Allies of Russian opposition leader Navalny post billboards asking citizens to vote against Putin

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LONDON (AP) — Opposition activists in Russia came up with a way to get around Kremlin censorship while urging citizens to vote against President Vladimir Putin in an election next year: billboards disguised as a New Year's greeting.

The Anti-Corruption Foundation founded by imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny paid for billboards in Moscow, St Petersburg and other Russian cities which said “Russia” and “Happy New Year.” But a website address and QR code printed on the signs led to a site titled “Russia without Putin.”

There, voters were encouraged to oppose the longtime Russian leader on March 17, the day that Russian lawmakers set Thursday for the presidential election. The website says the election is important for Putin as a referendum on whether Russians approve of his war in Ukraine, rather than a real contest for the presidency.

“We understand that free and fair elections in Russia, like in any civilized European country, unfortunately do not exist,” Ivan Zhdanov, the Anti-Corruption Foundation's director, told The Associated Press.

Zhdanov said the billboards had been up for two days and it seems unlikely the agency that put them up checked the contents of the website ahead of time. Journalists for the Associated Press saw several of them were swiftly removed Thursday

Putin, 71, hasn’t yet announced his candidacy for a fifth term, but he is widely expected to do so soon. Asked whether Putin had decided to seek reelection, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov urged reporters Thursday to “be patient.”

Zhdanov acknowledged the campaign was unlikely to kick Putin out of office — “Nothing will change on election day,” he said. The group is also not proposing a candidate inside Russia to challenge Putin, saying the current repressions make it “impossible.”

“Ninety-nine percent of opposition figures who opposed Putin are now either in prison or abroad,” Zhdanov said.

Navalny, 47, who is Putin’s biggest political opponent, is currently serving a term of more than 30 years for convictions on extremism and other charges that his supporters characterize as politically motivated.

The task for his team now is to “convince as many people as possible” that getting involved in politics is important and that “all their problems are to do with the war, with mobilization, with the death of soldiers at the front, with rising prices and with the isolation of Russia. They are caused by Vladimir Putin," Zhdanov said.

The website linked to the billboard campaign asks Russians to convince 10 people to vote against Putin, including by cold-calling people, posting on social media, drawing graffiti and distributing leaflets.

“Right now, now people wouldn't dare to do that,” Abbas Gallyamov, a Russian political consultant and former Putin speechwriter, said, referring to a crackdown on public dissent that has silenced independent media and led to prison sentences for Kremlin critics and anti-war activists since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Despite the perils of protesting in Russia, the presidential election campaign may tap into frustration Russians feel with Putin, who “has been making promises for a quarter of a century which are largely unfulfilled,” Gallyamov said.

The people of Russia do not feel “united politically,” he added, but the actions of Navalny's team might generate “a huge wave of anti-Putin voting” if “it is joined by enough activists and becomes really visible both online and offline.”

If that were to happen, Gallyamov said he would expect the Kremlin to “falsify” the vote, although that would be harder to do the more people abstained or voted against the Russian president by choosing another candidate.

The Kremlin has previously denied allegations of election-rigging.

Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told The New York Times in August he was sure Putin would get reelected with more than 90% of the vote. He later told Russian newspaper RBC that “theoretically, (elections) don’t even need to be held. Because it is already obvious that Putin will be elected.”

According to monthly polls done by the Levada Center, a Russian pollster, Putin’s support stands at 85% now compared to around 65% in the months before the invasion of Ukraine. Some analysts question the reliability of polling in a country with limited free speech.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian tycoon who moved to London after spending a decade in prison in Russia on charges widely seen as political revenge for challenging Putin’s rule, praised the Anti-Corruption Foundation's billboard stunt.

Khodorkovsky joked that it was a “special electoral operation” — a play on the term “special military operation,” which is what the Kremlin calls its war in Ukraine.

Despite divisions among the Russian opposition, Khodorkovsky said he supported “any model of behavior” which said “no to Putin.”

“Our common goal,” Khodorkovsky wrote on his Telegram channel, is to show we are “fed up” with him.