Russian voters, answering Navalny’s call, protest as Putin extends his rule to 2030



MOSCOW — On the final day of a presidential election with only one possible result, Russians protested Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian hold on power by forming long lines to vote against him at noon Sunday — answering the call of the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and undercutting preliminary results Sunday night that led Putin to claim a landslide victory.

Russia’s Central Election Commission, which routinely bars any real challengers from running, reported late Sunday that Putin had received more than 87 percent of the vote with 75 percent of ballots counted. Putin quickly claimed a fifth term in office, extending his rule until at least 2030. He said he would continue his war against Ukraine where “in some areas our guys are simply cutting the enemy to pieces right now.”

Russia’s elections have long been widely condemned as neither free nor fair and failing to meet basic democratic standards, with the Kremlin approving opposition candidates and tightly controlling media access. That meant Putin’s victory was preordained. The turnout of protesters in wartime Russia, by contrast, was far less certain. Navalny had urged the midday action before dying suddenly in prison last month.

In his initial victory remarks, Putin commented on Navalny’s death for the first time and confirmed reports that talks had been underway to exchange Navalny, long his most formidable political critic, for Russians imprisoned in the West.

“A few days before Mr. Navalny passed away some people told me there is an idea to exchange him with some people who are incarcerated in Western countries,” Putin said. “You can believe me or not but even before the person could finish their phrase I said I agree. But what happened happened unfortunately. I had only one condition — that we swap him and that he doesn’t come back. Let him sit there. But this happens. You can’t do anything about that.”

Russian authorities said Navalny died of natural causes while Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, has accused Putin of ordering his murder. The Kremlin rejects the allegations.

The “Noon Against Putin” protest, with voters forming queues at polling stations in major cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Tomsk and Novosibirsk, was a striking — if futile — display of solidarity and dissent and challenged the Kremlin’s main message: that Putin is a legitimate president who commands massive support.

Voters in Russia held “Noon Against Putin” protests outside polling stations on March 17, the final day of the presidential election. (Video: Naomi Schanen/The Washington Post)

Many polling stations in Moscow were deathly quiet on Sunday morning, but long lines appeared at exactly 12 p.m. — despite authorities sending mass text messages warning people against participating in “extremist” actions and in the face of severe repression of dissent since the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which has resulted in hundreds of arrests.

Navalny, who had long crusaded for free and fair elections in Russia and was blocked from running for president in 2018, had urged Russians to vote against Putin at noon Sunday. It turned out to be Navalny’s final political act before his death.

Many voters also posted photographs of their spoiled ballots with protest slogans such as “Navalny is my president,” “No to war, no to Putin,” and “Putin is a murderer.”

Voting took place over three days, beginning Friday, which some critics said would allow greater opportunity for ballot manipulation and other fraud. Voting was also taking place in areas of Ukraine occupied by the Russian military, with reports of electoral teams accompanied by soldiers forcing people to vote at gunpoint. In 27 Russian regions and two in occupied Ukraine, voters were also able to use a widely criticized opaque online voting system, with no way to verify votes or guard against tampering.

But the three days of balloting also gave voters ample opportunity to visit polling stations at a time of their choice, making it all the more obvious that the sudden crowds at midday Sunday had not materialized by accident.

At least 65 people were detained at polling stations in 16 Russian cities on Sunday, according to OVD-Info, a legal rights group. Among them were a Moscow couple arrested because the husband wore a scarf bearing the name Orwell, a reference to George Orwell, whose dystopian novel 1984 was about a repressive totalitarian state.

Scenes of disruption broke out at polling sites across Russia on March 15, as the country voted on extending President Vladimir Putin’s rule. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

In addition to Putin, three other candidates were on the ballot, all essentially Kremlin-friendly figures with low profiles, in a highly managed election designed to offer a veneer of legitimacy without posing any serious threat. Two antiwar candidates, Boris Nadezhdin and Yekaterina Duntsova, who might have become flash points for antiwar sentiment, were barred from running.

Putin, in response to a reporter’s question on Sunday night, dismissed Western criticism of the vote. “What did you want? For them to stand up and applaud,” he asked. “They set themselves the goal of restraining our development. Of course, they will tell you whatever they want.”

At one polling station next to Polyanka metro station in central Moscow, a line of dozens extended around the block by 12:30 p.m., mainly Muscovites in their 20s and 30s. A police van and two patrol cars hovered nearby, and the entrance to the polling station was guarded by several police officers and security agents.

“We came here to vote against Putin,” said Elizaveta, 21. “We are going to put three crosses to show that we are for everyone but him. Literally anyone else is better than him.”

The Washington Post is not fully identifying her or other voters interviewed for this article because of the risk of serious repercussions from Russian authorities, including criminal prosecution.

Elizaveta’s mother, Marina, added: “He has been in the same place for too long.”

In Belgorod, Russian city hit hardest by war, Putin is still running strong

The Noon Against Putin demonstration is the third recent sign of significant Russian protest or political dissent through long lines.

In January, citizens formed long lines to sign petitions required for Nadezhdin, the antiwar candidate, to secure a place on the ballot. He was later barred by authorities, who cited irregularities with the signatures.

This month, thousands waited in huge lines to attend Navalny’s funeral and for days afterward to lay flowers and leave letters at his grave.

In Russia’s climate of political fear, protests are largely symbolic, with authorities expected to maintain tight control in the months ahead, amid a war exacting massive Russian casualties.

Still, the signs of public anger are unmistakable. Some frustrated Russians did not even wait for the Sunday protest and instead expressed their anger as soon as voting started on Friday, by setting fire to polling stations or ballots or dumping liquid into ballot boxes.

The Noon Against Putin protest was designed not only to denounce an election widely condemned as neither free nor fair, but also to demonstrate support for the fragmented, often demoralized critics of Putin and the war, many of whom are now living in exile.

Navalny’s team broadcast a live stream, narrating the day of protest, on his YouTube channel. One of the anchors was Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s longtime top political adviser, who was recently attacked by assailants with a hammer outside of his home in Vilnius, Lithuania. Volkov appeared on the broadcast with his arm in a sling.

Two friends, Arina, 17, and Maryana, 19, arrived at the Polyanka polling station together, to protest Putin.

Arina said the protest offered hope that a “civilized and democratic Russia is possible.”

“We came here so as to not feel alone,” Arina said. “I wanted to show my position in a safe and legal way because there are barely any opportunities to do this anymore.”

She added: “I think this action has been successful because it gives people a feeling of strength and power. People will at least see the queues and hear about it, and that means something.”

Maryana said: “We wanted to do a peaceful protest of the current power, to show that we don’t support it and we won’t support it.”

Nikolai, 28, who was at the same polling station, said he was surprised by the big turnout, though some other protesters said they had hoped for even larger crowds.

“I came here today to express my position and do my part to show that there is still a political life in the country and that there are different opinions,” Nikolai said. “It’s important to show that people are not alone and that there is still support for this kind of action.”

For Putin’s election in occupied Ukraine, voting is forced at gunpoint

It is difficult to stage any form of protest in wartime Russia. Authorities swiftly disperse even small street gatherings and have cracked down mercilessly on activist and opposition groups. Citizens have been arrested for laying flowers at memorials for Navalny, and some have been detained for standing alone holding up blank sheets of paper.

Russian courts, one of the regime’s major tools of control, have imposed long prison sentences on people for trivial actions, such as social media reposts or replacing price tags in supermarkets with information about the war.

The Noon Against Putin protest was particularly striking at Russian embassies in nations with significant numbers of Russians who fled after the invasion of Ukraine. They included those in Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Germany, China, Portugal, Britain and others.

It was impossible to estimate how many people participated in Russia and around the world, but photos and videos showed lines of hundreds of people at many polling stations.

Even pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov, who routinely echoes Kremlin talking points, admitted that the protest “was brilliant from the point of view of political technology.”

Markov said that it covered an extremely wide area, had a great slogan and that all opposition groups had joined in.

“Pretending that the enemy is weak is a manifestation of your weakness,” he said. “The opponent is strong and smart and can make strong moves.”

Stanislav Andreyshuk, co-chairman of Golos, an independent election watchdog that was declared a foreign agent by Russian authorities, said there had been many reports of apparent ballot stuffing, with bundles of voting papers in the official boxes. He said signs of anomalies also were seen in the turnout data published by the Central Election Commission.

By midafternoon Sunday, Golos mapped more than 1,400 reports of potential violations. The group’s co-chairman, Grigory Melkonyants, is in detention awaiting trial.

In one report to Golos, a state employee in Chechnya, in southern Russia, complained that he and others were bused from one polling station to another to vote multiple times. The employee said he voted seven times in the first two days.

Since taking power on Dec. 31, 1999, Putin has steadily destroyed Russia’s fledgling democracy, curbed rights and crushed dissent. His main political rivals have been jailed, killed or forced to flee the country, while protesters risk long prison terms for criticizing the war or Putin.

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Putin has repeatedly found ways to defy term limits to stay in power, starting in 2008 when he swapped jobs with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev while remaining the country’s supreme political authority. Four years later, they swapped again. In 2020, Putin engineered constitutional changes that would allow him stay in power until 2036. The term he will claim after this weekend’s vote runs to 2030.

Unlike in Ukraine, which has had five presidents elected during Putin’s time in power, the Russian election offers no democratic choice. The Kremlin blocks genuine opposition candidates from the ballot, controls media coverage and, critics allege, falsifies results.

Independent Russian media, such as Dozhd television, which was shuttered by Russian authorities and now operates from Amsterdam, described the current balloting as a “so-called election.”

Most civil servants and employees of state-owned enterprises were ordered by their managers to vote on Friday and were strongly discouraged from voting on Sunday, according to numerous reports in independent Russian-language media, including Faridaily, the Telegram channel of journalist Farida Rustamova, who said she received hundreds of reports from state employees.

In Russia’s tightly controlled society, even just seeing fellow protesters attend Noon Against Putin felt empowering, Arina said.

“I love the atmosphere here,” she said, “because I feel strong and I’m surrounded by like-minded people, and that’s so rare nowadays. Maybe I will even make new friends today, with people who think like me.”

Her friend Maryana echoed that optimism but said she was also realistic about the slender hope for change.

“I think that today’s protest was a success in that it gave people a bit of a lift. It supports people mentally,” she said. “But of course it won’t affect the authorities in any way.”

Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia. Mary Ilyushina in Berlin and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga contributed to this report.


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