Russia Nemtsov Anniversary
Russia Nemtsov Anniversary

MOSCOW - Days before an election expected to extend Kremlin dominance over Russia's parliament, the sole liberal opposition member, Dmitry Gudkov, is waging what he fears is a losing battle for political survival.

His re-election campaign ran out of money this week, he cannot get TV air time, his meetings are disrupted by people shouting him down, and a fake newspaper handed out to voters has cast him as a U.S. stooge involved in a shadowy Jewish-Ukrainian conspiracy to seize power.

Before the funding dried up, Gudkov thought he had an even chance of re-election to the 450-seat Duma, or lower house of parliament, on Sunday despite what he calls a dirty tricks campaign.

But after several promised big campaign contributions failed to materialize, 36-year-old Gudkov — who used to represent the Just Russia party before it expelled him in 2013 for helping to organize anti-Kremlin protests — is not so sure.

"Some donors are not picking up the phone, others have refused. Some have been got to, others have taken fright," he said on social media Wednesday. "We'll have to wind up the campaign headquarters. There's no more money. I will continue to hold voters' meetings ... but this is unlikely to be enough for victory."

Russia NGOs
FILE - Russian lawmakers attend a session of the lower house of the State Duma in Moscow, Russia, July 6, 2012.

His struggle — that of a former establishment insider turned rebel — underlines how difficult it is for anyone outside what the Kremlin regards as the political mainstream to have their voice heard in a tightly-controlled system.

It also shows how the liberal opposition is struggling to compensate for a lack of access to money, state media, and tacit official support by trying to run grassroots campaigns.

Opinion polls suggest Sunday's election, the first to the Duma since a similar vote in 2011 led to street protests in Moscow over allegations of ballot rigging, is unlikely to alter parliament's current makeup radically.

Gudkov, whose father Gennady was expelled from parliament in 2012 after taking part in protests against President Vladimir Putin, has been holding five voter meetings a day in the northwest Moscow district he is contesting.

Always accompanied by two bodyguards after men he called provocateurs tried to draw him into fights at election meetings, he tells voters he wants a change in Russia's leadership and a return to genuine political debate, with less money spent on defense and more on health and education.

Gudkov accuses his rivals of being behind the dirty tricks but is careful not to name names, apparently concerned this would give them an excuse to tie him up in legal actions.

Fighting the tiger

In past elections, anti-Kremlin candidates have complained of coming under the kind of pressure that Gudkov says he is now experiencing.

A former journalist, Gudkov is running for re-election as a candidate of the Yabloko (Apple) party, a liberal opposition group which had some success in the 1990s. It had no seats in the outgoing Duma however, where Gudkov sat as an unaffiliated member.

Gudkov likens the Kremlin to a tiger. At a recent voter meeting outside a crumbling Moscow supermarket in the shadow of drab Soviet-era tower blocks, he told a small audience of pensioners he had to contest the elections despite the odds.

"People tell me these elections are not fair so why bother playing with this tiger," he said. "I say I'm not playing, it's not a game, it's about our lives. I would be delighted to participate in fair elections but they don't exist, so I'll take part in the elections we have."

One woman regularly tried to shout him down, screaming out her support for rival candidates, while others subjected him to hostile questioning about the source of his financing.

Gudkov has been crowd funding his campaign and estimates he has spent around $350,000 so far. That, he says, is at least 3 million roubles ($46,000) short of what was needed to finish his campaign properly. He has used social media to spread his message and, until the money ran out, had hundreds of young people handing out leaflets on his behalf.

Before the funding dried up Wednesday, Gudkov told Reuters why his fortunes mattered. "Russian democrats need a success story," he said. "Young politicians in the regions who really want change don't know how to bring it about. We need a win to show them it's possible."

Familiar faces

As things stand, the ruling United Russia party, led by Putin loyalist Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, has a majority in the Duma and can easily pass any laws it wants.

The other three parties in parliament — the Communists, Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia — are formally designated as opposition parties. But when it comes to major legislation, United Russia can rely on their support.

Kremlin critics say they are all pro-Kremlin and exist only to create the illusion of a multi-party democracy in what is a de facto one-party state. The leaders of the three parties, two of whom have been familiar faces to voters for the last 20 years, reject that and say they represent a genuine opposition.

Held during an economic crisis which has eroded living standards, the vote is seen as a dry run for Putin's expected re-election campaign in 2018. Putin has said it's too early to say if he will seek another term.

Pro-Kremlin officials are casting the parliamentary election as the fairest contest of its kind in modern Russian history.

A new head of the central election commission has been appointed and regional and Kremlin officials have been fired in the runup, creating the impression that the ruling elite is renewing itself.

The authorities have also resurrected an old voting system viewed as more equitable, which means that half of parliament will be decided by people voting for individuals with the other half drawn from party lists as usual.

Few doubt United Russia will win, though its margin of victory could be slimmer than in recent elections with some opinion polls showing apathy levels are high and its support lower in places. Some pollsters privately predict it will increase its support nonetheless.

Gudkov says low turnout will play into the Kremlin's hands because it can rely on state workers, whose livelihoods depend on its largesse, delivering a sizeable vote. The lower the turnout, the greater the proportional significance of this bloc.

Waiting game

Politically-related financial problems are something Gudkov says he and his family are used to. Gennady, his father, says he was forced to sell the family business — a sprawling private security firm which employed 4,000 people — for a small fraction of its real value in 2012 after coming under Kremlin pressure for his opposition activities.

The Kremlin denies it uses officialdom to pressure businessmen or politicians into selling assets to settle political scores. Gudkov junior demurs.

"It was revenge for our activities on the street," he said of the sale. "Since we supported people taking to the streets we have faced problems in business, in politics, and in parliament."

On Wednesday, Gudkov made what he said was a last gasp appeal for campaign donations.

But he says time is on his side. "I don't believe the current system has a future because we need to carry out economic reforms. But that's impossible without carrying out political reforms too, and Putin doesn't want to share power.

"That means the system's days are numbered. Their time is coming to an end whereas we are younger. I hope we'll live to see change."