MOSCOW (Reuters) – Two young anti-Putin activists trudged through a snow-logged Moscow housing estate on a recent Saturday, putting up fliers promoting a boycott of a presidential election next month.
“It’s not an election, it’s a trick,” read one, depicting a goggle-eyed caricature of Vladimir Putin, who polls show should be comfortably re-elected on March 18.
A man donning a fur hat ripped one of the fliers down within a minute. A woman, told by the activists “our elections have been stolen”, quietly shut her door in their faces.
Unglamorous and at times disheartening for those involved, this is the sharp end of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s campaign to boycott an election he says amounts to the rigged reappointment of Putin, whom he likens to an autocratic Tsar.
Navalny, a 41-year-old lawyer whose protests and corruption exposes of the sometimes gilded lives of government officials have irked the Kremlin, has been barred from the contest over what he says is a trumped up suspended prison sentence.
Unable to challenge 65-year-old Putin at the ballot box and kept off state TV, he has devised a different strategy: A long-term political siege of a man most Russians consider invincible.
“We want to tear Putin down from his pedestal,” Vladimir Milov, an economic adviser and one of Navalny’s allies, said in an interview. “Putin will get a formal victory, but we want to make it a pyrrhic victory. We want to use the election to show that he doesn’t have as much support as he claims.”
Putin is credited with an approval rating of around 80 percent, bolstered by state TV, the ruling party and intense pride in parts of society over the 2014 annexation of Crimea and what the Kremlin has cast as military victory in Syria.
Nobody doubts that a man who has seldom been off Russian TV screens for the last 18 years is headed for a landslide.
“Leader of the political Olympus” was how Putin’s spokesman described his boss last month, a nod to the fact that none of the seven candidates registered to run against him are a threat.
Among them are a female TV celebrity whose father was Putin’s political mentor, a pro-Putin businessman who says he’s not cut out to be president, and a millionaire communist.
The contest, say critics, is a poor imitation of democracy.