Back to the USSR: Russia votes in least free election since collapse of the Soviet Union

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Daria Artamonova, a candidate for a town council outside Novosibirsk - MAXIM BABENKO
Daria Artamonova, a candidate for a town council outside Novosibirsk - MAXIM BABENKO

Novosibirsk, some 2,000 miles east of Moscow, was until recently a pocket of relative democratic freedom in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

But now the city of 1.5 million is feeling not only the cold of the Siberian autumn but also the chill of an unprecedented Kremlin crackdown as Russia votes in its least free elections since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

After the poisoning and jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, not a week goes by without the arrest of another activist or sanctions against independent media, as the ruling United Russia Party takes no chances in this weekend’s parliamentary polls.

In Novosibirsk, the unofficial capital of Siberia, the few activists who dare to campaign have been sent anonymous death threats.

“Authorities have sent a very clear message: We’re jailing Alexei. We’re banning your activity,” said Sergei Boiko, a 38-year-old ally of Mr Navalny who was runner up in Novosibirsk’s mayoral race last year and would have made a natural candidate for the State Duma, or parliament.

“If you didn’t get it: we’re going to hound you until you leave the country or shut up.”

Sergei Boiko, a 38-year-old ally of Alexei Navalny - MAXIM BABENKO
Sergei Boiko, a 38-year-old ally of Alexei Navalny - MAXIM BABENKO

Like everyone else who has worked with Mr Navalny, Mr Boiko is banned from running under a controversial new law.

Several dozen Navalny allies and opposition figures, targeted by police raids and criminal charges, have fled Russia, fearing imminent arrest. Some of Russia’s most prominent independent media are struggling to survive after being branded “foreign agents”.

“The risks have skyrocketed,” said Mr Boiko, now a local councillor in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, where opposition figures once won top seats and vote-rigging was less blatant than in some other regions.

He told the Telegraph that the nerve-agent poisoning of Mr Navalny was the turning point in Russian politics, and had a lasting emotional impact.

“People here were deeply traumatised by what happened: You sit down with the guy, drinking tea, joking and talking about the elections - and two days later he is in a coma.”

Mr Boiko is barred not only from standing in this election but also in any vote for the next five years, after Mr Navalny’s network was declared “extremist”, the same label that applies to terrorist organisations. He has no illusion about what lies ahead.

“I know for sure that I won’t be able to run for any office as long as Putin is alive and in power.”

Communist Andrei Zhirnov is one of the rare opposition candidates canvassing in the streets of Novosibirsk - MAXIM BABENKO/MAXIM BABENKO
Communist Andrei Zhirnov is one of the rare opposition candidates canvassing in the streets of Novosibirsk - MAXIM BABENKO/MAXIM BABENKO

United Russia, the Kremlin-backed party which dominates the State Duma, should by rights struggle in the three-day vote, which ends on Sunday, as it is polling at less than 30 per cent, its lowest rating in more than a decade.

Russians have blamed the ruling party - which has become a byword for corruption scandals - for declining living standards and a stagnant economy.

But a lack of genuine opposition candidates on the ballot means United Russia is still all but certain to win an election that has been characterised by apathy and fear.

Margarita Monchenko, a 21-year-old waitress in Novosibirsk, said there was no point in voting. Her own grandmother is an election official in their native village and, the waitress said, regularly falsifies turnout figures and, possibly, the United Russia vote share.

“My single vote is not going to change anything, Ms Monchenko said. “United Russia always wins.”

Campaigning in Novosibirsk, as elsewhere in the country, has been muted. One of the few faces out on the streets is Andrei Zhirnov, a candidate for the Communist Party, one of the political groups that is tolerated by the Kremlin as part of its “managed democracy”.

Mr Zhirnov, a 47-year-old, dressed in a red jacket emblazoned with his name, has noticed a stark change in voters’ mood since the last Duma election in 2016.

“People have become angrier with authorities,” he said. “People hear that the screws are being tightened all over.”

“They’re afraid (the repression) is going to get to them, too. That fear is very strong.”

Repercussions for those resisting via social media are common, Denis Pervuninsky said - MAXIM BABENKO
Repercussions for those resisting via social media are common, Denis Pervuninsky said - MAXIM BABENKO

News about jailings for protesting and fines for social media posts has reached even apolitical residents like Denis Pervuninsky, a 24-year-old cook.

“People are scared of taking a public stand against the authorities: People get jailed left and right. You repost something on social media - and you get time.”

Mr Navalny has launched a project called “Smart Voting”, which encourages supporters to back whichever candidate has the best chance of defeating United Russia in their district.

On Friday, Apple and Google removed the Smart Voting app from their online stores in Russia, buckling under pressure from the Kremlin. Last week, a journalist was jailed for 10 days for posting about the tactical voting project on Facebook.

Reports of voter coercion began to emerge on Friday as polling stations opened across the country.

Media and election observers reported dozens of polling places that saw an abnormally high turnout in the morning in an indirect confirmation of reports that the Kremlin was anxious to get state-paid employees to vote early in order to manage the turnout and, possibly, the outcome of the election if needed.

Grigory Melkonyants, the co-chairman of Golos, Russia’s longest-established election monitor, said the vote was “unprecedented in Russia’s modern history”.

“The authorities have begun to infringe on people’s freedoms as never before,” he said.

Golos has also recently been branded a “foreign agent,” a designation that could restrict its work over the weekend.

Daria Artamonova, a candidate for a town council outside Novosibirsk - MAXIM BABENKO
Daria Artamonova, a candidate for a town council outside Novosibirsk - MAXIM BABENKO

In Novosibirsk, Mr Navalny’s supporters have only been allowed to stand for suburban town council elections - and even then, 12 out of 17 prospective candidates were barred from the ballot because of alleged “extremism”.

One of the few candidates still in the running is Daria Artamonova, a 19-year-old student who has spent two months knocking on doors and handing out leaflets.

Despite the apparent insignificance of the local vote, Ms Artamonova has already had a taste of the risks that come with being part of the opposition: a few weeks ago, her parents had a funeral wreath delivered to their home.

“There was a ribbon with the names of my parents on it, saying ‘We’re mourning Daria with you’,” she said.

But the student is fighting on, and has hopes of winning the tiny district.

“I’m young, and this is my main asset: I’m not scared of saying something wrong, and I don't have much to lose.”

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