(New York Times)
NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia — On the eve of regional elections, an opposition candidate named Olga V. Safronova arrived at a school for a campaign finale. She planned a rousing speech with a refrain that Russia had been seized by a dictatorial ruling party.
But operatives from that very party showed up to stop her.
What displeased them was this: Ms. Safronova’s political party was supposed to be a fake opposition, created by the Kremlin to give the illusion that Russia was a thriving democracy. Now, though, this puppet party was rebelling here in Siberia — battling for votes, defying the governing party and even assailing Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin himself.
The governing party — in coordination with the authorities themselves — soon responded. And their efforts to suppress Ms. Safronova’s party, A Just Russia, seemed to underscore how laws intended to guarantee free and fair elections carry little weight in Russia.
The governing party operatives tried to bar Ms. Safronova from the school. They called the police to interrogate her. They warned teachers and others that they would be fired if they attended, and most left. Ms. Safronova ignored the threats and began speaking in an auditorium that was nearly deserted. Even so, the operatives sought to shout her down.
“You do not have permission to speak here!” said Gennadi V. Bykovsky, a former prosecutor and aide to the governing party candidate. “We don’t want to hear your blabbering.”
Ms. Safronova lashed back. “You are corrupt!” she said. “Do you see this? They can violate the law as much as they want. And me? How dare I! I should be lined up against the wall and shot for just trying to express my point of view.”
All around Novosibirsk, A Just Russia came under pressure, and had little chance of defending itself. The police raided the party’s offices, and the state television channel accused it of conducting a dirty campaign. Local officials even emblazoned logos of the governing party, United Russia, on city bulldozers to give the party, not the government, credit for fixing roads.
On Election Day, hundreds of soldiers from a military garrison were marched to a polling place and ordered to vote for United Russia, according to nonpartisan voting monitors.
It was as if the governing party and the government had merged, just as in the Communist era. And in many ways, they have. United Russia effectively controls regional governments, prosecutor’s offices, courts, police departments and election commissions.
Up against this colossus went Ms. Safronova, 53, a former Kremlin supporter who grew increasingly frustrated with the country’s political stagnation and decided to do something about it this year. She mounted her campaign for regional assembly, and worked to transform A Just Russia in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city.
From the start, Ms. Safronova realized that the odds were against her.
She dressed like a corporate lawyer on the campaign trail, slogging through the mud of a dairy farm in the city suburbs in high heels. But the truth was that she was a widow with little money who lived with her mother, son and granddaughter in a threadbare housing project that looked as if it had not been renovated since Brezhnev’s time. She had long blond hair that she sometimes styled in a classic Slavic peasant braid, as if to hark back to her rural roots.
An economist by training, she had made many enemies as regional leader of a group called the Public Anticorruption Committee and, before that, as an advocate for small business in Novosibirsk. She expected that the governing party would be infuriated with the regional branch of A Just Russia. And so she was not surprised when she received menacing phone calls from people who would not identify themselves.
“They say, if I don’t end my campaign, they will kill me,” she said.
Still, she thought that even if she did not win, she could secure a high enough percentage of the vote to help prove that Russia had a viable new opposition at the regional level.
If United Russia went unchallenged, she insisted, then Russia would end up like the Soviet Union: foundering under the corrupt and incompetent reign of a single party.
“We are hoping that a massive number of people will come out on Election Day and declare that they will not take this anymore,” she said shortly before the voting. “We are striving to create a true multiparty system, a real democracy in Russia.”
To United Russia, those were fighting words.
A Puppet Rival Party
When the Kremlin birthed A Just Russia in October 2006, Mr. Putin, then Russia’s president, said the new party would “promote democratic values.” But it would also allow the Russian leadership to declare that the country had a multiparty system — even though A Just Russia was loyal to Mr. Putin.
His political aides also believed that A Just Russia (sometimes translated as Fair Russia) would siphon votes from the Communist Party, which still has support from the elderly, as well as people disgruntled with the country’s lurch toward capitalism. A Just Russia was to be left-leaning and modeled on Social Democratic movements in Europe.
But some Russians hunger for an alternative to the governing party and the Communists. From the day that the party was set up, some of its regional leaders agitated to split from the Kremlin. This year, in places like Novosibirsk, that movement started taking off.
Novosibirsk, with a population of 1.4 million people, was fertile ground because it is one of the country’s most progressive regions, site of a hub of prestigious universities.
What’s more, across the country, the governing party’s popularity before the Oct. 10 election was suffering. Public discontent was rising because of the weak economy and the authorities’ mishandling of crises over the summer, including a heat wave and forest fires. In Novosibirsk, United Russia was plunged into crisis when one of its own representatives got up in the regional assembly and unexpectedly repudiated the party. His microphone was cut off.
Regional chapters of A Just Russia had tried to wage authentic campaigns before, but the one here in October was among the fiercest. The headquarters of A Just Russia in Moscow referred to these newly assertive tactics as the “Novosibirsk experiment.” It viewed the election as a warm-up for national parliamentary balloting next year.
The party’s national leader, Sergei M. Mironov, who is head of the upper house of Parliament, visited the city and channeled funds to the campaign. (Because of Mr. Mironov’s prominence, the local authorities did not hamper him when he held campaign events here, his aides said.)
Mr. Mironov is a Putin ally, but he began drawing a distinction, vigorously opposing Mr. Putin’s party while usually — though not always — backing Mr. Putin himself. It was not clear why Mr. Putin tolerated this. There was speculation that he thought that competition would keep United Russia’s regional cadres from becoming complacent.
Whatever the case, people like Ms. Safronova flocked to A Just Russia. She became a regional aide to Mr. Mironov. For her assembly campaign, she put together a team of volunteers who had assisted her on anticorruption activities. But they, too, were subjected to pressure, especially younger men.
Rustam Mamedov, 34, who owns a construction business, said he joined A Just Russia because he was angered by constant demands to pay bribes to city officials. He said that in the weeks before the election, he was regularly threatened by United Russia officials, as well as the police. He recalled one phone call from an official whom he would not name.
“He told me that if we did not terminate our campaign, we would have very serious problems,” Mr. Mamedov said. “He made clear that he would get us in trouble with the narcotics police by planting drugs on us and then having us arrested. That’s what they usually do.”
Like others in the Safronova campaign, Mr. Mamedov did not relent, but he said he restricted his movements as the election neared. While his accusations could not be independently confirmed, such accounts were echoed by other volunteers for A Just Russia who were interviewed separately.
United Russia was especially angered that its rival printed hundreds of thousands of party newspapers that took aim at United Russia over basic issues like pensions, utility costs, corruption and food prices. “United Russia is a business,” one newspaper said. “It is a shameless, cynical and greedy business that is picking the pockets of the taxpayers.”
The police detained workers for A Just Russia who distributed the newspapers, and United Russia’s youth wing held a rally in the central square of Novosibirsk, where it dumped copies of the papers into a large waste bin marked “Garbage, Lies, Filth.”
In late September, the police went further, raiding the headquarters of A Just Russia and confiscating bundles of newspapers. The pretext was a bureaucratic error — the party had allegedly failed to fill out paperwork related to the printing of the newspapers.
United Russia leaders voiced exasperation at A Just Russia, saying that the party was so desperate for votes that it routinely violated the election law. They said A Just Russia sought to use legitimate law-enforcement activities to portray itself as a victim.
“They deliberately provoke these operations,” said Viktor A. Ignatov, a senior United Russia official in Novosibirsk. “If the police had not removed the literature, A Just Russia would have invented some way to provoke the police into doing it. They simply do outrageous things. If we had used such methods, our people would have long ago been arrested.”
It was just before the election, and Mr. Ignatov expressed confidence in his party’s prospects.
“I think that the Just Russia ‘project’ has been a failure,” he said.
A Candidate Fights On
But Ms. Safronova soldiered on. She was an animated speaker, able to connect with audiences by drawing upon her years in the trenches going up against crooked local officials. Even so, she often did not get a chance to get to the podium.
She booked a municipal cultural center for an event, and at the last moment, was told that the building had been closed for repairs. When she drove by soon after, it was open and decorated with balloons to attract visitors. She wanted to meet workers at a sprawling hospital, but her request was rejected on the grounds that it was a “sanitary zone.”
“My United Russia opponent was later welcomed there,” she said. “Apparently, he had no germs.”
Regional election officials denied that opposition candidates faced obstacles to campaigning, but such tactics were widely documented in Novosibirsk by Golos, the country’s leading nonpartisan voting rights monitor.
Nadezhda A. Lantsova, a senior coordinator in the city for Golos, said the government sought to hinder the opposition more this year than in any campaign in recent memory. She said the governing party seemed to view A Just Russia as a potent contender, to be taken more seriously than the Communists, who are seen as having limited support.
“Officials who do not obey the ruling party in relation to its campaign needs are simply fired from their jobs,” Ms. Lantsova said. “And the party can do this with impunity.”
By Election Day, Ms. Safronova was feeling beaten down but knew that she had to persevere because the next 24 hours would be crucial. Ballot-stuffing and other electoral misconduct is rampant in Russia, and it almost always benefits the governing party.
She visited as many polling places as possible so that United Russia operatives would know that she was watching. But when she monitored the returns, she sensed that something was wrong. Some polling places were delaying reporting totals.
When the results from those polling places finally arrived in the middle of the night, several showed spikes in turnout, as well as implausibly high totals for the governing party candidate — nearly 80 percent of the vote in some cases. It was a classic sign of vote-rigging, according to election experts who examined the totals.
Ms. Safronova ended up losing badly, coming in third with only 16 percent of the vote. The governing party candidate, Anatoly V. Zhukov, triumphed with 49 percent.
Overall, United Russia did not fare as well in Novosibirsk as it did in other regions, but it still dominated, garnering 50 out of 76 seats in the regional assembly.
Local election officials pronounced themselves pleased with the conduct of the election. “A Just Russia is putting out incorrect information, to my great regret,” said Tamara I. Aleksenko, chairwoman of the Novosibirsk regional election commission. “This was as democratic as you can get. Everything was done according to the law.”
Ms. Safronova did not agree. The day after the election, she was poring over the returns at the headquarters of A Just Russia when she started receiving phone calls from friends, expressing condolences. She had kept her composure until then, but something seemed to snap. She walked out to the corridor, her eyes filled with tears.
“This was so dirty, so dishonest,” she said. “I would understand if it had been an honest fight, but it was not. I have no desire to do this again. Maybe there will come a time when I will think differently. But for now, no.”
She decided to put it behind her and resume her anticorruption work, but others apparently had not forgotten. Last week, several men abruptly descended upon her office, threw down some documents and threatened to beat her if she did not leave immediately. The building was owned by the government, and she was being evicted.