KOSTROMA, Russia — Ilya Yashin had not even arrived for a recent stump speech in a leafy Kostroma courtyard when the first scuffle broke out between campaign activists and what he called “paid provocateurs.”
The baby-faced representative of the opposition Parnas party finally took the microphone, but he found himself explaining his platform to an audience of six old women and a group of surly youths hell-bent on ruining the event.
“Why have you come here with your party paid for by the Americans?” jeered one woman in a pink puffer jacket, causing the puzzled pensioners to twist and crane their necks to see who was causing the commotion.
“How much have you been paid to do all this?” shouted another.
Undeterred, the 32-year-old politician attempted to mingle with the elderly voters one-on-one. But a tall young man in a leather jacket did his best to butt in, leaning over them as he aggressively filmed their discussions.
Such is life on the campaign trail in Kostroma Oblast, where Parnas is bogged down in a desperate and gritty electoral fight that serves as a canary in a coalmine for Russia’s beleaguered opposition.
Led by the Muscovite Yashin, Parnas and the opposition umbrella group Democratic Coalition it represents is vying to win seats in Kostroma’s regional Duma when voters head to the polls on September 13 for nationwide local elections.
It’s normally a little-coveted political prize, but after the authorities barred the opposition’s attempts to field candidates anywhere else, Kostroma stands as the only opportunity left for victory.
After the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in February, several opposition factions united in a Democratic Coalition and set themselves what seemed a reasonable goal: to gain a toehold in real politics by focusing on victory in four regional elections — Magadan, Kaluga, Novosibirsk, and Kostroma.
They were barred from taking part, however, on the grounds that they had failed to garner enough signatures of support — a ruling the opposition said was ordered down by a Kremlin wary of giving them the slightest room to maneuver as a threatening economic downturn started to bite.
Parnas’s regional campaign was later reinstated — but only in Kostroma Oblast, and only weeks after campaigning had formally begun in the depressed, debt-ridden region a six-hour train journey east of Moscow.
Yashin, the deputy chairman of Parnas, is spearheading the campaign after he won party primaries in the region in July. He is walking down the path of his mentor, former Parnas Chairman Nemtsov, who prior to his February slaying served as a deputy in the Yaroslavl regional Duma.
At stump speeches, Yashin has soft-pedaled his fiery opposition to President Vladimir Putin, focusing — like Nemtsov — on rampant local corruption.
Yashin casts himself as a man who will keep corrupt officials working in Kostroma in check, assuring voters he will be their man on the inside.
Patriotism. Stability. Reliability!
Parnas will need to take more than 5 percent of the vote for Yashin to make it into the Kostroma legislative assembly, while his running mate — Vladimir Andreychenko, a former deputy governor — needs the party to secure more than 10 percent.
Achieving those results will be anything but easy, however, with Parnas facing myriad dirty political tricks and an electorate deeply disillusioned with local politics.
Yashin and Andreychenko have tried to circumvent what they say is an almost total media blockade with a whirlwind campaign tour. But the road hasn’t been easy in the sprawling province almost double the size of Belgium.
During a speech on August 26, police actually arrested Yashin for using a microphone, although the incident appeared to backfire by winning him much-needed publicity.
“As soon as I was released I went to the next speech. Now they have changed their tactics to lies, dirt, and provocations against us,” Yashin later said. “We have the further problem that we cannot defend ourselves under the law.
Facing off against four mainstream, pro-Kremlin, political parties is a major test on its own. Then there is the competition from Yabloko, which opted not to join the Democratic Coalition, and the “Greens.” And finally, Parnas will need to fend off several spoiler and “mirror” parties fielded to confuse voters.
One is registered as “Parzas,” whose election flyers promise voters a ludicrous exchange rate of one ruble to the dollar.
“Against All” has been spray-painted on pavements across the city, in what Yashin’s team says is a blatant ploy to diffuse the protest vote.
And then there are the political smear stunts that have bordered on the absurd.
On September 10, a black man in a suit speaking broken Russian reportedly drove to one of Yashin’s campaign meetings in a car with fake diplomatic number plates, claiming to be an American diplomat.
Fake Yabloko campaign flyers have been circulated across town alleging that Yashin and his party are traitorous fifth columnists paid by Washington. And on September 10, Yashin activists intercepted thousands of phoney “Gay Kostroma” leaflets.
During Yashin’s testy courtyard appearance in Kostroma on September 8, there appeared to be more people trying to upstage it than potential voters there to listen.
Shortly afterward, on a pot-holed street near the event, police took statements from a campaign activist who had been punched in the head. No one was detained, however, and the police dispersed under a street campaign billboard for United Russia that read “Patriotism. Stability. Reliability!”
Yashin believes the reason the authorities allowed Parnas to run in Kostroma Oblast is that a significant swath of the region’s population is located in far-flung villages and towns that are physically difficult to reach in a short space of time.
“It’s very hard to get our program across,” Yashin says during an interview at Parnas’s Kostroma headquarters, located at the intersection of Soviet Street and Lermontov Street.
“We’re practically not allowed on TV, we’re practically not allowed on radio,” he explains. “All we can do is meet and talk to voters. This week, I’ve held over 100 personal meetings with voters in courtyards, streets.”
The stakes are high for the opposition — which has been on its heels ever since Putin clamped down on the large opposition protests that arose over fraud allegations during the last State Duma elections, in late 2011.
“This election is very important for us,” Yashin says. “Victory here will serve as a success story for our volunteers and activists at the start of the campaign for the State Duma [elections in September 2016]. It would mean a successful start to the federal elections.”
No Fear, Just Loathing
The wave of patriotism unleashed by the Ukraine crisis has driven President Putin’s approval ratings to record highs, but that’s not the biggest challenge faced by the anti-Kremlin camp in Kostroma.
“The biggest problem is that people have lost hope that authorities will do anything for them,” said Ruslan Ablyakimov, 22, a student from Kazan who is volunteering for Parnas. “There is total disillusionment and nihilism.”
One middle-aged woman, who declined to give her name, captured the general mood in Kostroma by saying she saw no differences among politicians.
“Politics is interesting, but I’m done with it,” she said. “They think that we’re all stupid.”
Back at the Kostroma courtyard, Yashin had almost lost the attention of his audience amid the din of interruptions from the boisterous, heavy handed youths.
Nonetheless, he clearly made an impression with the half-dozen elderly women.
After the speech, one of them — a pro-Putin pensioner who declined to give her name — said she was impressed by what she had heard, and might vote for Yashin.
To her mind, the young outsider might be just the type of man Putin needs in the provinces, although her logic might not sit well with Yashin himself, the staunchest of Putin critics.
“The idea of the need for ‘control’ is right,” she said, alluding to Yashin’s promise to keep an eye out for corrupt officials.
“I understand that it is hard for Putin to manage his responsibilities because he has little support,” she said. “Only the people who support him” can help, she concluded, because “the bureaucrats are just working for themselves.”