Boris Nadezhdin, the Civic Initiative Party presidential hopeful, arrives at the Central Election Commission to submit signatures collected in support of his candidacy, in Moscow on January 31, 2024.
Vera Savina | Afp | Getty Images
Over President Vladimir Putin’s 24 years in power, a systemic opposition has been wiped out in Russia with the Kremlin’s political opponents either jailed or in self-imposed exile or, in some circumstances, even dead.
But a challenger to Putin’s long reign in office has emerged from an unlikely place — within Russia’s existing political establishment — in the form of Boris Nadezhdin.
Standing on a platform for peace with Ukraine, friendly and cooperative global relations and fair elections, as well as a fairer civil society and smaller state, Nadezhdin submitted his bid to run for the presidency Wednesday.
The Kremlin has sought to dismiss Nadezhdin’s potential to upset an election whose win for Putin is seen as a done deal. Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told CNBC Thursday that “we are not inclined to exaggerate the level of support for Mr. Nadezhdin.”
Nonetheless, the fact that Nadezhdin is even attempting to stand for election on an anti-war platform — and has garnered a certain level of public support — shows there is public appetite for his views, and that’s likely to make the Kremlin nervous after it has staked its political legacy and future on a victory in Ukraine.
Russian political analysts point out that Nadezhdin, 60, isn’t a political outsider or upstart but part of Russia’s political establishment — a former lawmaker who had been a member of political parties that endorsed Putin’s leadership at the start of his political career over two decades ago.
His recent foray into frontline politics, and bid to run for the presidential election, has seemingly been tolerated by Russia’s political leadership and domestic policy makers, despite the misgivings of some pro-Kremlin activists, with Nadezhdin seen previously as a member of the system opposition that gives a veil of political plurality and legitimacy to Russia’s largely autocratic leadership.
However, Nadezhdin’s recent growing popularity and prominence has changed that, political analysts say, and he now poses a challenge and a dilemma for the Kremlin as the election nears.
“He has been always anti war and critical but he played the rules and respected the rules, so he didn’t dare [challenge the political status quo], he was absolutely a part of the systemic opposition … but he decided to go further,” Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya told CNBC Thursday.
“[As soon as] he believed that thousands of people were behind him or even hundreds of thousands, he decided to play another game,” Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center and the founder of analysis firm R.Politik, said.
“And it doesn’t please domestic policy overseers at all. For them, this is a set up, this is a headache and a problem. Nadezhdin has now become a challenge,” she said.
Skating on thin ice?
Nadezhdin is a well-known face in Russia. A former State Duma lawmaker, he has made a name for himself on popular TV chat shows on which he’s become known for his critical views on Russia’s war against Ukraine, or what Moscow calls the “special military operation.” However, analysts note that he has been careful to stay within recent legislation that has made “discrediting” the armed forces a criminal offense that can lead to imprisonment.
Nadezhdin has gained a popular following among sections of the Russian public and late last year he was nominated to stand in the election by the center-right Civic Initiative party.
Formed just over 10 years ago, the party states in its manifesto that “its goal is the state to be man’s servant, not his master” and says it wants to restore individual freedoms in Russia, such as freedom of speech and the right to protest, and to revive relations with the West. Nadezhdin has said in interviews that he would end the war with Ukraine, describing the war as a “fatal mistake.”
Those are brave words in Russia, and Nadezhdin himself has said he’s unsure why he has not yet been arrested for his views.
Many of his supporters have queued in freezing temperatures to add their support and, crucially, their signatures to back his bid to stand in the Mar. 15-17 election.
Candidates representing political parties in Russia must collect at least 100,000 signatures from at least 40 regions in Russia in order to be considered as an election candidate. Putin, running as an independent (and requiring at least 300,000 signatures), reportedly gathered over 3.5 million signatures.
People queue to sign for the presidential candidacy of anti-war candidate Boris Nadezhdin. It is considered impossible that Nadezhdin could win the upcoming presidential election in Russia. However, the candidacy of the war opponent has met with unexpected approval from many Russians.
Picture Alliance | Picture Alliance | Getty Images
Surrounded by his supporters and a gaggle of press as he delivered his bid to the Central Election Commission this week, Nadezhdin said 105,000 signatures had been submitted although just over 200,000 had been collected, his campaign website states. His campaign decided not to submit signatures collected from Russian citizens abroad, fearing they would be rejected.
The Central Election Commission, which oversees electoral processes in Russia, will now review the eligibility of those signatures. Given the recent display of support for Nadezhdin, that could prove uncomfortable for the Kremlin, and there are concerns that the electoral authorities could find fault with a significant number of those signatures, meaning that a technicality — real or otherwise — could see him barred from running in the election.
Stanovaya said that was a likely scenario, saying “it is really difficult for me to imagine that Nadezhdin will be allowed to run in the election, it would be absolutely weird.” Stanovaya believed it was likely that the CEC would not recognize a portion of the signatures that Nadezhdin has garnered.
CNBC was unable to reach the CEC for a response to the comment.
András Tóth-Czifra, a fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC that the Kremlin now had to weigh up the risks of letting Nadezhdin’s name onto the ballet paper, and the potential for him to perform better than expected in the vote, or to disallow his candidacy before any real reputational damage can be done — even while knowing that stopping Nadezhdin standing could also fan discontent.
“Many have speculated, and I think this is true, that the original idea to let him stand as a candidate and collect signatures, and to express the mildly anti anti war message in his campaign, was to showcase how little support this position enjoys in today’s Russia,” Tóth-Czifra said.
Boris Nadezhdin, Civic Initiative party’s candidate for Russia’s 2024 presidential election, bringing 105,000 signatures to the polling station in Moscow, Russia on January 31, 2024.
Boris Nadezhdin Press Service/Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images
“Now … the question is how risky the Kremlin’s political technologists deem it to allow this to go further and to let Nadezhdin be on the ballot,” he told CNBC Thursday.
“I’m pretty sure that the Kremlin will weigh these risks over the week while the Central Electoral Commission is verifying signatures … There are arguments for letting Naezhdin run and there are arguments for taking him off the ballot paper. There are risks associated with letting him run and there are risks associated with taking him off the ballot,” Tóth-Czifra said.
“I believe, from what we have seen so far, that probably the Kremlin thinks that the risks associated with taking him off the ballot are lower than the risks associated with letting him run,” he added, particularly given that the Kremlin’s risk perception is likely to be elevated in a time of war.
“I’m pretty sure that there are already people in the Kremlin who think that he has gone too far already,” Tóth-Czifra said.
Even if Nadezhdin is allowed to stand, there are no illusions that he can win the election in a country where Putin’s approval ratings remain remarkably high and pro-Putin media dominate, and where political opponents are subject to extensive smear campaigns.
Kremlin’s Press Secretary Peskov told CNBC last fall that Russian “society is consolidated around the president” and that the Kremlin was confident Putin would win another term in office.
Stanovaya said Nadezhdin is running the risk of falling foul of Russian authorities now, having openly challenged its long-standing leadership.
“He takes a lot of risks now, and I’m pretty sure that the Kremlin’s domestic policy overseers, who are very well acquainted with Nadezhdin, are now thinking of how to deal with this and how to signal to Nadezhdin that either he stops and really he rows backwards, or he will have troubles.”