Spoiled elections The BBC dissects the dirty tactics used to demoralize voters on both wings of Russia’s ‘systemic’ opposition
Hopelessness and disgust. That is the mission of Russia’s latest batch of “spoiler” candidates and electioneering, according to a new report by BBC Russia correspondent Elizaveta Fokht. The main targets of these “dark technologies” in the September 2021 races are politicians nominated by the (left-wing) Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the (right-wing) Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and the democratic opposition party Yabloko. Candidates from Just Russia and the ruling party United Russia have been mysteriously spared. While many of the stunts performed throughout this summer’s campaigns seem like smear attempts, experts told Fokht that Russia’s spoilers actually hope to discourage swing voters from participating at all.
Perhaps the best-documented “spoiler” shenanigans in 2021 belong to the two St. Petersburg city council candidates who changed their legal names and even their physical appearance to match Yabloko’s Boris Vishnevsky. This ridiculous contest has provoked public attention and criticism (including from Russia’s own central elections commissioner), but the newspaper Kommersant found more than 20 other doppelganger candidates in other races (mostly targeting KPRF nominees).
Officials from the parties fielding these people insist that the similar names and faces are pure coincidence.
In the Krasnodar region, members of the “New People” party launched a project called “Reasonable Voting,” copying Alexey Navalny’s “Smart Vote” strategic voting initiative. Unlike the latter effort, however, Reasonable Voting favors candidates from the New People party, whatever their chances of defeating United Russia’s nominees. (The party’s leader, Alexey Nechaev, has dismissed the copycat project as an unsanctioned local effort.)
On social media, some pages and communities have appeared with names suggesting an affiliation with Yabloko. These groups advocate controversial political agendas, like lowering the age of consent and weakening presumptions of innocence in sexual harassment cases.
From major outlets like RIA Novosti and Gazeta.ru to the television station Tsargrad and tabloids like Ekspress Gazeta, Russia’s news media has also helped amplify bogus endorsements for KPRF from public villains and unpopular groups, like rapist Viktor Mokhov and supposed radical feminist activists. After the press propagated claims that KPRF welcomed Mokhov’s backing, notorious “showman” Stas Baretsky staged a bizarre demonstration outside the State Duma building, accompanied by two half-naked women on leashes, supposedly in solidarity with Mokhov and KPRF. In the same spot, several topless women posed as activists from the feminist group “Femen” in faux support of KPRF candidate Nina Ostanina.
In late July, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported how actors were recruited on social media to portray gay men at a party endorsing LDPR, whose leader has faced rumors about closeted homosexuality for years. In the weeks that followed, different media outlets published reports about LDPR’s secret “gay dream.” The campaign, one expert told the BBC, is apparently intended to demoralize LDPR’s core electorate of young men who do not exactly embrace LGBT rights.
Despite all these tricks, some analysts say there are other, more powerful forces at work in these elections. Grigory Kazankov told Fokht that doppelganger rivals sometimes mobilize angry voters and drive opposition politicians to run more active campaigns. He also argues that KPRF, LDPR, and Yabloko have lost “their energy and agenda” over the years, meaning that spoiler rivals and invented scandals are often the least of their worries. Whatever the impact of this season’s mudslinging and dirty politics, political strategists’ “dark technologies” do not influence voters as strongly as in the 1990s, Kazankov told the BBC. “Society acclimates to such stories and develops immunity,” he says.