No posters, no voters: Russia’s opposition faces an uphill struggle as Kremlin tries to quietly crush them

Just before Ilya Yashin launched into his second campaign speech of the day, two youths began to hand out flyers accusing him of being paid by the United States to destroy from within.

It was 10 days before elections to the Kostroma region’s parliament, and the arrival of the young members of an organisation called Patriots of Russia, who also accused one of Yashin’s activists of theft, was by now a routine part of the campaign trail.

“That is small beer. They try something like it every day,” Yashin said. “It’s a form of psychological pressure. But we got used to it a long time ago.”

Fresh-faced, short and slight, Yashin, 32, is already a veteran of Russian opposition politics, and he knows something about psychological pressure.
During the 2000s, he campaigned for the once-popular democratic parties that have seen their share of the vote shrink with each election under Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule.

Since the annexation of Crimea in February last year and the eruption of war in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s opposition leaders have endured increasing public vilification as “fifth columnists” and traitors.

In February this year came a blow that sent the entire opposition movement into shock: the murder of Boris Nemtsov, the veteran opposition leader. It signalled that the era of tolerance was over, while depriving the movement of one of its few elected officials. Nemtsov held a council seat in Yaroslavl, a provincial medieval town north-east of Moscow.

AP Photo/Alexander ZemlianichenkoAP Photo/Alexander ZemlianichenkoPeople walk to pay their respects at the place where Boris Nemtsov was gunned down on Feb. 27.

Six months on, his old allies are trying to regain office in the neighbouring region. But it is an uphill struggle.

One of the ancient river towns on which Russia was founded, Kostroma today is a sleepy provincial capital. It has been hit by Russia’s economic downturn, and many young people have left to find work in Moscow or Yaroslavl, the bigger, wealthier capital of the neighbouring region.

It is an unlikely place for an anti-Kremlin insurgency.

Parnas, the opposition alliance of which Yashin is a member, had wanted to field candidates in four regions for the Sept 13 elections, including Novosibirsk, the booming scientific capital of Siberia.

One by one, however, they were denied registration on technicalities.

By mid-August, only the regional election commission in Kostroma had granted the opposition a place on the ballot.

“Why were we allowed to run here? It’s simple,” says Leonid Volkov, Yashin’s campaign manager. “In Novosibirsk, 70 per cent of the population live in the regional capital, so we don’t have to go too far to reach most voters. Here, 60 per cent of the population live in the countryside.

“It is the toughest region for us. The Kremlin are counting on us demonstrably failing here so they can say, ’Look, you can’t even get elected. You’re not popular’,” he said.

The group need five per cent of the vote to get a deputy into the regional parliament. But the green and white campaign posters of Parnas are
nowhere to be seen – something Volkov blames on the local authority’s firm grip on the local outdoor advertising market. Similarly, the party is largely ignored in television coverage.

Volkov is targeting not city squares and high streets, but the courtyards around which Russian residential areas are invariably built. The idea is “to go to the people, not to expect them to come to us”.

It is an exhausting schedule. The two lead candidates, Yashin and Vladimir Andreichenko, a former regional governor, host a minimum of five public meetings each per day.

During a day on the campaign trail with Yashin last week, his best attended meeting attracted 14 mainly elderly voters.

His message, delivered in an engaging style, is simple: “There is no one in the assembly who represents your interests. I want to be that person.”

It is old-fashioned, soap-box politics in a country where that is now a rarity.

About Roland Oliphant, The Telegraph