergei Badamshin.
His team opened campaign offices in Moscow and Krasnodar. Kashapova says they were rejected by at least 20 landlords in Krasnodar who feared being tied to an opposition campaign, but they ultimately found a venue across the road from the local headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the domestic intelligence agency that has been deeply involved in the crackdown by the government of President Vladimir Putin, a former FSB chief. Kashapova joked that it’s “probably the safest location in Krasnodar.”
On campaign posters, Pivovarov calls himself the “candidate in handcuffs.” But even if the moniker gains traction, his name won’t even appear on the ballot. That’s because he’s running for the State Duma on the list of Yabloko, a liberal party that has never clinched more than 2 percent of the votes in Krasnodar region but would need around 35 percent for Pivovarov to become a lawmaker.
“They deliberately sent him here and allowed him to run,” said Mark Nebesny, editor in chief of Free Media, an independent news website that fears being branded a “foreign agent” like most of Russia’s leading investigative outlets. “It’s all for show. When he receives less than 2 percent of the vote, they’ll point to him as a symbol of the opposition’s ineptness.”
Almost certain of his defeat, Pivovarov’s campaign team is canvassing in the streets of the city in a bid to educate voters about the political clampdown not covered on state TV.
“We don’t treat this as a real election campaign: No matter how people vote, United Russia will steal those votes,” says Tatyana Usmanova, a Pivovarov aide and former Open Russia employee. “We treat it as a public platform, a chance to bring attention to the issue of political prisoners.”
The other opposition candidates permitted to contest Russia’s tightly managed elections can at least go out and meet voters. But they all face an arsenal of time-tested tactics to scupper their already slim chances: lookalike spoiler candidates with the same names, government payouts to struggling state workers, and at least 19 changes to electoral law since 2016, including a ban on public access to camera feeds from polling stations and a three-day, electronic voting system that critics say facilitates fraud.
Jailed Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny, whose network of political offices nurtured budding opposition politicians in dozens of Russian cities until it was branded “extremist” and disbanded in April, had hoped to use his Smart Voting app to encourage voters to select candidates opposed to United Russia, which has been the target of numerous corruption investigations by Navalny’s team.
But the Smart Voting app and accompanying website have been blocked by the authorities, and since Navalny’s arrest in January after several months in Germany recovering from a poisoning he blames on the Kremlin, more than half of his political coordinators across Russia have fled the country amid threats of criminal charges for their political activism, according to a tally by the newspaper RBC.
Anastasia Panchenko, who led Navalny’s Krasnodar office, left in July. “I was just tired of all the constant pressure,” she told RFE/RL by phone from an undisclosed location.
The most recent parliamentary elections, in 2016, were a success for the Kremlin. United Russia won 343 seats in the 450-seat chamber, no major protests broke out, and allegations of fraud were widespread but less prevalent than in previous votes.
In many ways, the electoral arena has changed little since, though a crop of anodyne new political outfits has sprung up. A party called New People launched to address a public demand for personnel changes among the political elite; popular writer Zakhar Prilepin created the For Truth party to woo nationalist voters.
But this year, with United Russia’s popularity rating plummeting, the so-called “systemic opposition” -- comprising state-approved parties that compete for votes with United Russia but are ultimately beholden to Moscow-based leaders who largely toe the Kremlin line -- has itself had candidates barred and been subjected to negative propaganda on state TV.
In one Krasnodar district, the candidate for the Communist Party shares an office block with the local police precinct, whose officers wander in and out of his workplace during coffee breaks. Aleksandr Safronov, 36, acknowledges he’s engaged in an unfair fight. He gets messages from constituents who complain they’re pressured at work to cast votes for his United Russia rival and to tag him in social-media posts.
But he rejects Navalny’s movement and groups like Open Russia, echoing Kremlin officials who portray them as excessively radical. He emphasizes that the opposition should work within the scope of Russian law -- even as that law is becoming increasingly restrictive with each passing month.
“The severity of a political battle is not measured by the amount of froth at the mouth,” he said, denouncing the anti-government slogans chanted at recent protests organized by Navalny’s movement. “What did the demonstrations achieve? Hundreds have been arrested, others fled to Georgia and Latvia, and those who remain have colossal problems with law enforcement.”
Among them is Alipat Sultanbegova, a 30-year-old activist who has been detained several times for protesting and for posting videos citing the time and date of rallies. As a former volunteer at Navalny’s Krasnodar office, she feels vulnerable for her earlier affiliation with an “extremist” group. But she’s determined to stay in Krasnodar.
“No one told me it would be easy. Nemtsov gave his life for this. Navalny gave his freedom. I can give my time, at least,” she said, referring to opposition politician and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead near the Kremlin in 2015. “And at a certain moment, you realize that you just can’t live otherwise.”
For Kashapova, Pivovarov’s campaign manager, the scale of the current crackdown on dissent means it’s more important than ever for the opposition to seize upon any legal opportunity to make its voice heard.
“You have to use elections as your platform, even if they aren’t fair,” she said. “Otherwise, what’s the point of engaging in politics in Russia?”