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Russia poised to bar only antiwar candidate from presidential race

MOSCOW — The only remaining antiwar candidate seeking to run in Russia’s presidential election, Boris Nadezhdin, will probably be barred from the ballot, after Russian electoral authorities on Monday alleged irregularities in his attempt to register as a candidate.

A working group of Russia’s Central Election Commission rejected more than 15 percent of the first 60,000 signatures it reviewed among the more than 100,000 Nadezhdin has submitted as a requirement to register. The working group recommended he be barred, and the commission is expected to issue a final decision on Wednesday.

Russian authorities have long manipulated elections, banning any candidate who poses a threat to President Vladimir Putin — such as the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny — and admitting only a handpicked coterie of candidates who cooperate with the regime.

But even the veneer of legitimacy sought by Russian authorities could be tainted with the elimination of Nadezhdin, 60, an antiwar physicist and politician, widely regarded as posing no realistic threat to Putin.

Opponents of the war in Ukraine have seized on Nadezhdin’s candidacy as a chance to express their antiwar sentiments without risk of arrest by supporting his effort to win a place on the ballot. Tens of thousands of people lined up in the cold across Russia to give their signatures in support of his registration — a stunning rebuff to a war that has come to define Putin’s presidency.

Barring Nadezhdin from the ballot would signal the Kremlin’s wariness of any avenue for Russians to express their opposition to the increasingly unpopular war.

In December, authorities barred another antiwar candidate, former television journalist Yekaterina Duntsova, from running in the election, after rejecting signatures that she submitted to register.

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Under Russian election law, a candidate must gather more than 100,000 signatures across Russia to qualify. Nadezhdin gathered 180,000 and submitted 105,000, his campaign said.

After an initial review of 60,000 signatures, the electoral commission working group rejected 9,209, or more than 15 percent. To qualify, no more than 5 percent of signatures can be invalidated.

Analysts and Kremlin critics said the rejection of the signatures indicated that Nadezhdin was certain to be barred from running. Such a blatant breach of democratic standards would further signal Russia’s shift to a repressive state where dissent is crushed, Putin critics are labeled “terrorists” and jailed, and the media is under state control.

Nadezhdin on Monday vowed to fight back, with his staff forced to comb through the working group’s complaint to prove that at least 4,500 signatures are valid. Igor Artemyev, deputy head of Nadezhdin’s campaign headquarters, said staff faced “two sleepless nights ahead” in trying to do so to prepare their legal response.

Nadezhdin said that if his candidacy is rejected on Wednesday, he would challenge the decision in Russia’s Supreme Court; however, the chances of this succeeding appear negligible in Russia’s highly politicized judicial system.

Many members of Russia’s fractured opposition publicly have voiced skepticism of Nadezhdin’s candidacy, with some suspecting he was a tool of the Kremlin — ordered to run to provide an appearance of legitimacy. But the move to bar him appears to shoot down those claims.

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Nadezhdin has strongly denied such assertions. “Putin views the world through the prism of the past and drags Russia into the past,” Nadezhdin wrote in an electoral manifesto, outlining his opposition to Putin’s policies. “The country is increasingly sliding into medieval feudalism and obscurantism.”

Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst and former Putin speechwriter who is based in Israel, said it was clear that the Kremlin had decided to bar Nadezhdin, even though doing so would undermine any claim of a legitimate election.

“Obviously, if Nadezhdin is not allowed to run, this very legitimacy will be completely forgotten, and the president himself said that it is the main objective of the campaign,” Gallyamov told Echo of Moscow radio.

Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, dismissed the working group’s assertion that more than 9,000 signatures were invalid.

“So on Wednesday he will be denied registration as a candidate and that’s a fact. But it’s important to remember that of course Nadezhdin collected real signatures,” Zhdanov wrote on Telegram. “It’s just that the Kremlin decided not to let him in.”

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Zhdanov said the decision was further evidence that the election was rigged.

“Just as Nadezhdin will not be registered, it is also obvious that votes will be stolen,” said Zhdanov, calling on Russians to support any protest of the war and the regime.

Voting in the presidential election will be held over three days in March, with an opaque system of electronic voting poised to play a central part for the first time in a presidential vote.

Both of these aspects facilitate potential fraud, according to critics. An independent election monitoring observer group, Golos, has been designated a “foreign agent” and its chairman, Grigory Melkonyants, and coordinator, Vladimir Egorov, have been charged with organizing an “undesirable organization.”

Nadezhdin’s rating among voters is low, according to Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, an independent polling group. While Putin’s approval rating is sitting on 85 percent, according to the group’s polling from Jan. 2 to 31, Gudkov told independent media Agentstvo that the survey showed that Nadezhdin would probably win a maximum of 4 percent of votes if he was allowed to run.

Abbakumova reported from Riga, Latvia.

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