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Fake Parties and Cloned Candidates: How the Kremlin ‘Manages’ Democracy

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MOSCOW — Russia stages local and national elections like clockwork in accordance with its post-Soviet Constitution, but the results are nearly always the same: sweeping victories for President Vladimir V. Putin and the politicians and parties loyal to him.

In the parliamentary elections that begin on Friday and run through Sunday, there is little question that his governing United Russia party will win. For the Kremlin, which hopes to mobilize support for government policies and reinforce its legitimacy, the trick is to win handily while maintaining the plausibility of a contested outcome.

Here are several ways that the Kremlin tries to create the illusion of democratic choice while making sure it comes out on top.

Among the candidates voters will choose from in one St. Petersburg district are three men named Boris Vishnevsky, only one of whom is the real opposition politician.

Registering multiple candidates with the same or similar names as an opposition candidate is a tried-and-true Russian electoral tactic. Candidates with identical or similar names are registered in 24 of the 225 single-district races in this week’s election — about 10 percent of all races, the newspaper Kommersant reported.

Russia by no means has a monopoly on this ploy: It was used in a Florida State Senate race in 2020 — successfully, at least until the scam was uncovered.

In the case of the multiple Boris Vishnevskys, the doubles also assumed the appearance of the real opposition candidate, with the same salt-and-pepper beards, thinning hair and plain, button-down shirts.

“This is political manipulation,” the real Mr. Vishnevsky, a career politician and member of the Yabloko political party, said in a telephone interview. He said the others had legally changed their names this year and had probably mimicked his appearance with makeup or digitally altered photographs.

Credit…Anton Vaganov/Reuters

Unlike other authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia and China, Russia has a multiparty political system that was entrenched when Mr. Putin came to power in 1999.

To deal with this, the Kremlin has hit on two strategies: fake political parties and several quasi-independent parties that it calls the “systemic opposition.”

After the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny was poisoned in an assassination attempt a year ago, a party popped up that aimed to appeal to the discontented young professionals who form his base of support. The party, called New People, mimics many of his anticorruption messages but supports the continuation of Mr. Putin’s rule.

Parties making up the systemic opposition are more established and enduring than the out-and-out fakes. This grouping, which emerged in the mid-2000s under what was called “managed democracy,” includes the Communist Party and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party. They participate in elections ostensibly as opposition groups, but once elected they vote in lock step with the United Russia party, creating a rubber-stamp Parliament.

Until last year, these parties coexisted with the “non-systemic” opposition that Mr. Navalny leads, and called for Mr. Putin’s removal from power. But over the past year, in anticipation of the coming elections, the government has cracked down sharply on the legitimate opposition, sending most of its leaders, including Mr. Navalny, to jail or into exile.

If more subtle methods aren’t enough, there is the blunt instrument of knocking candidates off the ballot.

This summer, the authorities barred the vast majority of candidates — 163 out of 174 — who had applied to run for Parliament as independents. They accused them of things like keeping foreign bank accounts or faking signatures needed to get on the ballot.

Laws permitting such abusive practices have expanded over the years, beginning with Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 after a four-year hiatus as prime minister.

A law allowing the designation of nongovernmental groups as “performing the function of a foreign agent” was passed in 2012 and then expanded in 2017 to cover news media organizations. Its application this summer squelched independent news outlets like Meduza, Proyekt and Dozhd television. A 2015 amendment to the law had allowed groups to be designated “undesirable organizations,” with additional restrictions.

This year, Mr. Putin expanded Russia’s strict anti-extremism legislation, first enacted as counterterrorism measures, to apply to opposition political figures in Mr. Navalny’s organization.

Following a practice once widespread in the United States of buying voters’ loyalty by offering “walking-around money,” the Russian government typically offers one-off payments to soldiers, public sector workers and retirees a few weeks before the election.

This year, members of the security services received 15,000 rubles, about $205, and retirees and parents of school-age children 10,000 rubles. The series of presidential orders behind them, signed in July and August, specified payments in September — on the eve of the vote.

The payouts have been glorified in pro-government campaign advertising. One ad, narrated by the girlfriend of a soldier, says that, “After our president signed a decree on one-time payments to soldiers, cadets and police officers, I feel confident about my future.”

Russia allows online voting, and numerous companies have arranged for employees to vote on computers set up by the human resources departments.

Critics say this intimidates voters by potentially making their choices known to their bosses.

This summer, the authorities banned about four dozen websites affiliated with Mr. Navalny’s movement that were promoting his voting guide for the elections. The strategy, which he calls smart voting, essentially involves having opposition voters coalesce around the strongest anti-Kremin candidate in each race.

Subtler approaches have also surfaced. Recently, in what critics call an effort to thwart Russians’ ability to find Mr. Navalny’s voting guide through internet searches, a company in southern Russia that sells wool registered “smart voting” as a commercial trademark.

It then sued Google and Yandex, a Russian search engine, charging that they had violated its trademark rights and demanding that they block sites showing Mr. Navalny’s voting guides. A Russian court quickly ruled in the company’s favor.

Yandex has complied, but Google has not.

A high-stakes cat-and-mouse game has sprung up as the “non-systemic” opposition has sought to subvert the government’s tactics.

Opposition candidates who are in jail or prohibited by court rulings from attending public events have appeared instead as life-size cardboard cutouts. One jailed candidate, Andrei Pivovarov, has run entirely as a cardboard cutout propped up in his campaign office in the southern city of Krasnodar.

Mr. Navalny’s group has said that it expects its “smart voting” strategy to win a seat in Parliament for at least one opposition politician, and possibly as many as 20.

Since 2016, no members of the “non-systemic” opposition have served in the 450-seat body.

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.



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