MOSCOW - Russians on Friday began voting in the first nationwide elections since the invasion of Ukraine in a climate of wartime censorship and repression, with the Kremlin trying to assure the public that it was business as usual.
The vote for local and regional governments across the country includes the first municipal-level elections in the capital of Moscow since 2017, when the opposition won a sizeable minority of seats despite the Kremlin's dominance of the political system and accusations of fraud.
But the ranks of the opposition have since been depleted even further. Many anti-government politicians have fled the country, while others have been arrested or blocked from running by the election commissions.
"Real competition this year is at one of the lowest rates in a decade," according to an assessment by Golos, a Russian independent elections watchdog.
Although President Vladimir Putin has dominated Russian politics for two decades, he has long relied on elections with a semblance of competition to try to legitimise the rule of his United Russia party.
And although those elections were rife with fraud, the vote-counting process in major cities such as Moscow retained a modicum of transparency, making them an opportunity for Kremlin critics to express their discontent even if a major opposition victory was virtually impossible.
After the upheaval in Russia's economy from international sanctions over the Ukraine war and inflation, the question is whether that logic still holds. Putin has done everything in his power, critics say, to prevent his opponents from being able to repeat even their modest success of five years ago.
"Finally, for the first time, elections are totally senseless," said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace based in Moscow. Almost no one is allowed to participate, he added, referring to the opposition.
The election is also a test - albeit a diluted one - of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny's ability to influence Russian politics from prison.
Navalny's exiled team of advisers recommended candidates in each of Moscow's electoral districts to try to defeat the Kremlin's preferred candidates - a campaign they call "smart voting."
And although the government blocked access to the website listing the recommended candidates, Russians can still access it using a VPN or a smartphone app.
The current elections are being held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday - a schedule that Kremlin opponents say makes the vote more vulnerable to fraud because election observers are hard-pressed to monitor the polls for the entire duration.
The government is also allowing people to vote online, making it easier to falsify ballots, according to critics.
Nearly all regions of the country are choosing either municipal representatives, regional lawmakers or governors or some combination of those offices.
Vladimir, a cameraman, was one of the few people voting Friday at Moscow polling station No. 148, a school in a well-heeled neighbourhood. He said he cast his ballot for the incumbent, an independent who promised to address the problem of careless electronic scooter drivers speeding haphazardly along sidewalks in the city centre.
"This man can work, listen and solve problems that come up," Vladimir, 63, said outside his polling station. Like other Russian voters interviewed, Vladimir asked that his last name be withheld to protect him from possible retaliation.
Still, Vladimir said, he was not confident that the voting process would be transparent.
"I don't like electronic voting," Vladimir said. "I think manipulation is possible." Russia has for years cracked down on opposition movements and restricted the space for anti-Kremlin candidates on the national political stage. So, opposition leaders have sought smaller roles in local and regional governments where they could still make a difference.
But officials have gone to great lengths to block opposition candidates by imprisoning them on accusations of disseminating false information about the Ukraine war or charging them with minor offences that prohibit them from running.
Andrei Morev, 47, was elected head of the municipal council in Moscow's central Yakimanka district in 2017, when he and other candidates from the opposition party Yabloko won seven of eight seats there. He has said he expected to be reelected this year.
But in August, the local election commission removed him from the list of registered candidates, saying he was affiliated with an extremist group because he had a sticker on his car promoting smart voting.
The smart voting campaign's website was blocked by the government before the national parliament elections in 2021 because of its affiliation with Navalny's organisations, all of which are legally deemed "extremist" by the Russian government.
But Morev said that he has always been critical of Navalny's initiative and that the sticker was planted on his car by two men who then reported it to the police.
Morev said the judge refused to consider CCTV footage that he said showed that the sticker was planted. The judge sentenced him to 15 days in jail, effectively ending his campaign.
"They are so afraid of us," he said, "they don't want to give people any chance to choose."
Morev's party, Yabloko, estimates that 1 in 5 of its candidates was prevented from running for various reasons. And some independent candidates who were able to run face external pressures given the climate of fear in Russia today.
Yulia Katsenko, 30, is running with a group of independent candidates in her home district of Vostochnoye Biryulyovo, in southern Moscow, where Putin's United Russia won all seats in the 2017 municipal elections.
When she started campaigning, her former employer - a charitable fund affiliated with the state-owned bank Sberbank - pressured her to either quit the campaign or quit her job. She said she argued that she wasn't a high-profile candidate.
"They didn't care," she said.
So she quit her job and stayed on the campaign trail. Navalny's "smart voting" campaign listed Katsenko among its recommended candidates.
Despite the Russian authorities' crackdown on the opposition, some low-profile critics of the Kremlin and of the Ukraine war remain on the ballot. And although they are unlikely to win, Navalny's advisers said they believe the Kremlin would be hard-pressed to paper over a strong showing by some of them that would convey disapproval of the war.
"It is very difficult for Moscow to organise some kind of total falsification system at polling stations," one exiled adviser to Navalny, Vladimir Milov, said in a phone interview from Vilnius, Lithuania. "I see great enthusiasm from activists, candidates and many voters, and even in these conditions, they want to do something."
Marina Litvinovich, a political strategist who was a Yabloko candidate for the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, in last year's elections, said that given the total absence of independent print media and strict censorship laws, the election campaign this year serves only one valuable purpose: the opportunity to talk to voters.
"My campaign last year showed that, while protests were forbidden and even individual pickets, meetings between voters and candidates were allowed," she said, adding, "Of course, the elections are not free or fair and people don't consider them as such."
Some voters said they had doubts that their participation could actually effect change. But for others, voting was an act of protest.
"I am planning to vote," said Anna, a 20-year-old student, who said she wanted to see political change in her country. "It is my duty as a citizen."
She added: "It is hard to believe the elections will be honest. But it is still important to do something - and this is something they can't arrest you for." NYTIMES