On a warm Wednesday night, Maria Baronova was taking questions from a handful of voters on a playground near Moscow’s Victory movie theatre. She spoke quietly and quickly, ignoring a half dozen obviously drunk men who periodically catcalled the parliamentary candidate or her posse of mostly young female volunteers.
“Who do you see as an alternative to Putin?” a middle-aged woman asked her.
“The Russian people … people like you and me,” Baronova said.
“But people like us are few, there are more like them,” the woman shot back, gesturing toward the drunk men.
“If we band together we can change something!”
“It’s too long a project,” the woman sighed, then headed back into one of the flat blocs.
“The main problem is apathy. People don’t believe in anyone or anything,” Baronova said after the event.
Once a supporter of Vladimir Putin, 32-year-old Baronova first came to prominence—and nearly went to prison—as an activist in the street protest movement sparked by electoral violations during the last parliamentary elections in 2011. Now she’s a candidate herself and has already been the subject of dirty tricks—pro-Kremlin media published apparently hacked intimate images of Baronova with her female campaign manager.
After reforms prompted by the protests, these elections are the most open in years, and dozens of opposition candidates from the long-standing liberal opposition parties Yabloko and Parnas have been registered. But despite the economic recession and widespread disgust with the current parliament, almost none of them are likely to win. Instead, the ruling United Russia party is expected to win a huge new majority thanks to fawning state media coverage, well-funded regime candidates and voter apathy.
Putin foe and former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose Open Russia group employs Baronova and has financed part of her campaign, calls the election a “tactical concession” rather than a real thaw in politics. “But even this gives us all the chance to prepare a base for further steps: to present society with alternative people and ideas, to get people used to practical political work, to give them the chance to taste success.” He’s already looking to the 2018 presidential election, having launched a candidate search called “Instead of Putin” this week.
Baronova supported the relatively unknown Putin in the 2000 presidential election but chose to focus on her career rather than activism. She studied chemistry at university, worked as a sales manager for a chemical supply company, married and had a son, slipping into the comfortable, apolitical life of Moscow’s post-Soviet professionals. She even dreamed of working for Khodorkovsky’s Western-style oil company Yukos, she said, and first grew disillusioned with Putin when Khodorkovsky was imprisoned on fraud and tax evasion charges in 2005, in what many saw as retribution for his growing involvement in politics.
Having transferred her hopes to Putin’s successor Dmitry Medvedev, Baronova lost faith in the Kremlin once and for all when he announced in 2011 he would step aside so Putin could run for president again. Then came the December 2011 parliamentary elections. Baronova discovered that her building was assigned to a non-existent polling station and went to an electoral commission office, which initially refused to let her file a complaint until she called the police. It was one of a multitude of violations reported by voters and observers. Furious at what she had witnessed, Baronova protested at Chistiye Prudy metro station the next day where a policeman hit her with a baton, and an activist was born.
“After that, I said, you can’t behave that way with me! I can fight back,” Baronova said. She started tweeting regularly and working with the opposition movement Solidarity.
She became a fixture at demonstrations as the street protest movement took off, and she was at a march on Bolotnaya square on May 6, 2012, the eve of Putin’s re-inauguration, which descended into violence between police and protestors.
Baronova was charged with inciting mass riots and faced two years of prison before the government decreed an amnesty, shortly before Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky. She was broke after the trial and, “depressed by politics,” didn’t plan to continue as an activist. But Khodorkovsky was starting a project called Open Russia to promote human rights and liberal politics in Russia, and he hired Baronova, with whom he had started corresponding while he was in prison, to be the organization’s advocate for political prisoners and its face in Russia.
This January, the woman who once wrote “I don’t distinguish between different kinds of sh*t” on a ballot became one of the first candidates to announce a campaign for parliament. After no registered party would back her, she gathered signatures to run as an independent.
While Baronova denied that Khodorkovsky asked her to run, she constantly tells voters she represents him and his Open Russia organization, despite the negative view many Russians hold of the former oligarch.
But it is the slanted playing field of these elections, not the Khodorkovsky association, that will likely doom Baronova and other opposition campaigns. A survey by the independent Levada Center published this month showed that while 31% of respondents were ready to vote for United Russia, only 1% were ready to vote for Parnas and Yabloko, far under the 5% threshold to make it in to parliament. In a Levada survey in the central district commissioned by Open Russia, only 2% of respondents planned to vote for Baronova, versus 21% for United Russia’s Nikolai Gonchar.
The 2011-12 protests changed the Kremlin’s approach to elections. Fearful that anger over an unfair vote would again drive people onto the streets, it pushed through reforms. “The ruling party should win, but in a way that everyone accepts,” said analyst Yekaterina Schulmann, summing up the Kremlin strategy of “externally respectable” elections.
While the electoral system has been reformed, the financial and media advantages of pro-Kremlin candidates haven’t changed. In the neighborhood by the Victory movie theatre where Baronova met with voters, Gonchar’s poster was hanging in the glass case outside of every flat bloc staircase.
“I like that some parks were preserved when he was in office. That’s enough. The look of the city is being preserved,” said a teacher who would give his name only as Andrei when asked why he planned to vote for Gonchar.
A recent report by the independent electoral monitor Golos, which called the 2016 campaign the “weakest and most inactive” in the past decade, found that United Russia enjoyed three to four times more positive mentions in the media since March than the other three parliamentary parties and 50 times more than the opposition party Parnas. Russia’s liberals have been marginalized as relations with the West soured and politicians’ rhetoric grew increasingly jingoistic after the annexation of Crimea. Parnas and Yabloko candidates have been detained several times by police. Former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who leads the Parnas party list, has been repeatedly pelted with eggs after Chechnya head Ramzan Kadyrov posted a video of him in a gunman’s crosshairs. State-controlled channel NTV later showed hidden camera footage of Kasyanov in bed with Parnas political council member Natalya Pelevina.
Baronova hasn’t escaped NTV’s attention, either. Last week, its film 18 Friends of Khodorkovsky showed hidden camera footage of Open Russia candidates handling envelopes of cash and the intimate photographs of Baronova with her campaign manager. Baronova was also accused of initially denying receiving money from Khodorkovsky, even though she has constantly told voters he pays her salary. Meanwhile, independent news site Meduza reported that United Russia candidates are able to spend an average of 30 million rubles ($450,000) on their campaigns, while candidates supported by Khodorkovsky get only 8 million rubles each.
Even many of those who sympathize with Baronova don’t see the point of voting. “The system is the problem … even if a person enters with a plan, all the same nothing will change,” said human resources manager Zarina Sycheva when approached by Baronova campaigners. She said she recently traveled to South Carolina to give birth so her daughter would get U.S. citizenship.
“It’s like the Olympic champion (Michael) Phelps, if you put him in pool full of acid, he won’t swim to the end. It doesn’t mean he’s a bad swimmer, it’s because of the conditions,” said Dmitry Gudkov, the lone remaining liberal opposition member of parliament, who is running for re-election in northern Moscow. “The opposition is weak because the candidate from the regime has all the resources.”
But the opposition is also weak because of its political inexperience. Although Baronova has taken to calling herself a “liberal centrist with a socialist bent,” her platform is vague, and she admits she’s no expert when asked about the economy. “This whole Bolotnaya movement and emerging new democratic teams, they are very infantile and immature and politically very unclear and weak,” said former member of parliament Ilya Ponomaryov who fled Russia after casting the only vote against the annexation of Crimea.
Despite the expected loss for the opposition, the election is a way to learn how to run a campaign, build a political platform and reach out to an often hostile electorate, said Baronova, who is already talking about running for Moscow city council. And if Baronova’s headquarters full of 20-somethings smoking e-cigarettes and drinking take-out coffee is any indication, it’s a way to fight apathy and bring young people into politics, just like the protest movement before it.
“Not one young person will spend time on political activity, because it’s dangerous. We want to change this,” Baronova said at the debate last week. “We want the young generation to get involved in politics … not listen to the talking heads and fall into a depression.”