Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to run in the presidential election in March and will stay in the Kremlin at least until 2030, Reuters reported on November 6, citing six sources with knowledge of the plan. With 23 years in power, he is already the longest-serving ruler of Russia. Accused of war crimes in Ukraine, and with key opposition figures imprisoned or exiled, Putin, 71, will face no political rival as he enjoys an 80% public approval rating, Reuters said.
Yet, the election authorities in Russia are on high alert expecting interference and sabotage from the oversized Russian community in exile, whose most active members are increasingly unhappy with Putin’s domestic and foreign policies, with that sentiment amplified by the ongoing war against Ukraine.
During a conference in Moscow on November 21, the head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, used vulgar and dehumanizing language in describing her compatriots in exile, underscoring the Kremlin’s pre-election concerns.
"Now, there will be presidential elections in March 2024, and already there is work being done by those scum who not only left but who now earn their pitiful pennies by forming the basis to disrupt the elections, discredit the elections," Pamfilova said.
That claim is partly true.
Leaders and activists of the Russian opposition in exile are planning an anti-Putin campaign aimed at delegitimizing the March 2024 presidential elections in their homeland.
Since September, exiled Russian opposition groups have been openly discussing plans to influence the 2024 presidential ballot.
On September 30, Maxim Katz, a Russian opposition vlogger with 1.95 million subscribers on YouTube, proposed a joint campaign to ensure that Putin would no longer be president of Russia. Katz called on all Russian opposition movements to combine resources and unite for that goal.
On October 22, some 200 Russians representing diaspora groups, political movements and associations, met in Berlin with influential members of Russia's exiled political opposition. The effort was promoted by Putin’s long-time political rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his allies.
The participants signed an agreement to launch a nationwide campaign against Putin ahead of the 2024 presidential elections.
“It was decided that we call on our fellow citizens to join the national campaign 'No to Putin'. We believe that it is Vladimir Putin who is to blame for dragging our country into a major regional conflict, into a major war,” Khodorkovsky said.
The opposition representatives also set out an action plan that includes countering the Kremlin’s propaganda, ensuring legal defense for those in Russia prosecuted for political reasons, and assisting anti-war activists.
The exiled Russian opposition's primary goal is to delegitimize Putin's March 2024 presidential elections, Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition figure and former State Duma member, told the Ukrainian TV channel FREEDOM.
The plan for achieving that goal, Gudkov said, includes engaging opinion leaders — influential politicians, famous writers, popular artists, musicians and actors — to campaign against Putin, thereby reaching millions of Russians at home and abroad.
There are also Internet and social media projects, including the “Legion of Elves” — an anti-war, anti-propaganda initiative involving the work of dozens of Russian refugees, Egor Kuroptev, director of the Free Russia Foundation’s office on the South Caucasus, told The Insider, a Latvia-based Russian news outlet, on November 16.
The goal of the "elves’” is to end the war in Ukraine and help Russians “not to be brainwashed” by state propaganda and Kremlin-controlled media. “So that a person who watched TV would then come to social media and see a different point of view,” Kuroptev said.
Since the project was launched almost two years ago, the “elves” have written more than 2.3 million comments on social media, infiltrating some 900 pro-Russian government internet communities, primarily on the Russian state-owned social media platform vKontakte.
Some Russian exiles have proposed more radical ways of removing Putin from power. Ilya Ponomarev, a former State Duma deputy who has lived in Kyiv since 2014, has supported armed resistance to the Russian authorities and took part in creating the Russian Freedom Legion, a unit within the Ukrainian army consisting of Russian citizens opposed to the Putin regime.
Ponomarev also created a “shadow Russian parliament” called the Congress of People's Deputies, consisting of former Russian lawmakers now in exile.
As in previous elections, the Kremlin has ensured the removal of all of its political rivals from the March 2024 election. On April 17, a Moscow court found the prominent Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza guilty of treason and sentenced him to 25 years in prison, citing a speech to the Arizona House of Representatives in 2022 in which he condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Putin's most prominent critic, Alexei Navalny, has been in prison since January 17, 2021, serving a 19-year prison sentence for allegedly creating an extremist community and inciting extremism.
Ethnic Russians are believed to be one of the world’s biggest diasporas, with an estimated 20 to 30 million Russians living abroad. Russia has experienced its largest exodus since Putin ordered the Russian military to invade Ukraine in February 2022. According to various estimates, 500,000 to 1.3 million people left Russia over the last year.
The majority of them, according to polls, left for political reasons — disagreement with the authorities and persecution.
Pamfilova’s claim that exiled Russians will attempt to “discredit” the presidential election at home is misleading.
International observers from groups like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and others, have recorded systematic violations in Russian elections since 2011. They include the exclusion of Kremlin critics from races, government interference in voting, casting of fraudulent votes and violation of the vote counting procedure. For example, the OSCE described the 2012 presidential election in Russia as “preordained and unfair.”
On October 13, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issued a statement calling on European countries to consider Putin's rule illegitimate if he remains in power after the 2024 elections. If that is the case, the statement said, Europe must halt all contacts with Russia, except humanitarian ones.
“The overwhelming power of the President resulting from the extremely long term in office combined with the lack of any checks and balances such as a strong parliament, an independent judiciary, free media, and a vibrant civil society has turned the Russian Federation into a de facto dictatorship,” the statement read.