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Boris Nadezhdin wants to run against Putin. Thousands of Russians help him.

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RIGA, Latvia — Boris Nadezhdin says he wants to do the unthinkable: unseat Vladimir Putin in Russia’s presidential election in March by campaigning against the war in Ukraine. Many of Putin’s critics suspect that Nadezhdin, a former lawmaker, plays by the Kremlin’s rules – and is the latest to join a group of vetted opposition candidates used to create a sliver of democracy in a ruthless authoritarian state where real dissent is crushed. and real challengers are imprisoned or exiled.

Despite these misgivings, tens of thousands of anti-war Russians rallied to help Nadezhdin run for office. They don’t believe he will win, and some don’t even like him, citing his appearances on propagandistic programs on state television. and his previous work as an aide to Sergei Kirienko, now Putin’s domestic policy czar. Nonetheless, they view Nadezhdin, 60, as their own tool — a way to signal to the world that many Russians are outraged by the war and want Putin removed from office.

Ignoring the question of whether he is an independent candidate or a troublemaker, Russians at home and abroad lined up for hours, helping him gather 180,000 signatures on Friday, well over beyond the minimum requirement of 100,000 required by Nadejdin to qualify as a candidate.

Nadezhdin, in turn, welcomed this outpouring as a show of genuine support. “If I’m honest, we didn’t expect such a turnout,” Nadejdin said in an interview with the Washington Post. “But it seems like people are fed up with what’s going on. »

“Secondly,” he continued, “I think people are hungry for action – their protests have been suppressed, but many have accumulated activist experience over the past few years and now have a completely legal opportunity to do something, to leave a signature.”

Voters and Russian opposition leaders now in exile said Nadezhdin was the embodiment of the “none of the above” or “no to war” options on the ballot. In the hot-button area of ​​modern Russian politics, they say, Nadezhdin offers his best bet to show that Putin, who is seeking a fifth term, does not enjoy unanimous support.

“Honestly, I haven’t had time to read his program, but for me the idea of ​​an anti-war candidate is important in itself,” said Andrei, a Russian living in Riga, after leaving a signature on an improvised campaign point set up near the capital. the city train station. “And if everyone stops thinking that everything we do is meaningless and does what they can, there will be a result.”

In 2018, when Putin was last re-elected and opposition leader Alexei Navalny was barred from voting due to criminal convictions in cases widely seen as fabricated for political purposes, Ksenia Sobchak, TV presenter and socialite, showed up and was rumored to be a Kremlin-endorsed candidate, similar to Nadezhdin.

Nadezhdin denies ever asking the Kremlin for permission to run, and Russia’s Central Election Commission could still reject Nadezhdin’s candidacy due to technical errors in the signatures collected.

“He is by no means a dream candidate,” said Ivan Zhdanov, head of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. “But our position from the start was that any candidate who is not Vladimir Putin is a good thing.”

Navalny and his team have urged Russians to run their own personal campaign ahead of the election and seek to persuade 10 people they know to vote against Putin.

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For the Russian opposition, united against the war but long arguing over how best to oppose the longtime leader, how to interact with Western governments or how to respond to sanctions affecting Russian elites and civilians, Nadezhdin’s improbable campaign became a moment of consolidation.

His campaign began collecting signatures in late December, posting modest numbers at first, but later gained popularity after receiving support from popular opposition figures, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos oil tycoon, and Maksim Katz, whose YouTube blog has more than 2,000 signatures. million subscribers. They promoted Nadezhdin’s campaign as a way for Russians opposed to the war to express their views legally and relatively safely en masse without risking arrest.

Last weekend, images of long queues gathering at collection points flooded Russian social media.

“The signing in favor of Nadezhdin is a declaration against senseless murders, against old lunatics in power and for change,” Khodorkovsky said, adding that Russians should help Nadezhdin even if he “is not their candidate.” .

Nadezhdin has a controversial political past. His regular appearances on Russian state television programs, mixed with an overwhelming majority of pro-Putin commentators, have led some to label him a “conformist” and a “token liberal.”

And some of his opinions are decidedly ambiguous. In a recent interview with Georgian newspaper Sova, he sidestepped a question about whether he considered the occupied territories part of Russia, saying “it’s a matter of negotiations and a peace treaty.”

He added that “the position of those who live in the Crimea, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions matters much more” than his personal point of view.

Nadezhdin sought to present his opposition to Putin as genuine.

“I am presenting myself as a principled opponent of the policies of the current president,” declares his electoral program. “Putin sees the world through the prism of the past and is dragging Russia into the past. … The country is sliding more and more towards medieval feudalism and obscurantism.”

In the manifesto, Nadezhdin added that starting the war was “a fatal mistake by Putin” and that he would propose to Ukraine to cease hostilities from the first day of his accession to the presidency.

Michael Nacke, a popular Russian journalist and YouTube host in exile, said he was convinced that Nadezhdin was a stooge.

“In my opinion, Boris Nadezhdin is a candidate approved by the Kremlin, and the initial idea was to inject a weak anti-war candidate, incapable of running a campaign, so that when he gets a low percentage,” said Nacke said, “They might say, look, no. we support anti-war rhetoric.

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Nacke said the growing support for Nadezhdin’s candidacy showed the Kremlin had miscalculated. “The more pressure is put on the regime, the more mistakes it makes and the more opportunities there are to tear it down and end the war,” Nacke said.

“People consider Nadezhdin as an idea, so his personal qualities don’t matter here,” he said. “The queues outside his headquarters are essentially demonstrations under the banner ‘I am against the war’… and this is the only way to publicly oppose the war.”

Putin faces several uncomfortable issues during his campaign, including discontent from wives of conscripted soldiers demanding their husbands be sent home, staunch war hawks who believe Russia is not doing enough on the line head-on, and a series of infrastructure problems that left thousands of Russians without heat. or water in winter.

On Saturday, a group of women, part of the growing The Way Home movement, staged a protest at one of Putin’s campaign offices in Moscow. Wives of conscripted soldiers are particularly angry that convicts recruited into the army from prisons, including those serving ten-year sentences for rape and murder before the war, were allowed to return home after having served six months in exchange for pardons.

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The Kremlin has so far downplayed these grievances. However, this remains a sensitive issue for Putin’s campaign, which he has not yet addressed. The president recently met with military widows, but not with relatives of living soldiers, angering some wives who complained that in order to reach the president, their husbands had to die.

Nadezhdin, on the other hand, held several meetings with the wives and mothers of the mobilized men, garnering their support and potentially irritating the Kremlin.

“This is an important symptom that shows the state of Russia after two years of war,” said political analyst Maxim Oreshkin. “Nadezhdine’s personal credit here is minimal, there could be someone else in his place…saying simple but astonishing things: he wants a peaceful and free Russia, which exists for the benefit of its citizens.”

Oreshkin added: “The main news here is that these words suddenly resonated. »

Katz said Nadezhdin’s signatures could be just the start of more serious opposition to Putin after nearly a quarter century as Russia’s top political leader.

“For Putin, this could become a problem,” Katz said, “because those citizens who stood in line to collect signatures could line up again to vote against him.”

Washington

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