Russians abroad have no faith in this presidential election – and are divided on what they can do about it

Russians abroad have no faith in this presidential election – and are divided on what they can do about it - Politics - News

Expressing Discontent Through Voting: The Dilemma of Russians Abroad Amidst Russia’s Presidential Elections

Sergey Kulikov, a Russian lawyer, secured one of the first available flights out of Russia following the Kremlin’s announcement of forced conscription and harsh punishments for wartime deserters in September 2022. Despite leaving Russia due to concerns over the rapid legislative changes and the lack of fair courts following its exclusion from the contact Convention on Human Rights, Kulikov remains committed to participating in his home country’s presidential election.

Living in Dubai, Kulikov is among the hundreds of thousands of Russians who have fled the country since President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Russian Foreign Ministry has stated that expatriates, even those who left for “unfriendly” states, will be allowed to vote in the March 15-17 presidential election. Russian state media TASS reported that there would be 288 polling stations in 144 countries for overseas voting.

During the 2018 presidential elections, over 475,000 people voted abroad, according to Russia’s Central Election Commission. However, many polling stations that operated in 2018 have since been closed. The exact number of expatriates expected to vote this year is uncertain but is anticipated to be higher due to the significant population increase as a result of mass exodus from Russia.

A unified sentiment among the overseas Russian citizens interviewed by News Finder was their unfavorable opinion of Putin, who they perceived as an authoritarian leader, propagandist, and abuser of human rights. Although some were unsure about the utility of voting, others believed it to be an effective means of expressing protest within Russia and from abroad.

Luba Zakharov, a 35-year-old data analyst residing in Hamburg, Germany, shared his intention to go to Berlin to vote despite the closure of the polling station in Hamburg. Spoiling the ballot was his preferred approach, as it allowed him to register dissent and protest against Putin’s regime.

In the wake of Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny’s death in prison, there was a growing demand for an alternative to Putin among both Russians inside and outside the country. Boris Nadezhdin, the only anti-war candidate who gained unexpected momentum, was denied candidacy by the Central Election Commission despite significant public support. With few viable alternatives on the official ballot, voters like Luba were left to contemplate their options and consider the potential impact of their votes.

The Russian opposition’s struggle to coalesce into a unified force has been an ongoing challenge, with many gravitating towards charismatic leaders. The assassinations and imprisonments of prominent opposition figures and critics have further hindered the emergence of a strong opposition movement.

Although some overseas Russians, like 35-year-old academic Anna who now resides in Be’er Sheva, Israel, choose to opt out of voting altogether, they acknowledge the significance of demonstrating their discontent. Anna believes that a higher number of “stolen” votes could help reveal the blatant illegitimacy of the election, emphasizing the importance of international media coverage.

Putin intends to use this election as an opportunity to demonstrate his regime’s support among the Russian population, despite economic challenges caused by sanctions and substantial defense spending. Elections in authoritarian regimes often serve as a symbolic representation of a leader’s mandate to rule, making this election potentially the most manipulated in Russian history.

Putin relies on high voter turnout and the official rhetoric to display a legitimate election result. Fraser, a research fellow specializing in Russian foreign policy at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), estimates that only around 10% to 15% of Russia’s population are extremely discontented and willing to show it, with a much larger apathetic segment staying home due to the belief that their vote is pointless.

Even protests in response to Navalny’s death have yet to reach a level of discontent that would concern Putin, highlighting the opposition’s fragmentation and absence of a unified strategy.

Despite the odds against significant change through voting, Russian expatriates like Kulikov remain hopeful, recognizing that every vote is an opportunity to express their dissent and belief in a different future for Russia.