Every morning when Svetlana arrives at Susanin Square in the centre of Kostroma, she has to remind herself that she is doing this out of idealism. The soft-spoken 28-year-old is a campaign volunteer for the Russian opposition in regional elections scheduled for this Sunday, and things are not going well. “People react negatively to us,” says Svetlana as she tries to hand out flyers for RPR Parnas, a party co-chaired by Boris Nemtsov, the veteran opposition leader shot dead earlier this year. “The relentless propaganda works and people have it in their brains that we are the fifth column.” A few days ago, two women asked Svetlana why there were Russian flags on top of her stand and suggested that the party should instead fly American ones since it was a US lackey. Sunday’s elections, in which 16 regions will choose governors and 14 will select parliaments, illustrate just how far president Vladimir Putin has progressed in hollowing out the country’s democratic institutions during his 15 years in power, and how resigned to that the population has become.
“The few who do listen to us say yes, everything you say about the corruption of the regime is right, but nothing is ever going to change, and no matter who rules will always steal and lie,” says Svetlana. “Nobody believes in elections or that they can change Russia.”
Kostroma is the only region where the Democratic Coalition, an alliance of the Progress party of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and RPR-Parnas, was even allowed to run.
Both the opposition and the Kremlin see Sunday’s vote as a test for the Duma elections a year from now. Those, in turn, may have consequences for the next presidential election, as Mr Putin discovered four years ago when brazen fraud during the parliamentary vote triggered a protest movement against him that challenged his return to the presidency a few months later.