A woman holds a poster that reads: 'Elections are when you can choose', as people gathered for a protest in St.Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. About 400 people gathered for a meeting against the violations and no-alternative governor…
A woman holds a poster that reads: "Elections are when you can choose," as people gathered for a protest in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sept. 5, 2019.

MOSCOW - Russians braced for key local elections in Moscow and St. Petersburg Sunday — as the exclusion of opposition candidates and imprisonment of anti-government demonstrators cast doubt on the legitimacy of races that analysts say Kremlin-backed candidates still risk losing.

Indeed, with polls showing widespread discontent with President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party, the limited scope of Russia’s election season was set early on.

Russia’s Election Commission barred opposition-oriented candidates nearly en masse in July, citing candidates’ failure to clear voter signature requirements to participate in elections.

The result: a series of rolling weekend protests in both cities that saw more than 2,500 arrests, many at the hands of truncheon-wielding police and aggressive OMON security forces.

“The aggressive response suggests authorities understand it’s not just about the Moscow Duma,” said Alexander Baunov of the Moscow Carnegie Center. “It’s about reshaping the future of power in Russia.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends judo tournament on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, Sept. 5, 2019.

Right to protest vs. rush to justice

Putin has insisted citizens have the right to participate in political protests, a constitutional guarantee he reaffirmed again this week.

“(The protests) sometimes it brings positive results, because it wakes up the authorities, sets them in the right direction so they can effectively solve people’s problems,” Putin said when referring to the “Saturday demonstrations” during an economic forum in the far eastern city of Vladivostok Thursday.

Yet nearly all of Russia’s key opposition figures, including several would-be candidates, were repeatedly jailed through the election season.

Meanwhile, Moscow courts quickly sentenced a handful of demonstrators ahead of the vote.

Three- to four-year prison terms were handed down to several protesters for light altercations with police, such as flicking a helmet. Blogger Vladislav Sinitsa was given a five-year sentence for an ill-advised tweet.

In another key ruling, a judge sentenced Konstantin Kotov, a 34-year-old programmer, to four years in jail for participating in otherwise completely peaceful “unauthorized” rallies against the government. Kotov’s lawyers were given just two days to prepare his defense.

Pavel Chikov, of the AGORA human rights legal support group, pointed to the Kotov case in particular as “a signal” intended to intimidate other demonstrators.

“Particularly after a summer of protests, the number of those who risk facing the same fate as Kostantin Kotov in the event of another arrest is in the dozens,” Chikov told VOA’s Russian Service.

Indeed, the draconian rulings were reminiscent of a government crackdown from 2012, when a brief street melee in Moscow between protesters and security forces led to lengthy prison terms for dozens of pro-democracy activists.

FILE - Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny walks out of a detention center after he was jailed for 30 days for calling an unauthorized protest in Moscow, Aug. 23, 2019.

Opposition to have an effect

Though banned from participation in the elections, Russia’s opposition remained poised to influence the outcome of the elections in Moscow.

In the months leading up to election day, opposition leader Alexei Navalny unveiled a strategy called “smart voting,” a calculated effort to consolidate voter support around remaining candidates, no matter how odious, in an effort to oust control from the Kremlin-backed United Russia party.

“I want to remind you how strong we are, and how afraid of us they are,” Navalny said in an online broadcast to his YouTube channel Friday while promoting the strategy.

How much is open to debate — and math.

Other leading opposition voices, such as the exiled businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, have called on supporters to resist Navalny’s calls to vote for communist or nationalist candidates simply because they can defeat Putin loyalists.

Yet outside observers have largely endorsed Navalny’s strategy as effective, given traditionally low voter turnout in local races.

“I don’t understand who can be ‘for’ or ‘against’ the smart vote,” sociologist Grigory Yudin wrote in a widely shared post on Facebook. “It’s the same as being ‘for’ or ‘against’ a calculator.”

In a sign that the government also recognized the danger, Kremlin-backed candidates have shed their former United Russia affiliations and are participating in races as newly “independent candidates.”

The independent Novaya Gazeta also published audio recordings in which election commission officials in St. Petersburg purportedly detailed plans to rig Sunday’s vote away from the eyes of election monitors. 

Ella Pamfilova, head of Russian Central Election Commission speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Moscow, Aug. 27, 2019.

Mysterious attacker

Adding further uncertainty ahead of the vote, a masked intruder broke into the home of Ella Pamfilova, the head of the Central Election Commission, early Friday, reportedly threatening her with a stun gun. Pamfilova was uninjured but appeared shaken at an appearance in Moscow later in the day.

Russia’s Investigative Committee has launched an inquiry, prompting theories — and jokes — about the real target of the investigation.

“The criminal was in a mask, young, flexible, tall and athletic — and he ran out very fast,” wrote the online news portal Baza in a tweet quoting Pamfilova about the attack.

“We think we found the criminal,” Baza added.

A series of photos of the opposition leader Navalny ensued.