The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boycott or vote? Putin foes split as Russian election nears.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny leaves the European Court of Human Rights after a hearing Wednesday in a case he has brought against Russia. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

MOSCOW — If you oppose Vladimir Putin, is it even worth voting?

This basic question over how much remains of Russian democracy is driving an emotional and divisive debate in the ranks of this country's political opposition. 

Barred from the ballot in the March 18 presidential election, Russia's most prominent Putin critic, Alexei Navalny, is staging rallies across the country Sunday to call for a boycott of the vote. Other opposition politicians are furious over Navalny's effort, arguing that persuading anti-Putin voters to stay home would be a gift to a Kremlin looking to the election as affirmation of its power. 

The tussle underlines the lack of a unified strategy among those Russian politicians who are still trying to chip away at Putin's authority. It also reflects the soul-searching among Russians unhappy with the regime over whether, more than 18 years into the Putin era, a gradual shift to a more democratic form of governance is still possible. 

"The whole problem is that people don't believe in the very possibility of change," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal politician who rejects Navalny's call for a boycott. "Navalny, unfortunately, is boosting this apathy."

Ryzhkov and other liberals say that voters need to turn out in force on March 18 to back those Putin critics who will probably be on the ballot, including Communist Pavel Grudinin, journalist Ksenia Sobchak and old-line liberal Grigory Yavlinsky. Even if the president is certain to win, they say, a strong result by his critics could send a message to Russia's most influential officials and businesspeople that Putin's public standing may be weaker than they had thought. 

To the Navalny camp, however, to participate in the election is simply to play the Kremlin's game. The best way to weaken Putin in the eyes of Russia's elites, they say, is to depress turnout. And they claim that those candidates who are allowed on the ballot have so little charisma that they have no hope of attracting significant numbers of voters anyway. 

"We don't care about this spectacle in which we already know the ending," said Vladimir Milov, a co-author of Navalny's presidential platform. "What we care about is that this country have real, competitive elections." 

The result is that some opposition politicians describe their ranks as confused and deflated on the eve of the every-six-years presidential election. Dmitry Gudkov, a liberal former member of parliament trying to organize election observers in Moscow, said he's had trouble finding volunteers amid the discord.

"This split into the supporters of the boycott and supporters of voting is giving me far more difficulty in recruiting observers," Gudkov said. "Any conflict demoralizes everybody."

To vote or not to vote is a perennial question in Putin's Russia. While turnout figures close to 100 percent in regions such as Chechnya in past elections suggest fraud, vote counts in Moscow and other major cities are considered reasonably accurate.

Ahead of the 2011 parliamentary elections, Navalny urged Putin opponents to vote for any party but the ruling United Russia. When Putin ran for a third presidential term the following year, some opposition figures called on their supporters to go to the pollsand invalidate their ballots to make sure their votes couldn't be cast by someone else. 

This time, Navalny is branding his boycott a "voters' strike." The anti-corruption activist launched the campaign after Russian officials rejected his bid to run for president last month because of a past fraud conviction that he deems politically motivated. Rallies calling for the boycott are planned for about 115 Russian cities on Sunday, according to Navalny's website. 

"Voter turnout is important to the leadership for its feeling of legitimacy," said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the independent Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. 

Billboards advertising the March 18 election are already blanketing Moscow's streets, and authorities across the country have been cracking down on Navalny's local offices and seizing fliers calling for a boycott. 

"Either we learn to come out on the streets to express our demands, or they will keep stealing from us forever," Navalny said in a video posted to his millions of social media followers on Thursday.

Other opposition leaders, however, have promised to stay away from Sunday's rallies, some of which haven't been authorized by local officials. Their rejection of Navalny's methods as too radical shows the widening split over long-term strategy among Putin's opponents. While Navalny wants to put pressure on the system through street protests, others are still hoping for gradual change won at the ballot box. 

"We believe that change needs to be achieved within the field of what's legal, so that change will be evolutionary," opposition politician Ryzhkov said. "Navalny, it appears, believes that this legal path is impossible."

Nearly two-thirds of Russians voted in the 2012 election, according to official figures. In 2016, amid general political apathy, turnout in the parliamentary elections dropped to 48 percent. In a poll by the independent Levada Center last month, 58 percent of Russians said they were likely to vote, and 75 percent of the likely voters said they would support Putin. 

Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor who supports the opposition, said he was planning to skip the vote and would advise other Putin critics to do the same. 

"This isn't a vote — this is a tautology," Pavlovsky said. "You are confirming that Putin is the president of the Russian Federation."

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