'Not an election': Russians to vote after historic crackdown
Twenty apartments! A hundred cars! Tens of thousands in gift certificates! These are just some of the prizes up for grabs for Russians later this week. All they have to do is vote.
After a year that saw a historic crackdown on the opposition and with President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party floundering in the polls, authorities are doing what they can to drum up interest in parliamentary elections taking place over three days from Friday to Sunday.
So signs around Moscow are touting "a million prizes" for voters who cast electronic ballots in the election, which looks set to hand United Russia another majority despite its unpopularity.
With top Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny in jail and other opponents sidelined, critics say the vote is little more than a rubber-stamping of Putin's allies.
Campaigning has been lacklustre, with debates consigned to late-night television slots and many voters in Moscow showing little enthusiasm.
"We have no real choice, we all know it and we all see it," said Grigory Matveyev, a 29-year-old theatre lighting technician.
"I've been many times (to vote) but it's nothing but a farce."
The vote will see lawmakers elected to the 450-member lower house State Duma, where United Russia currently holds 334 seats, and to several local legislatures.
The loyalist "A Just Russia" party as well as the Communists and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) -- both nominally opposition parties that tend not to criticise Putin -- hold nearly all the other seats.
Under normal circumstances, United Russia should be vulnerable.
Russians' living standards have dropped steadily over the last decade and were hit again by a pandemic-induced economic downturn. Disposable incomes are down 10 percent since 2013 and prices are on the rise, with inflation hitting 6.7 percent in August.
Dogged by allegations of corruption -- Navalny has dubbed it the "Party of Crooks and Thieves" -- United Russia has become a favourite target of frustrations.
Recent surveys by state-run pollster VTsIOM showed fewer than 30 percent of Russians planning to vote for the party, down from 40-45 percent in the weeks ahead of the last parliamentary election in 2016.
But United Russia is widely expected to retain its two-thirds majority in the Duma, enough to change the constitution as it did last year with reforms allowing Putin to extend his rule to 2036.
For Leonid Volkov, a key aide to Navalny, the reason is simple: "This is not an election."
"They excluded anyone from the race, they made it impossible for other candidates to participate... it is not a competitive election, by design," Volkov, who lives in exile, told AFP.
The year leading up to the vote has been one of the most repressive of Putin's two-decade rule.
After being poisoned in August 2020 with nerve agent Novichok, Navalny returned from treatment in Germany in January and was promptly arrested, then jailed for more than two years.
His network of organisations was banned as "extremist", many of his allies were arrested and several aides fled the country.
Authorities have also stepped up pressure on independent media, with many slapped with "foreign agent" tags that limit their work and one outlet labelled an "undesirable organisation."
The crackdown came after pro-Putin parties suffered losses in local elections because of a "Smart Voting" plan put forward by Navalny after his allies were barred from standing in numerous races.
'Smart Voting' tactic
The tactic calls for voters to support the one candidate most likely to defeat the ruling party and saw Kremlin-linked candidates drop seats in the Moscow assembly in 2019.
Navalny's team is calling for voters to do the same this year, but many alternative candidates have been barred from running and the website set up to promote the campaign has been blocked.
"The Kremlin fights against Smart Voting like hell because they have measured the possible impact... and they are very aware that it could be huge," Volkov said.
Putin -- whose popularity remains high with approval ratings of 60-65 percent -- has looked to boost United Russia's chances, ordering cash handouts of 10,000 rubles ($137/116 euros) to pensioners and 15,000 rubles ($205/174 euros) to police and soldiers ahead of the vote.
His supporters say confidence in the president -- still seen by many as a steady hand after the chaos of the 1990s -- will help push United Russia over the top.
"People tend to trust the authorities... What they want is economic development, to feel secure, and all of these things are what the Russian authorities today ensure," United Russia's Deputy Speaker in the Duma, Pyotr Tolstoy, told AFP, predicting a majority win for his party.