Why Boris Nadezhdin’s Short-Lived Campaign is an Own Goal for the Kremlin
February 14, 2024
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Visiting researcher, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik)
Political scientist Nikolai Petrov explores how Boris Nadezhdin’s run for president made possible public expression of anti-war sentiment, which had been harshly suppressed since the very beginning of the war. The all-powerful Kremlin, having gotten rid of prominent oppositionists, missed the threat from a weak “rival.”
Nadezhdin talks to the press after the Central Election Commission barred him from running for president. February 8, 2024. Source: X
On February 8, 2024, Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) refused to register Boris Nadezhdin as a candidate in the upcoming presidential election. In the 1990s, Nadezhdin had been an active liberal politician. Back then, when the right-liberals split into oppositional and loyalist camps, Nadezhdin invariably remained in the latter and repeatedly, though not always successfully, participated in elections at various levels.

Nadezhdin was a frequent punching bag on Kremlin talk shows, appearing there as the only opponent of the official line. Over the past few years, this role became only more entrenched.

Nadezhdin and the 2024 election

The vote that Nadezhdin wanted to contest has no more in common with an election in the generally accepted sense than the loud propaganda talk shows where he acted as a punching bag have anything in common with public political discussion. Both are political performances, which, however, have their own logic and rules.

What is written here is not a reproach to Nadezhdin, whom the author knew during his political career in the 90s, and who later, given the absence of public politics in the country, acted under the flag of various pseudo-political forces, both those right- and left-of-center.

In the 2024 contest, he has acted more like a showman, which, nonetheless, does not make his current case any less interesting.

The director of the election show at all stages, as in recent years, is the Kremlin. Without its nod, Nadezhdin would not have been allowed to participate in the election even at the stage of “nominating group” registration, meaning he would not have been allowed even to collect signatures to have his candidacy considered and registered, as, for example, happened with Yekaterina Duntsova. By allowing Nadezhdin as the only alternative candidate, the Kremlin provoked a wave of public attention and a public outcry. This reaction proved unexpected and unacceptable for the Presidential Administration, and it was put to a stop when the CEC refused to register Nadezhdin as a candidate on the grounds that some of the signatures he had collected were invalid. The Kremlin thus missed a blow from where it had not expected one – something like an own goal.

The unexpected mass support for Nadezhdin was not just one blow, but three in one.
First of all, the Kremlin managed to unite the ranks of the Russian opposition. Generally scattered around the world and usually unable to agree on anything, they unanimously backed Nadezhdin.
Muscovites waiting to put their signatures down for Nadezhdin. Source: X
Secondly, the fact that the CEC refused to register Nadezhdin raised doubts among many Russians about the election procedure itself, which usually does not attract much attention. Finally, a real image of popular discontent was created in the form of the long lines of people in dozens of Russian cities who were pictured waiting to put their signatures down for Nadezhdin (according to the law, out of the 100,000 signatures needed to be registered, there can be no more than 2,500 from any one region, meaning signatures must be collected in at least 40 regions).

The Kremlin’s election toolkit

There is no point in guessing how many votes Nadezhdin would have managed to get if he had been on the ballot – one, three or even five percent – the important thing is that these would be votes not for the main candidate, which the Kremlin could not allow.

It appears that the Kremlin initially had no plans to put Nadezhdin on the ballot as a “managed candidate from the opposition” (as was, for example, Ksenia Sobchak in the 2018 presidential election, having been nominated by the Civic Initiative party). Most likely, Nadezhdin himself did not have such plans either; rather, at best he planned to throw his hat in the ring and see what would happen. He appeared to be banking on some kind of hype ahead of the regional elections in the autumn, say to the Moscow City Duma, and maybe even the Duma election in 2026, which now seems light years away.

The Kremlin likely assumed that Nadezhdin would not collect the necessary signatures, as was the case with the ecologist Anatoly Batashev, for example. And if he did collect them, then it would be possible, if needed, to find the required percentage of invalid signatures, as happened with Sergei Malinkovich, nominated by the marginal Communists of Russia party. The Kremlin has a wide range of tools at its disposal: for example, if a candidate’s organizational base is weak, like Nadezhdin’s, it is always possible to send in “Cossacks” as hired collectors of signatures – they will sign anyone up, so declaring the signatures invalid later will not be difficult.

Russia’s election legislation, which is “improved” after each election to benefit the Kremlin, gives the authorities the opportunity not to register and deregister any candidate. (The latest amendments, introduced in November 2023, provide for, among other things, voting electronically from home, significantly expanding the possibilities for falsifying results.)
Boris Nadezhdin. Behind him are boxes with the signatures collected for him. Source: X
More recently, Nadezhdin was denied registration in the election for Moscow Region governor last summer on the grounds that he had not collected the required number of signatures from municipal deputies. Now, however, instead of finding the right tools and demonstrating to Russian voters how little support Nadezhdin has, the Kremlin was forced to watch as people stood in long lines to put down their name to support a lesser-known candidate with a moderate anti-war position.

An ambitious task

For Russians who oppose the war and the Kremlin’s policies but are forced to remain silent in an atmosphere of suppression and intimidation, Nadezhdin became a despair – not a dream – candidate.
Given the logic of authoritarian regimes, his chances of being allowed to contest the election turned out inversely correlated with his popular support.
Ella Pamfilova, head of Russia's Central Election Commission. Source: Wiki Commons
It cannot be ruled out that Nadezhdin’s early announcement of plans to run for president, made back in August last year, could have been used by the Kremlin as a spoiler threat against perennial presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky. The Kremlin loves to play such games against “liberals” and “communists.” At first, Yavlinsky also tried to separate himself with an anti-war position, but rather unsuccessfully, and he did not even try to contest the election.

However, the Kremlin has no time for complex political games and maneuvers in the current election. The Presidential Administration faces the difficult task of surpassing Putin’s 56.5 million vote total in the last election in 2018, thus demonstrating that the war with Ukraine has boosted his support. Each additional name on the ballot takes votes away from Putin. Therefore, whereas in 2018 there were eight candidates, now there are only four. Moreover, candidates whose participation in the 2018 election was welcomed by the Kremlin, like Sergei Baburin and the Communists of Russia candidate, this time were barred from running.

Not only must Putin, like a high jumper, show a higher result with each attempt, but there should also be a minimum of scandals and doubts about the official results. And not only for public opinion (or, much less, the West, to whose reaction the Kremlin pays little heed), but also in the eyes of its own political elite, which should be left with no doubts about Putin’s popular support. After all, it is the unshakable legitimacy of the vozhd that is now the most important, and practically the only, basis for political stability.

Nadezhdin was to run as a candidate from the small Civic Initiative party, registered in 2013 but not represented in the Duma. In all likelihood, neither Nadezhdin himself nor Civic Initiative aimed at actually contesting the election or was ready for the support that befell them.

Running for president under the current rules is a complex and expensive business project that requires serious resources, both financial and organizational. Nadezhdin had none, so the story of invalid signatures is quite believable. It is almost impossible to properly collect signatures in at least 40 regions, especially under strict time constraints, without administrative support. In the case of Nadezhdin, however, there is a presumption of guilt in relation to the Kremlin and CEC. Legally, the refusal to include Nadezhdin on the ballot based on invalid signatures looks completely legal and justified, but politically it looks like a failure of the Kremlin.

How a sparkler turned into a fireworks show

For both Nadezhdin and all Russians who share his anti-war position, his aborted campaign was important. He warmed up himself and the public ahead of any local, or even Duma, election that he might contest in the future. Unless, of course, the Kremlin wants to take its own failure out on him.

Lines for a candidate calling the war a mistake and for it to be ended urgently are not to be ignored.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s plans to put on the election without any major incidents have already been thwarted.
The winner was Nadezhdin with his big or small political calculations and ambitions, while the Kremlin was the loser – it was too busy packing Navalny off to the Arctic Circle and arresting his lawyers to see the blow coming from the plush Nadezhdin.

This election is not about taking votes away from Putin, but about influencing the agenda and – instead of allowing the Kremlin to show the broadest plebiscitarian support for the leader – showing that Putin’s support is not all that strong and that maybe the emperor has no clothes. Even though Nadezhdin will not be on the ballot, the visible support for him showed that behind Putin’s 80%+ approval rating and the 70% support for the war lies conditioned acquiescence, not rock-solid consolidation around the commander-in-chief. And if a legal opportunity arises to express a critical attitude toward the authorities, Russians will readily take advantage of it.
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