Navalny's illness energises push to challenge Kremlin at vote in Siberian town


  • World
  • Sunday, 13 Sep 2020

An elderly woman casts a ballot during municipal elections in Tomsk, Russia September 13, 2020. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

TOMSK, Russia (Reuters) - When Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny collapsed on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk last month, his allies, who had seen him healthy and full of energy just hours before, found it hard to get back to campaigning for this Sunday's local election.

But they rapidly found themselves receiving unexpected support in the vibrant student city of half a million from passersby asking after the outspoken opposition politician who Germany says was poisoned with a rare nerve agent.

Two young activists who run Navalny's local office were back on the streets the next day trying to convince residents to support them at the election for the local city council that is controlled by the pro-Kremlin ruling United Russia party.

"It saved us because people were approaching us, voicing their support and asking about Alexei's health," said Andrei Fateev, 32, one of two Navalny allies running in the election.

Navalny also has dozens of allies running for the city council in Siberia's Novosibirsk, hoping to tap into frustrations with the ruling party after years of falling wages and a coronavirus lockdown that hit businesses.

The votes are among an array of local elections being held across Russia's regions on Sunday.

It is rare for Navalny's allies to be allowed to compete in elections and the 44-year-old was himself barred from taking part in Russia's last presidential election in 2018.

The anti-corruption campaigner, who is now being treated in a hospital in Berlin, carved out a following on YouTube publishing videos alleging high-level graft among President Vladimir Putin's allies and targeting the United Russia party.

Before he fell ill, he was in Tomsk to make a video urging residents to vote against the party's pro-Kremlin politicians who, he said, control local state utilities monopolies which he alleges sell services to consumers at vastly inflated prices.

During early voting on Saturday, Reuters reporters spoke to seven voters after they exited a school in central Tomsk, where three polling stations are located. None of them said they supported the ruling party.

"(I voted) against the United Russia because I'm fed up with United Russia people dominating," 21-year-old history student Oleg Nikiforov said.

"It should not be left like that and that's why everybody is going to vote, my friends, young people, everyone is voting against them."

Berlin has demanded an explanation from Moscow after it said German doctors found the banned Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in Navalny's body. Russia says there is no solid evidence yet that Navalny was poisoned.

(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, additional reporting Maxim Shemetov; Editing by Tom Balmforth and Emelia Sithole-Matrise)

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