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In Russia, war and fear trouble one presidential hopeful


By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW, Nov 27 (Reuters) – Yekaterina Duntsova, who wants to run for president, said the Kremlin should end the conflict in Ukraine, free political prisoners and undertake major reform to halt the slide towards a new era of “barbed wire” division between Russia and the West.

Nearly 32 years since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union stoked hopes that Russia would blossom into an open democracy, Duntsova, 40, said she was afraid as she spoke to Reuters in Moscow.

“Fear is present but it is conscious,” said Duntsova, who this month announced she wanted to run for president in the March 2024 election.

“Any sane person taking this step would be afraid – but fear must not win.”

She said she had to choose her words carefully given laws which can be used to prosecute those criticising what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation”, and that she had been warned about speaking too much to foreign correspondents.

The divorced former regional TV journalist who has three children refused to use the word “war” to describe the deadliest conflict in Europe since World War Two due to Russian law.

“Sooner or later every armed conflict ends, and I hope that it ends as soon as possible,” Duntsova said.

“The people are very tired of what is going on. But that weariness is not voiced.”

She declined to describe what a possible peace might look like.

President Vladimir Putin is expected to run in the March election and is certain to win if he does.

Duntsova needs to collect 300,000 signatures to be allowed to stand. Russian state media ignore her.

PUTIN’S RUSSIA

Opposition politicians cast the election as a fig leaf of democracy that adorns what they see as the corrupt dictatorship of Putin’s Russia. Such elections, they say, often draw in weak candidates to give the pretence of competition.

Supporters of Putin dismiss that analysis, pointing to independent polling which shows he enjoys approval ratings of above 80%. They say that Putin has restored order and some of the clout Russia lost during the chaos of the Soviet collapse.

When asked what she thought of Putin, Duntsova laughed nervously.

“I don’t think of Putin,” she said. “When in Europe and the United States they say that Russia and the Russians are Putin – that is not right. I am not a supporter of collective guilt,” she said of the war.

“The decision was not taken by all the people who live in this country.”

Duntsova said she was not a pawn being used to legitimise the election and hoped there would be a second round. She denied any links to the Kremlin.

“Not the Kremlin, not the oligarchs and not big business – they do not support me,” she said.

When asked about the nationalist critique that many supporters of liberal democracy in Russia were agents of the Western intelligence intent on destroying Russia, she said: “I am not an agent of the CIA.”

She quipped that it was good news she had not yet been classed as a “foreign agent” by the Justice Ministry.

“I love my country,” said Duntsova, who was born in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk and lives in the provincial town of Rzhev in Tver region.

NEW COLD WAR?

Prosecutors summoned her last week to discuss her political views, including on “war and peace”.

Duntsova chuckled when asked about a Russian online article which cast her as “Yekaterina III”, and said her heroes were Indian leader Indira Gandhi and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

Russia, she said, should release political prisoners, including Alexandra Skochilenko, Andrei Pivovarov, Ilya Yashin, Vladimir Kara-Murza and even Alexei Navalny.

Duntsova’s proposals for dispensing with the “power vertical”, empty patriotism and giving parliament power would amount to seismic reform of Russia.

She said hardliners in the West and in Russia would be happy to see Russia closing itself off from the world.

“Every day, it becomes clearer that the laws will become tougher and that there will be fewer and fewer rights and freedoms,” Duntsova said.

“There really is a feeling that we have fully closed and are ready to put up the barbed wire.” (Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Ed Osmond)



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