Russia's political opposition Monday claimed a symbolic victory in regional elections that were dominated by pro-Kremlin candidates and marred by allegations of fraud.
The vote was overshadowed by the alleged poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in the Siberian city of Tomsk during a trip to promote opposition candidates ahead of the ballot.
Germany said Monday that lab tests in France and Sweden confirmed the Kremlin critic was attacked with a Novichok nerve agent in an incident French President Emmanuel Marcon described as “attempted murder” during a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The elections came a year ahead of a parliamentary ballot and were seen as a test for Putin as the ruling United Russia party faces sinking popularity and public anger over economic woes.
Russians in dozens of the country’s 85 regions voted from Friday to Sunday for governors and lawmakers in regional and city legislatures as well as in several by-elections for national MPs.
Candidates from the ruling United Russia party that dominates the country’s political landscape despite declining popularity claimed a majority of the seats.
But Navalny’s allies made unprecedented gains in highly anticipated city council votes in Siberian cities of Novosibirsk and Tomsk.
In an effort to fight Putin’s electoral machine, Navalny had urged voters back candidates against the ruling party.
The 44-year-old lawyer and Kremlin critic was in Siberia promoting a “smart voting” campaign when he fell ill last month.
His supporters believe the use of the banned chemical weapon shows that only the Russian state could be responsible.
Putin on Monday condemned “unsubstantiated” accusations over Navalny’s poisoning during a call with Macron and said Germany should hand over biological materials and coordinate with Russian doctors.
Two allies of the opposition leader won parliament seats in Tomsk, the city where Navalny’s allies say he drank tea that was laced with the nerve agent before a flight to Moscow.
United Russia suffered heavy losses in the city of some 500,000, winning just 24.46 percent of the overall vote compared to 52.27 percent in 2015.
‘Big blow’ to United Russia
Ksenia Fadeyeva, the 28-year-old head of Navalny’s Tomsk office who won a city council seat, put her success down to the opposition leader’s voting strategy saying, “we really campaigned under the Navalny brand”.
The result was “a big blow” to United Russia ahead of legislative elections of next year, she told AFP, and also disproved the myth that the opposition only has 2 or 3 percent support.
“But the work continues. No time to rest yet,” she said.
In Russia’s third-largest city of Novosibirsk, which Navalny also visited before the vote, his ally Sergei Boyko won a seat on the local council beating out a veteran Communist Party candidate.
United Russia lost 11 seats and their majority on the city council securing 22 places out of 50, with Navalny-backed candidates picking up five spots.
United Russia chairman Dmitry Medvedev, however, praised Sunday the party’s electoral successes, saying that exit polls showed it was heading for victory.
Of 18 regions that voted for governors, 12 elected candidates from United Russia and the remainder chose figures aligned with traditionally Kremlin-friendly opposition parties.
Vote organisers said they held the ballot between Friday and Sunday to limit new coronavirus infections. But the opposition countered that the move was a ploy to make it easier for the results to be fabricated.
The independent election monitor group Golos said it had registered ballot stuffing complaints and received a “stream of reports” that observers were barred from viewing documents and submitting complaints, with conflicts sometimes ending in “fisticuffs”.
Chairwoman of the Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova however said Monday “there were no major violations” and that the vote had seen “fewer flaws than ever,” according to the TASS news agency.
The European Union denounced the vote held in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, saying it would not recognise “anybody elected in Russia-organised voting in the Crimean peninsula”.