Some have been barred from claiming public office under new repressive laws. Some were forced to leave the country after threats of prosecution. Some have been imprisoned.
Pressure has also increased on independent media and human rights activists: a dozen media and human rights groups have received crippling labels as “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations” Or accused of having links with them.
Besieged opposition groups admit the Kremlin left them few options or resources ahead of the September 19 election, which is widely seen as key to President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to consolidate his grip on power. But they still hope to erode the dominance of the ruling United Russia party in the State Duma, or parliament.
“We still want to take a lot of seats from United Russia so that many candidates not approved (by the authorities) become deputies of the State Duma and members of regional legislatures”, Leonid Volkov, main ally of the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, told The Associated Press.
The election is crucial because the Kremlin wants full control over the next parliament, say opposition politicians and political analysts. The Duma chosen this year will still be in place in 2024, when Putin’s current term expires and he will have to decide whether to stand for re-election or choose another strategy to stay in power.
“Putin likes to maintain uncertainty and make decisions at the last minute,” said political analyst Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter.
“No one will know until the last minute what they will do in 2024,” Gallyamov said. “Will he run again or propose a successor? … Will this be another constitutional reform, or will a new cabinet have to be approved, or election laws will have to be they need to be changed?… All roads must be open to Putin, he must feel that his options are not limited by anything, for this parliament must be absolutely obedient.
Equally important is removing any risk that lawmakers will back possible protests in 2024, Gallyamov said, because a directly elected institution opposing the Kremlin alongside protesters could take the conflict to another level.
Maintaining the dominance of United Russia in parliament, however, will not be easy, where it holds 334 of 450 seats.
A poll by independent center Levada showed that only 27% of Russians are ready to vote for the party. So rolling the opposition and using administrative leverage is the only way, Gallyamov said.
Navalny, Putin’s top critic who began United Russia’s dominance in regional legislatures in recent years, is serving a 2.5-year prison sentence for parole violation for a conviction he says is motivated by political considerations. This follows his return to Russia from Germany, where he was treated for poisoning with a nerve agent which he blamed on the Kremlin, which denies it.
Navalny’s main allies have been slapped with criminal charges, and his Anti-Corruption Foundation and a network of regional offices have been banned as extremist organizations.
This exposed hundreds of people associated with the groups to prosecution. Parliament also quickly approved a law prohibiting those with links to extremist organizations from running for office.
As a result, no one from Navalny’s team shows up and many have left the country. About 50 websites operated by Navalny and its associates have been blocked and dozens of regional offices are closed. Several other opposition activists were not allowed to stand because they supported Navalny.
Another prominent Kremlin critic, former lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov, was briefly arrested in June along with his aunt for fraud. Gudkov said he planned to run in a Moscow district against a less popular candidate from United Russia, but authorities ruled him out of the race.
“They took my aunt, found an alleged 6-year debt she owed for a rented basement, added me to the case, arrested both of us for two days and made it clear that if I did not give up the election and do not leave the country, they will imprison me and my aunt, ”Gudkov told the PA. He then left the country.
Authorities also jailed Andrei Pivovarov of the opposition group Open Russia funded by Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Putin critic who moved to London after spending 10 years in prison on charges widely seen as political revenge.
Pivovarov, who had planned to travel to the Duma, was removed from a plane bound for Warsaw just before takeoff from St. Petersburg and taken to the southern city of Krasnodar. He was accused of supporting a local candidate last year on behalf of an “undesirable” organization and jailed pending an investigation.
Open Russia closed its doors several days before Pivovarov’s arrest. In a twist, Pivovarov was cleared on the liberal Yabloko party ballot even though he will remain behind bars until election day. The allies say it will be nearly impossible for him to win.
“They destroyed everyone, who was at least somehow visible, as potential political actors,” said Marina Litvinovich, a human rights activist and one of the few Kremlin critics to come forward.
Litvinovich was a long-time member of the state’s Public Oversight Commission which monitors the treatment of prisoners and detainees, but was removed after exposing abuses by jailed Navalny supporters. She decided to show up in a Moscow neighborhood in place of Yulia Galyamina, a prominent politician who was convicted in a criminal case last year and barred from attending.
Litvinovich told AP it was difficult to know that at any time, “you could be banned from the race, or targeted by a raid tomorrow, or be involved in a criminal investigation.”
“But we are trying to get over that feeling and move on,” she said.
Navalny Volkov’s ally echoed his sentiment.
“It’s not a very pleasant feeling, when a giant, very heavy, very stupid elephant is galloping towards you,” he said.
Despite the crackdown, Navalny’s team still plans to roll out their smart voting strategy, a plan to support candidates most likely to defeat those in United Russia. In 2019, smart voting helped opposition candidates win 20 of 45 Moscow city council seats, and last year’s regional elections saw United Russia lose its majority in legislatures in three cities.
Volkov said it was harder to promote smart voting, with dozens of websites blocked and people intimidated by the crackdown: Online registrations for the project soared a year ago after the poisoning of Navalny, but there are fewer this year.
However, there have been record downloads for the team’s smartphone app, which is much more difficult for authorities to block.
Others plan to continue arguing against the vote for United Russia. Pivovarov’s allies decided to continue his campaign even though he was imprisoned. Last month, they opened campaign offices in Moscow and Krasnodar, using cardboard cutouts from Pivovarov to greet supporters.
“For us this campaign is a megaphone,” Pivovarov’s main ally Tatyana Usmanova told AP when the Moscow office opened last month.
“What Andrei was looking for is that as many people as possible understand that they shouldn’t vote for United Russia, that the elections are unfair. … Now we have a legitimate opportunity to tell people about all of this.
Daniel Kozin in Moscow and Tanya Titova in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed.