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OPINION

“One against all, and all for one.” Meet Ekaterina Duntsova, a candidate prepared to take on Putin in the presidential elections

Ekaterina Duntsova stands as the lone candidate in Russia's coming presidential elections, boldly opposing the war, advocating for change against Putin, and championing the release of political prisoners. The authorities have responded with pressure tactics: during her speeches, the lights in the hall would abruptly turn off, and unannounced inspections by Ministry of Justice officials targeted the notary who certified her protocol for submission to the Central Election Commission (CEC). The mere prospect of an independent candidate emerging in Russia appears so far-fetched to many that skeptics are already speculating about a potential covert collaboration with the Kremlin. However, sociologist Denis Bilunov, having personally acquainted himself with Ekaterina, firmly believes in her authenticity as an independent candidate, even though the Kremlin may likely bar her from participating in the elections. Despite the challenges, her candidacy presents a unique opportunity for Russian advocates of peace to make their voices heard.

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Despite the lights going out during Ekaterina Duntsova's support group meeting, formal requirements were successfully met. More than 500 people managed to notarize their signatures, and now, after submitting the documents to the CEC, Duntsova is poised to become an official “candidate for candidacy.” This means that by the end of January, she can conduct an electoral campaign nationwide to gather at least 300,000 signatures in support of her candidacy. She articulates her position unequivocally:

“The country needs immediate changes: cessation of hostilities, democratic reforms, and the release of political prisoners. We must repeal all inhumane laws, restore relations with the outside world, and shift budget priorities: spending money on improving the lives of citizens rather than on new tanks. Restore confiscated freedoms. We must make the country attractive and comfortable to live in!”

Enthusiastic supporters are buzzing with excitement as word spreads about the impromptu “presidential” anti-war videos featuring the relatively obscure municipal politician from Rzhev garnering a significant viewership on TikTok, with reports suggesting that young people throughout Russia are purportedly flocking to join her burgeoning support group. The first notable video on YouTube appeared on the Tver channel Living Word run by Lyubov Kukushkina. Duntsova's Telegram channel has gained over 100,000 new subscribers in just the past few days, totaling more than 250,000. Last week, Duntsova recorded several videos, with their leitmotif being to restore the country's future stolen by the powers-that-be.

The viral impact on TikTok is commendable, but what about the fact that the primary social stratum of Russian voters consists of women aged 45 and above, who are not actively engaged on TikTok? In reality, Ekaterina's image resonates seamlessly with this electorate. A mother of three, articulate, and poised, she hails from outside Moscow, possessing a legal background coupled with experience in municipal politics (having been a deputy in the Rzhev City Duma). Duntsova ventured onto the federal stage by participating in the work of the Zemsky Congress, one of whose leaders is Julia Galyamina who is diligently working within traditional electoral niches. It's worth noting that due to repressive legislation, both Galyamina and Marina Litvinovich, who ran in her district for the State Duma in 2021, couldn't vie for the presidency.

Dressed in a serene sky-blue blazer, the composed and self-assured blonde woman speaks softly about fear and freedom, peace, and respect for neighbors, emphasizing the importance of conveying crucial knowledge to our children. There's no hint of urban glamour or hidden skeletons in the closet—how did she emerge so authentically? If Duntsova is genuinely independent, why haven't Kremlin political technologists reached out with their carrot and stick? Or have they already?

Alexander Nevzorov was quick to label his colleague (Duntsova is a television journalist by profession) as a “product of the Russian president's administration.” However, not every contender for novelty can attain such fame so swiftly—either in Russia or elsewhere; nor are inept and corrupt Kremlin strategists able to orchestrate a comparable trajectory. This, of course, does not dismiss the fact that the Presidential Administration will shape Duntsova's narrative in a way that appears most advantageous to the state. Yet, unjustly and foolishly accusing Ekaterina of being a puppet is unwarranted. Undoubtedly, the unexpectedly lively response to her emergence in the public sphere constitutes a new trend that calls for, at the very least, an attempt to understand.

According to Alexandra Polivanova from the Memorial society, Duntsova's candidacy instills hope for change with its audacity:

“Katya was a delegate at the Zemsky Congress in Veliky Novgorod in May 2021. The congress was dispersed, all participants were detained (but the congress still took place). In fact, so many people were detained, and it took the inexperienced Novgorod police so long to draw up the protocols of detention that, in principle, many people managed to escape without a police record. But I was part of the organizing group of the congress; it would have been wrong for me to run away until the last detainees were released, and Katya also stayed until the very end. So we spent many hours together.
Today, Katya has become an independent candidate for the presidency, advocating for a 'peaceful democratic Russia.' It's quite a crazy and audacious decision in Russia at the turn of 2023/2024. However, the conviction that Russia could eventually become peaceful and democratic has been gaining traction, given that a rational and non-audacious approach to achieveing a breakthrough hasn't worked.”

Duntsova has intuitively or consciously shifted the focus of her efforts towards a younger audience, directing her anti-war and anti-Putin rhetoric to them. According to Ekaterina, she has substantial experience working with teenagers, and as we can see, this has yielded quick results. Thousands of people have confirmed their willingness to participate in the first gathering of supporters, and currently, over 1,500 are ready to take on the task of organizing signature collection in their cities, despite the apparent risks associated with it. All of this provides grounds to speak about a clear demand among young Russians for a shift away from Putin's aggressive-imperial course and a change of leadership.

Certainly, collecting 300,000 signatures in 40 regions within a month seems like an insurmountable organizational and logistical challenge (which is precisely why these signature restrictions were introduced), especially in the face of regime opposition, not to mention the lack of any serious preparation. Duntsova's team is essentially just coming together, and it would be a miracle if they manage to conduct a comprehensive and substantive campaign akin to what Navalny did in 2018: traveling to regions, meeting with voters, and so forth. But even the attempt is worth it: a vibrant social fabric contrasts starkly with the lifelessness of the Putin regime and inherently opposes it. This contrast in Ekaterina's approach appears far more convincing than that of Boris Nadezhdin, let alone Grigory Yavlinsky.

It would be a miracle if they manage to conduct a comprehensive and substantive campaign

The informal Our Headquarters team, originally supporting Duntsova's candidacy (Anastasia Burakova, Alexander Menukov, Darina Mayatskaya, Andrei Davydov), aims to involve Russian citizens who have left the country in the signature collection process. Over the past two years, active like-minded groups have emerged in many cities in Europe and the United States, which could join such a campaign. Currently, the list of organizers includes more than 30 cities, and they have already developed a training program for correctly filling out signature sheets, preparing for a synchronous start.

In the last two years, I have often heard lamentations about the lack of “Russian Tikhanovskaya.” Now, before our eyes, there is an opportunity to address this issue. Yes, almost certainly, Duntsova's name will not be on the ballot. However, signing in support of her candidacy is a meaningful action that, at the very least, strengthens the positions of anti-Putin communities not only in Russia but also beyond its borders. Without this campaign, Putin's opponents would likely remain unnoticed: few of them would bother voting at Russian embassies, while there would always be some enthusiasts of the “Russian world” willing to officially express their loyal stance.

Without this campaign, Putin's opponents would likely remain unnoticed

In the end, media reports on the “elections” would likely conclude that even among emigrants, the majority voted for Putin. However, if the cumulative number of collected signatures turns out to be truly significant, it will elevate the political agency not only of Ekaterina Duntsova (she won't acquire the status of Tikhanovskaya but will come close) but also of overseas Russians as a community. This, in the long run, would provide them with more opportunities to support like-minded individuals within the country.

So far, the regime has not made any quick moves to react harshly to Duntsova's candidacy. In Rzhev, local authorities prefer to overlook Duntsova, while neighbors and complete strangers, on the contrary, express sympathy and support. One of her close supporters, Olga Suvorova, was detained at the Krasnoyarsk airport upon her return from the Moscow nomination meeting but was soon released. The meeting itself proceeded almost without incidents—symbolic power outages could be interpreted as a “we are watching” signal.

So far, the regime has not made any quick moves to react harshly to Duntsova's candidacy

In my view, this response is linked to the swift emergence of the phenomenon. The Presidential Administration and law enforcement are working to comprehend the specifics of what occurred and the underlying reasons. The threshold of 300,000 signatures, where one can always “find” some violations, effectively blocks access to the elections themselves. Therefore, at the moment, the authorities' interest lies more in monitoring and gathering information.

Nevertheless, the risk that Duntsova has taken is substantial. The repressive mechanism of the Putinist state is gaining momentum. She herself mentions overcoming fear after months of apathy. There is a desire to believe in her cause and support her—regardless of whether the regime attempts to intimidate or bribe her in the future. The pivotal aspect is the events that are unfolding at this very moment.

“No one stands behind her.” Political perspectives

The Insider consulted with political analysts who share the belief that there is no substantial backing for Duntsova's candidacy and that she has minimal chances of collecting the necessary signatures—unless Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration Sergey Kirienko's team opts to “embellish the elections in a safe way.”

Political analyst Mikhail Komin:

“I am confident that no one stands behind her. Duntsova, having lost her parliamentary mandate and unable to run for mayor in her city, decided that presidential elections are the most acceptable option for her right now. Of course, she has no chance; she won't even be registered. They are unlikely to arrest her or apply any other repressive method, but she will gain national fame. And if she manages to retain her political capital for the next elections to the State Duma, she will have good chances of being elected from the Tver region.
In the past, no one had heard of her. How many municipal politicians in Russia do you know? The most famous among them, in my opinion, is Ilya Yashin. We don't know any people who are opinion leaders at the municipal level, and she is one. To be elected to the local city council in Rzhev, you need to get a few hundred votes. It's a small achievement, but even then, she was an independent candidate in that council dominated by powerful communists; she opposed United Russia and served as an important example of how democratic and independent politics can be carried out at the local level. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of such people in Russia, but we don't know about them.
Local cells of United Russia, to whom they cause significant inconvenience, are more likely to know about them. From local discomfort, Duntsova has become a federal problem for the President's Administration. This is a consequence of how the degradation and lack of opportunities for real political competition and the ability to run at the local level has led to local problems becoming federal.
There is no chance that the CEC will register her because she won't gather 300,000 signatures. It's impossible even for more substantial candidates if they were running. Dmitry Muratov or Alexey Venediktov also cannot gather that many without a well-developed infrastructure of headquarters in the regions. The calculation for these signatures looks like this: you need to ensure representation in at least half of the regions of the Russian Federation. To do this, you need to set up infrastructure for headquarters long before the Federation Council approves the election date, as Alexey Navalny, Leonid Volkov, and other colleagues from the Anti-Corruption Foundation did in 2018 when Navalny ran for president.
The President's Administration is also not interested in registering Duntsova. In the 2024 election ballot, apart from Putin, there will likely be 3 to 4 candidates from the systemic parties—some communists, the LDPR's Slutsky, and a candidate from the New People party, Alexey Nechaev, positioning himself as a 'liberal.' The Kremlin is not interested in other candidates who are able to overcome the registration hurdles.”

Political analyst Mikhail Savva:

“I assume that no one supports Duntsova. She is a politician at the municipal level and was a deputy in Rhzev's municipal council. This is why she is relatively unknown; the Moscow political circle is not familiar with her. This is significant because many people in this circle, with diverse political affiliations, have been linked to Sergey Kirienko's group.
It seems that the primary motivation behind her candidacy is a protest against the system. If Kirienko and his team decide that Duntsova's participation will embellish the elections in a safe way, they might register her, but the chances are slim. More likely, she may face a registration denial and potential criminal charges. The process is already underway (there have been requests for explanations regarding Duntsova's position in connection with Russian aggression against Ukraine), although it could still be halted.”






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