Putin's party holds congress amid opposition clampdown

President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party will hold its congress Saturday ahead of September parliamentary elections that come amid a sweeping crackdown on the beleaguered opposition.

The gathering, which will determine the ruling party’s candidates and electoral programme for the lower house of parliament vote, comes after authorities took drastic measures to stop Russia’s main opposition politician Alexei Navalny affecting their outcome.

Barring his organisations from working in Russia, a Moscow court earlier this month branded them as “extremist”, while Putin signed legislation outlawing staff, members and sponsors of “extremist” groups from running in parliamentary elections.

Critics say the moves are aimed at ensuring that Navalny, who was jailed earlier this year for two-and-a-half years on old fraud charges he says are politically motivated, does not spoil the vote for the 68-year-old Kremlin chief and his deeply unpopular party.

In recent years, United Russia, which controls a majority of the lower house State Duma, has seen its support tumble amid economic stagnation, entrenched corruption and widespread voter fatigue.

On the eve of the party congress in Moscow, state-run pollster VTsIOM published a survey showing that 30 percent of voters support United Russia — a 10-point drop from the last State Duma elections in 2016.

The party, however, is projecting calm ahead of the vote. 

“It is a good base of support that can be further increased during the election campaign,” party chairman and former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said at the start of the month.

Putin, who will speak in person at the party congress on Saturday alongside Medvedev, himself boasts much higher support than his party with an approval rating of 61.5 percent, according to VTsIOM.

The pollster also predicts that three opposition parties that are seen as doing the Kremlin’s bidding — the nationalist LDPR, the Communists and A Just Russia — will garner around 30 percent of the vote.

– Arrested candidates –  

Even with Navalny and his allies sidelined, the authorities have not let up the pressure on the opposition. 

Dmitry Gudkov, a former opposition lawmaker who had said he would run for the State Duma, this month fled to Ukraine after he said sources close to the Kremlin told him if he did not leave he would be arrested.

Not everyone targeted has been able to flee, however. 

Andrei Pivovarov, the former head of Open Russia, a recently disbanded pro-democracy group, was placed in pre-trial detention this month after being yanked off a Warsaw-bound plane minutes before takeoff at the end of May.

He had likewise said he would run in the parliamentary polls. 

And this week police arrested municipal lawmakers Maxim Reznik in Russia’s second city of Saint Petersburg and Ketevan Kharaidze in Moscow. Both had announced their intention to run.

Despite the ongoing clampdown, Navalny’s allies are promoting his Smart Voting strategy that backs candidates best placed to defeat Kremlin-linked politicians — a tactic that has seen United Russia lose a number of seats in recent local elections. 

– Fraud fears –

But critics also claim that authorities will rig the vote in their favour in September.

On Friday, Russia’s elections chief announced that the parliamentary polls would be staggered from September 17 to September 19 to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Last summer, after authorities held a constitutional referendum over one week, independent election monitor Golos said it had received hundreds of complaints of violations including multiple voting and intimidation.

The opposition said the multi-day nature of the referendum — which paved the way for Putin to stay in power until 2036 — gave election officials greater opportunities to fix the vote as the ballots were held overnight.

The congress comes as Russia grapples with a surge in coronavirus cases, with Moscow on Friday reporting the highest rate of new daily infections since the start of the pandemic.

As a precaution, United Russia party officials have restricted attendance down from 1,500 people to 500, who will have to present a negative Covid test and can even be vaccinated on location.

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