Lisa Haseldine Lisa Haseldine

Will Boris Nadezhdin be allowed to run for president against Putin?

Boris Nadezhdin (Credit: Getty images)

Will the anti-war politician Boris Nadezhdin be allowed to run against Vladimir Putin for the Russian presidency? That’s the question Russians are wondering this week after the independent candidate submitted the signatures he needed to get onto the ballot for March’s election. 

Nadezhdin claimed to have collected 105,000 signatures from across Russia – the maximum a non-party affiliated candidate can submit to be considered for the presidency. But just days after he submitted them last Wednesday, Russia’s central electoral commission declared that the paperwork was littered with ‘surprising errors’ – including, allegedly, the signatures of ‘dozens of people no longer of this world’. 

There have been questions as to how and why Nadezhdin has made it this far in the election process

Early yesterday morning, Nadezhdin’s team confirmed that so far the electoral commission had thrown out 15 per cent of the signatures he’d collected on the grounds they were invalid. According to Russian electoral law, a candidate can only have their application to run registered if no more than 5 per cent of their collected signatures are invalid. With the electoral commission due to make a final decision on whether to let him run on Wednesday, Nadezhdin is facing a nail-biting 48 hours to see if the Kremlin will let him onto the ballot paper alongside Putin.

It was not surprising that the electoral commission would find ‘problems’ with Nadezhdin’s application – in fact, many had expected it to. The commission has used a similar excuse to block another anti-war hopeful, the former broadcast journalist Ekaterina Duntsova, at the end of last year. Casting aspersions on the ethical standards of Nadezhdin’s campaign by suggesting his team have forged the signatures of deceased voters seems like a stretch, but it is not beyond the dirty tricks the Kremlin is capable of playing to keep control of who makes it onto the ballot. It is highly likely that on Wednesday the commission will use this as a convenient excuse to throw out Nadezhdin’s application completely. He has declared he is prepared to lodge an appeal with Russia’s Supreme Court should this happen and that he has considered calling a demonstration too.

Nadezhdin’s ascendancy from former low-level MP and talking head to a potential presidential candidate over the past few weeks has been unexpected to many, both within and outside Russia. He is the only presidential candidate to publicly oppose the war in Ukraine, a stance which has rapidly gathered him a following of Russians desperate for a relatively safe way to register their own protest against the war. 

There have, of course, been questions as to how and why Nadezhdin has been able to make it this far in the election process. After all, Putin has a long and brutal history of destroying all opposition or challengers to his rule beyond those willing to play along to give the illusion of there being some nominal democracy in the country. Nadezhdin and his team have strongly denied having the support of, or being in communication with, the Kremlin over the course of his campaign. 

Nadezhdin himself seems surprised at how far he has got. Speaking to the Russian independent news site Meduza, he said: ‘I suddenly began to understand that, generally speaking, I need to prepare for the fact that I will actually run the country. Do you think I’m crazy? No, I’m not crazy.’

Some have speculated that while initially Moscow viewed Nadezhdin as harmless and therefore was happy for him to stand, they underestimated the power his anti-war rhetoric would have to draw ordinary Russians to him. If this is the case and the Kremlin has unwittingly allowed the anti-war movement back into Russian politics through Nadezhdin, they clearly have not learnt the lesson of Belarus’s Alexandr Lukashenko, who, underestimating his female opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, allowed her onto the ballot in 2020. Over the course of the campaign, she evolved into a credible threat to his rule, attracting the support of hundreds of thousands. According to the limited polling information available, she won the election. Lukashenko’s refusal to concede triggered months of protests, which he was only able to effectively suppress with the help of Putin.

Shortly after handing over the collected signatures to the electoral commission, Nadezhdin took to Telegram to make a statement. Under the heading ‘Dictatorships don’t last forever. And dictators’ Nadezhdin declared, ‘Many citizens of Russia and other countries where the regime only pretends to be a democracy are inclined to lose faith in democratic change. I am already trying to restore hope in them.’ This is punchy language for a supposedly genuine challenger to Putin’s 24-year stint in the Kremlin. 

In his manifesto, Nadezhdin has pledged to free all of Russia’s political prisoners, including Alexei Navalny. The Putin critic, currently serving a nearly three-decade sentence in an Arctic prison, has given support to Nadezhin’s campaign. Nadezhdin has also promised to repeal all of Putin’s anti-LGBT laws that have been brought in over the past few years. Nadezhdin denies that he is a ‘liberal’, instead calling himself a ‘Russian patriot’: ‘I sincerely wish that Russia would be great,’ he told Meduza, ‘but not great in the sense that Putin thinks – throwing “Kinzhal” missiles and “Iskanders” back and forth.’

Nadezhdin doesn’t have long to wait to see whether he will join the other four presidential candidates, including Putin, on the ballot paper. What happens in the aftermath of that decision will be telling for how Putin wants the election campaign to play out. Are Nadezhdin’s threats of court cases and protest rallies serious or empty? If his application gets rejected, will he quietly retreat back into relative obscurity or face the difficult decision of those Putin critics that have come before him: to stay and fight or flee abroad to safety.

Sources close to the presidential administration told Meduza last year that the Kremlin are planning for Putin to win his fifth term with 80 per cent of the vote, with voter turnout to be fixed at 79 per cent. They are also allegedly planning to allow the ultranationalist Duma MP Leonid Slutsky to finish the race in second place. There is a high chance that this will come to pass in mid-March when the final results of Russia’s presidential race are announced. What is less predictable is where, and in what state, Boris Nadezhdin will find himself when that moment comes.