Pricking the witch

There are significant implications to the groundswell of public support for getting Boris Nadezhdin on the presidential ballot

Pricking the witch

People queueing up to add their signatures to the nomination of Boris Nadezhdin in St. Petersburg, 23 January 2024. Photo: EPA-EFE/ANATOLY MALTSEV

Who could have predicted such excitement? It turns out that there has been life simmering away underneath a thick layer of asphalt all along — and that energy spilled into the streets last week as Russians lined up to support opposition politician Boris Nadezhdin’s efforts to collect the 100,000 signatures required to enter the presidential race.

Leonid Gozman

Russian opposition politician

Of course, the winner of March’s presidential election has already been selected by Vladimir Putin and his cronies, and we are all fully aware of who it is. Everything else is a mere formality.

The reason this spontaneous display of political opposition across Russia matters is that it can potentially change the self-perception of the participants, the national mood, and even how we view our hopes for the future: are they still at zero or has the needle now moved slightly?

Like short-lived presidential hopeful Yekaterina Duntsova late last year, the case of Boris Nadezhdin today is not one of naivety. Of course these people realise that the results of the elections are fixed.

The buzz is less about the candidate and more about the electorate being keen to show agency. 

An unknown quantity to anyone in Russia outside her hometown of Rzhev, Duntsova's announcement of her intention to run for president quickly saw her amass hundreds of thousands of followers online and a campaign team formed in her support in the space of a single week. These people knew next to nothing about Duntsova, and nearly all of her supporters understood the impossibility of her actually winning the election, but by supporting her candidacy, they were able to publicly express their attitude to the current government. The public has been starved of its voice, and so these successive phenomena are far less about going to the polling station and checking a box on the ballot for it then to be thrown into the trash. The right to vote is the right to be heard.

When the presidential administration, frightened by the tsunami of Duntsova’s popularity, nipped her campaign in the bud, society began to channel its pent up discontent into Nadezhdin’s campaign. It all started quietly: the authorities allowed his initiative group to be registered. There were no threats or attempts to sabotage the group’s meetings — one of the reasons why some believe that Nadezhdin’s candidacy was sanctioned by the Kremlin despite Nadezhdin’s categorical denials and no evidence.

Voters have flocked to add their signatures to his nomination not because they particularly want Nadezhdin as president, but because he has publicly come out against the war, against Putin, and for their rights as a citizen. None of the signatories doubt that Nadezhdin’s team will count and verify every single signature. And even if the Central Election Commission rejects the signatures on the basis of some tiny discrepancy, people will still somehow feel that they voted, something that hasn’t happened for quite some time.

The higher the pressure in a boiler, the more imminent a rupture. You slap some duct tape onto one spot and it will simply burst elsewhere.

Eliminating Duntsova from the field led Nadezhdin’s campaign to blow up. The presidential administration may later accuse Nadezhdin of violating their agreement, should one prove to have existed, but to no avail. It will not matter.

Supporters of both Nadezhdin and Duntsova attribute a far more radical stance against Putin and the war in Ukraine than either candidate’s carefully weighed statements on both subjects might suggest.

I do not condemn their caution — both Nadezhdin and Duntsova have already put themselves at considerable risk. But people hear what they want to hear. And right now they want to hear a no to the war and to Putin. It is entirely irrelevant which politician says it and whether they do so brazenly or with extreme caution. They have been assigned this role not by the government, but by the state of affairs in Russian society.

The presidential administration has obviously made a mistake. Not by pushing Nadezhdin (if indeed they have), but by underestimating people’s yearning for self-expression in the form of obvious political protest. The establishment is used to relying on confidential polls, on data that pleases the boss, but reality is different. They thought that everything would be much as it was with Ksenia Sobchak’s presidential campaign in 2018: quiet and meaningless. But unlike 2018, there now exists an open wound — the war in Ukraine. Whichever issue you press upon now, the pain will radiate in that wound. This is the Kremlin’s biggest display of incompetence and greatest political defeat in recent times.

You could say — and some do — that none of it matters. That this is a half-hearted and weak attempt to rebel. That no matter what we do, the official results will see Putin receiving over 80% of the vote. And that is true. But what is happening now is not about elections. It’s about changing the popular mindset and discovering like-minded people, who, it turns out, aren’t few in number. This is a long-distance race: the people standing in line today will at some point have their say. At least there is a chance.

There is, however, a subtler issue at hand. People have congregated in a legal and safe protest against the powers-that-be. But is it truly safe?

The regime now has a list of 150,000 of its opponents, complete with passport numbers and home addresses freely and willingly provided. While of course they cannot arrest everyone, they will inevitably be taking note of who added their name. I hope those people understood that.

We cannot predict whether Nadezhdin will be granted the status of candidate. That decision will, of course, have nothing to do with the number of signatures his team collected and will be entirely dependent on word from the presidential administration. In a way, the ease with which he amassed the requisite signature numbers for his candidacy lowers Nadezhdin’s chances of being allowed on the ballot. Having seen the lines of his supporters across Russia, the authorities will be eager to close such a powerful channel for popular dissent. Support voiced by prominent regime opponents in exile also decreases Nadezhdin’s chances. Whether he likes it or not, Nadezhdin has become the candidate of choice for Putin’s implacable enemies. And Putin has little patience with those.

If Nadezhdin is barred from entering the presidential race, this unexpectedly interesting stage of the election will be over. Nadezhdin will then face a choice of reacting cautiously or angrily, with the latter option entailing serious risks for him.

The only requirement for a sanctioned opposition candidate is to provide the beige background to Putin’s glittering victory, content with a tiny percentage of the vote so that the Kremlin can claim Russians united around their leader and his war effort. 

If Nadezhdin is allowed onto the ballot, the fraudsters running the election will ensure he receives a ridiculously low outcome in an attempt to debunk the claims of widespread anti-war feeling in Russia.

As it’s imperative that none of the cardboard candidates go off script on TV or at meetings with voters, Nadezhdin will only be registered if the presidential administration is sure that it controls him, that he will toe the party line or perhaps even say something useful to them. Perhaps something along the lines of how the war may have been a mistake, but Crimea and Donbas will forever be part of Russia. Perhaps he could simply make passing reference to the “Kyiv regime”. And if their belief that they control Nadezhdin turns out to have been misplaced and Nadezhdin gets out of hand, they will strike back at him with full force, likely with a prison sentence.

Nadezhdin’s dilemma is not dissimilar to that faced by those accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages. If she refused to confess, she was tied up and thrown into a river. If she survived, she was ruled to be a witch and burnt at the stake. If she drowned, she was deemed to have been an honest woman and given a Christian burial.

That’s Russian politics in a nutshell for you — if you want to conduct yourself with honour, you have no choice but to become a hero.

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