Yekaterina Duntsova, a journalist and lawyer from the Tver region north of Moscow, hopes to force President Vladimir Putin into a runoff in Russia’s next presidential vote scheduled for March.
In the early 2010s, Ekaterina Duntsova’s eldest daughter drew a picture of her arguing with Russian President Vladimir Putin on live prime-time television.
Ten years later, the little-known journalist and mother of three from a small town in western Russia remembers the drawing as a joke about her civic activism, but says it also carried a “message about the future.”
Duntsova hopes the future could see her force Putin into a runoff in Russia’s next presidential vote, due in March, despite her political inexperience and analysts’ assessments that the Kremlin leader’s tight grip on politics has all but assured him of another term in office as head of state. .
The 40-year-old independent says her message of peace with Ukraine, freedom for jailed government critics and a “humane” Russia that listens to its citizens’ concerns could give hope to those who oppose the military operation of Kremlin in Ukraine, the decades… long centralization of power and repression of dissent.
“Of course, I’m scared,” he says, citing the Kremlin’s attacks on opposition activists and protesters. But he insists on the need to “present an alternative” to Putin and his policies.
“I talked to many local activists and legislators about the upcoming elections, what lies ahead. Because there was no obvious candidate… who defended similar values (to ours),” he says.
“At some point, the idea came up… that it would be interesting if it were a woman (running against Putin), because it would really be something different. Rigidity and hardness versus softness, kindness, peace,” she adds.
As a journalist turned grassroots activist and local legislator who also has a law degree, Duntsova weighs her words carefully to avoid breaking Russian laws that restrict expression about Ukraine’s 21-month-old conflict. Opponents of what the Kremlin insists on calling a “special military operation” now face up to 15 years in prison for “discrediting” or “spreading false information” about the Russian military.
Despite this, Duntsova insists that the fighting in Ukraine ends quickly and that Moscow and Kiev come to the negotiating table.
“We want peace,” he says.
She declines to talk about what a possible peace deal might look like, but points to the Ukrainian authorities’ repeated refusal to open negotiations while Putin is in power.
“It follows that they are ready to have them with someone else,” he says.
She adds that, if elected, her first presidential decree would require the release of Russian “political prisoners”, without naming names, although in previous statements she had spoken of her willingness to free Putin’s arch-enemy, the anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny.
Duntsova built her career in Rzhev, a historic town of about 60,000 people about 230 kilometers west of Moscow. About her She said her work for a local television station instilled in her a passion for engaging with people’s concerns and gradually pushed her toward civic engagement.
“I’ve come to think that I can’t just observe what’s happening, I have to participate in it myself,” she says.
In 2009, 10 years before entering the local legislative body, Duntsova collected almost 4,000 signatures in support of a popular campaign for the restoration of direct mayoral elections in Rzhev, abolished earlier that year in the context of the push of Kremlin to centralize power in Russia.
He hopes the experience will come in handy in his presidential bid. Russian election law requires all independent candidates to collect 300,000 signatures of unique voters and submit the list for review by the Central Election Commission in order to run.
Before they can begin, however, they will have to be supported by a group of at least 500 supporters gathered in one place. Duntsova said her campaign team plans to hold the meeting in Moscow, despite fears it could be disrupted by authorities.
Duntsova emphasizes that she does not consider herself an opposition politician, but a politician motivated by “human, customary and ordinary ethical values”.
He speaks of his desire to build a “humane” Russia, “peaceful, friendly and ready to collaborate with everyone according to the principle of respect”.
“And first of all this respect must be extended… to the people who live here,” he adds.
Most Russian opposition representatives expect Putin to be declared the winner in March, regardless of how voters vote, and hope to focus on undermining the broad public support he enjoys rather than trying to influence the outcome of the vote.
One group, however, believes it is useful to propose candidates to challenge Putin. A project called Our Headquarters, launched by several activists who help those fleeing Russia to settle abroad, promises to support “democratic candidates with an anti-war position.”
Andrey Davydov, one of the group’s project coordinators, supported Duntsova’s bid. He said his lack of experience in politics at the federal level could prove to be an advantage
But Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst and professor at the Free University of Riga in Latvia, believes Duntsova has little chance of being officially registered as a candidate and “really becoming a focal point of anti-Putin sentiment.”
Duntsova, for her part, raises the prospect of running again in the next elections.
“If we are not successful this time, that means it will take six years,” he says.