The last time Vladimir Putin’s political party won national elections, ballot-stuffing allegations sparked the biggest protests of his rule. Five years on, Putin appears to be so confident in his hold on power that even his most dogged adversary is welcome to challenge United Russia in next month’s parliamentary polls — Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the London-based former oil billionaire who was charged with murder in absentia in December. Khodorkovsky, who spent a decade in prison, is back doing what he says got him jailed in the first place: supporting Putin’s opponents. All but one of the 19 candidates he’s grooming have been accepted by authorities overseeing the vote. Since being freed in 2013, Khodorkovsky has vowed to use what’s left of his fortune to hasten the end of the Putin era, though he admits the Kremlin’s grip on the electoral process is so strong it has nothing to fear, for now.
“Things are so tightly controlled that even a mouse couldn’t sneak past,” Khodorkovsky, 53, said by e-mail. “So there’s plenty of scope to find a middle path between free and fair elections and totally rigged ones.”
Senior Kremlin officials and advisers agree. Putin’s continued popularity, mastery of the airwaves and changes to the way lawmakers are picked all but guarantee United Russia’s victory in the Sept. 18 ballot, even amid the longest recession and steepest decline in wages in two decades.