'Candidate in handcuffs': Kremlin critic campaigns from jail

Members of Russia's political opposition have been excluded from upcoming elections, imprisoned or fled the country
Members of Russia's political opposition have been excluded from upcoming elections, imprisoned or fled the country Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV AFP
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Krasnodar (Russia) (AFP)

With parliamentary elections in Russia around the corner, canvassers in the southern city of Krasnodar are asking passersby to write letters to their candidate, who has no way to meet them.

That's because Kremlin critic Andrei Pivovarov is behind bars just down the road.

Arrested at the end of May, Pivovarov's supporters say he was caught in a dragnet that has seen Russia's opposition dismantled ahead of State Duma elections this weekend.

With household names like Alexei Navalny in prison, his allies in exile and lesser known activists barred from running or jailed like Pivovarov, the Kremlin is set to maintain its stranglehold on the legislature.

In a handwritten letter to AFP from Detention Centre No. 1 -- surrounded by barbed wire topped concrete walls -- Pivovarov conceded his election chances were minimal.

He said his campaign -- managed by mail via one of his lawyers and run by several dozen volunteers from Krasnodar, Moscow and his hometown of Saint Petersburg -- was a platform for his message.

"I want people who learn about my campaign to understand that the moment has arrived when those who speak the truth are tossed in prison just for their words," Pivovarov wrote.

Andrei Pivovarov was removed from a flight in Saint Petersburg in May and sent to a detention centre in Krasnodar
Andrei Pivovarov was removed from a flight in Saint Petersburg in May and sent to a detention centre in Krasnodar Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV AFP

The 39-year-old announced last year he planned to run in Moscow.

But when Navalny returned to Russia from Germany in January after recovering from a poisoning he blames on the Kremlin, the authorities launched a crackdown.

- 'Candidate in handcuffs' -

Pivovarov was a target. He had worked with organisations founded by the exiled Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky including the pro-democracy group Open Russia outlawed in 2017.

Yanked off a Warsaw-bound plane in Saint Petersburg in May, Pivovarov was whisked 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) south to Krasnodar and charged with involvement with an "undesirable" organisation.

He is facing six years in prison in a case resting on a Facebook post penned from Krasnodar in 2019, voicing support for a Khodorkovsky-aligned activist running in local elections.

In his letter, which he signed "candidate in handcuffs," Pivovarov said the authorities wanted to "shut my mouth".

"That's why the case was launched in Krasnodar, far from Moscow and Saint Petersburg," he wrote from prison.

Pivovarov is the only opposition candidate still running among at least seven who planned to ballot but were arrested.

The liberal Yabloko party included Pivovarov on their Krasnodar list in a "humanitarian" gesture, it said.

But analyst Alexander Kynev says he has "no chance" of being elected.

Yabloko, Kynev noted, has never won more than two percent of the vote in Krasnodar -- a city of some one million people and a stronghold of President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.

United Russia seemed so sure of victory its local office told AFP it wasn't running any campaign events in Krasnodar less than two weeks before the vote.

President Putin's United Russia party is widely expected to win this weekend's elections
President Putin's United Russia party is widely expected to win this weekend's elections Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV AFP

Kynev said authorities had allowed Yabloko to back Pivovarov so the party could pick up "some of the protest vote".

Yabloko is seen as part of Russia's token opposition that serves to attract liberal discontent. But, Kynev says, the authorities are relying more on blunt tactics to secure a win this weekend.

- Sliding into 'autocracy' -

"The authorities have made a final bet on legitimacy by brute force," he told AFP.

In their clampdown, authorities have targeted dissenting voices across the board, designating most leading independent media as "foreign agents" and slapping the label with Soviet-era echoes on a top election monitor.

Pivovarov's campaign members have not escaped the pressure.

A volunteer in Moscow and citizen of ex-Soviet Tajikistan who lived in Russia most of his life, 22-year-old Saidanvar Sulaymonov said he left the country earlier this month after learning he faced an entry ban.

He said it was a 40-year ban and showed AFP a screenshot of an interior ministry response saying it had "grounds" for blocking his return, though it gave no reason.

The interior ministry did not respond to AFP's request for comment.

Roman Pilipenko, a 27-year-old lawyer in Krasnodar, said he joined Pivovarov's campaign because he wanted to highlight "injustice" and warn Russians their county is "sliding into hard autocracy."

He stood near a supermarket some 100 metres down the road from Detention Centre No. 1 talking to pensioners and teenagers who stopped to ask who was featured on the cardboard cutout of Pivovarov. No one had heard of him.

Pilipenko told AFP the team's priority during the election will be vote monitoring, describing it as the only way to keep authorities from falsifying ballots.

With Pivovarov jailed, his campaign staff have been hauling around a cardboard cutout of him
With Pivovarov jailed, his campaign staff have been hauling around a cardboard cutout of him Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV AFP

Not everyone is convinced the opposition will succeed.

Across the street from the volunteers, a watermelon seller watched as wind knocked over the cardboard cutout.

"That's a bad omen," he said.