Oppositional Candidate Messing up the Script. How will the Kremlin Respond?
January 31, 2024
  • Gleb Cherkasov


Journalist Gleb Cherkasov explores the unexpectedly active public support garnered by Boris Nadezhdin, who announced his intention to run for president with a platform of criticizing Vladimir Putin and opposing the war in Ukraine.

The original text in Russian was published in Forbes. A slightly shortened version is being republished here with their permission.
Boris Nadezhdin. Source: VK
Boris Nadezhdin, an official from the government of the “young reformers” Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, a Duma deputy once representing the Chubais-Nemtsov Union of Right Forces and later a public figure, it seemed, was supposed to play the same role in this presidential election as the one that he had played on all kinds of television talk shows.

On every political show, there was always, regardless of the channel, one liberal or another expressing an unpopular point of view. All the other participants would yell at him in unison. If the personalities and format were more brutal, the liberal, having received his drubbing, could be pushed out of the studio. This does not seem to have happened to Nadezhdin. He usually did well, without allowing others to interrupt him, and was not afraid even of the late LDPR boss Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who used to bring in his security detail to lend his arguments more weight.

Nadezhdin’s chances of performing better, or rather failing less, than Grigory Yavlinsky, who gained one percent of the vote in the 2018 election, or Ksenia Sobchak, who received less than two percent in the same election, initially looked rather dubious. In general, it seemed that his campaign would stall at the stage of collecting signatures to be registered.

And here the Kremlin’s scheme, if there was one at all, saw its first failure. Support for the peace candidate turned out far greater and more visible than would have been expected in 2024. A combination of legislation and law enforcement in recent years has banished any undesirable position with regard to the “special operation;” however, there is no ban on standing in line to leave a signature for a presidential candidate. Perhaps, later the Duma will do something about this, but for now it would be completely inappropriate to declare the queues a violation of the rules about solitary pickets.

The public resonance, as usual, was louder than the political one. Suddenly, it became clear that there were many more people who doubted the authorities’ line and were ready to provide their personal data to register their doubt than it seemed at the end of December. The surviving channels of communication informed both those who had followed political events to one extent or another and those who had given up on politics. The views of Nadezhdin and those who support him are back, albeit temporarily, in the legal political arena. And that is the second serious failure in the scheme.

Nadezhdin’s presidential campaign initially had an air of “spoilerism” and conspiracy with the real operators of the political process. That is a kind of tradition.

Not really spoilers

In Russia’s post-Soviet history, there were few political projects that, at the time of their inception, formation or even first stages of development, did not meet suspicion from the politically-savvy public – they asked themselves: what if this is a political game of the Kremlin?

These suspicions are as well-founded as they are exaggerated. There is no political action without political games. So it’s not so important how the project begins; what matters is what it becomes. The spoiler is not a puppet forever, and the initiator is not a puppeteer for life. The situation may easily turn out such that they change places. Attempts to divert public attention can have unexpected political consequences and do not always end well for their initiators.

United Russia was created in the early 2000s on the basis of two political organizations: Yuri Luzhkov’s Fatherland had joined Sergei Shoigu’s Unity. By that time, no one remembered that in the autumn of 1999 Unity had been seen as an attempt to snatch at least a few votes from the Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) political bloc, the original favorite in the Duma election. In the final tally, Unity received 10% more votes than OVR.

The Comrade project, which later became the Rodina bloc of Dmitri Rogozin and Sergei Glazyev, was seen in 2003 as a project of the Kremlin to take away votes from the KPRF. It turned out so effective that the Presidential Administration, which was said to be the creator of the project, tried for two years to pacify it. It succeeded in the end, but with great difficulty.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky in 1991 and Alexander Lebed in 1996 were considered spoilers before the respective presidential elections. Each managed to find his audience and his voter, and the difference in their subsequent careers was attributable to the difference in their political talents.
A line of Boris Nadezhdin's supporters waiting to put their signatures for Nadezhdin's presidential bid. St. Petersburg, January 2024. Source: VK
A case with consequences

Regardless of what was planned, things have gone completely wrong, and Boris Nadezhdin’s campaign looks like a real one, sucking up anti-Kremlin sentiments. If you wish to assume that such sentiments are being “channeled” this way, then it stands to recall that three weeks ago no one was talking about their existence.

The Central Election Commission can reject signatures – as a technical matter, this is not difficult. That would be the end of Nadezhdin’s campaign, though he would probably go to court. The likelihood that an anti-Kremlin candidate will end up on the ballot is low, but a shocking outcome should not have been expected either. The election is quite predictable. In addition, Nadezhdin does not have a powerful political organization behind him that can protect votes for him throughout the country, while nowadays you cannot just sign up to be an election observer.

The consequences of these few days could prove long-lasting.

The question is not what will happen to the creator of the scheme (again, if there was one). Hopefully, Boris Nadezhdin will not suffer either for trying to throw his hat in the race.

However, the reluctance on the part of the operators of the political process to encounter such cases in the future may push them to make significant changes, in both the political arena and the information space.

Events surrounding Nadezhdin’s campaign are taking place in the legal political arena. Although it is run down, it is still functional. The current abundance of parties and candidates is a legacy of Medvedev’s 2011 political reform, which was itself an attempt to respond to mass protests.

Perhaps preference will be given to the model of the late 2000s, when the number of parties with the right to nominate candidates for elections at all levels was steadily declining. No parties mean no nominations and none of the other hassles. And, of course, there will be attempts to depoliticize society and draw attention away from potentially important issues. This is a task for those responsible for controlling the information space, which turned out not to be so controlled.

Conspiracy theorists may assume that everything that has happened with Nadezhdin’s campaign was designed to tighten the screws. To weed out dissenters (they did leave their passport data with their addresses) and crack down even more. However, this would suggest a spirit of adventurism, which, in fact, is completely uncharacteristic of the operators of the political process.
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