A Service of UA Little Rock
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Despite Putin's grasp on re-election, an unlikely presidential hopeful takes a chance


Russia holds its presidential election in three months. President Vladimir Putin is certain to win a fifth term, but that doesn't mean there aren't other candidates if they can manage to get on the ballot. In Moscow, NPR's Charles Maynes recently met with one.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yekaterina Duntsova would seem an unlikely choice to be the next president of Russia and new chief resident of the Kremlin. This will work?


MAYNES: The 40-year-old journalist and mother of three is the first to admit she doesn't know Moscow all that well.

DUNTSOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Just as she openly acknowledges, as we meet in the city's main park that she's seen for the first time, she'd prefer if someone else were in her shoes. The problem is, better-known pro-democracy candidates are all in exile or jail.

DUNTSOVA: (Through interpreter) There aren't many who can still participate in the presidential elections. But I think you should use any opportunity to have your voice heard.

MAYNES: Duntsova's political experience as limited to just one term on the city council in her hometown of Rzhev, about 150 miles east of the capital.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: But Russian independent media operating in exile have covered her announcement intensely, seeing it as a rare wild card in an election in which it's universally assumed President Vladimir Putin will extend his near-quarter-century rule. Duntsova's answer - you never know.

DUNTSOVA: (Through interpreter) The only way to protest that one man has been in power for so long and there's no change is through elections. It's the only peaceful way to do it. And I don't endorse any other way.

MAYNES: Parties in Russia's Parliament all support Putin's leadership, even as they field pro forma candidates against him. And then there's Duntsova, more than three decades Putin's junior, who argues Russia is on the wrong path and has been for years. Her goal, she says, is to give Russia back its future.

DUNTSOVA: (Through interpreter) Just yesterday, I was talking with a 22-year-old, and he said, I was born under Putin, grew up under Putin, and now we have elections. And once again, it'll be more Putin. It tells them that nothing is possible, and there's no point in politics at all.

MAYNES: Duntsova's platform begins with a call to free all political prisoners and roll back a host of repressive government measures.

DUNTSOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: She also says she endorses a path to peace. That's about as close as she comes to criticizing the war in Ukraine without violating those same Russian laws she'd one day like to repeal because Duntsova is, in effect, the lone anti-war candidate in a country where that position can earn you years in jail.

DUNTSOVA: (Through interpreter) The number of people who don't just think but are willing to speak out about wanting peace aren't that many, but they exist, and there are others who may be willing to listen.

MAYNES: Reaching them may be her biggest problem, as Duntsova seeks to formally get on the ballot. Earlier today, Russia's Central Elections Board denied her initial bid, casting doubt on signatures she'd gathered in support of her candidacy. She's appealing that ruling to the Supreme Court. Duntsova acknowledges Putin, backed by a state media machine, has a strong base of support, but she sees an opening for her own message of peace.

DUNTSOVA: (Through interpreter) Many people are tired of what's happening, of having to wait for their loved ones to return. Meanwhile, it seems every week or two, we learn another soldier has died.

MAYNES: Meanwhile, Duntsova says the question she's asked most is if she's a Kremlin ploy, her candidacy a bid to generate interest and legitimize the vote.

DUNTSOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: She insists she's no one's pawn.

DUNTSOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Fine. Call her naive, says Duntsova. But she thinks her candidacy can be a response to those who say, when it comes to politics and Putin's autocratic Russia, why bother? In fact, Duntsova's decision to run is a high-stakes bet that somehow some good can come out of saying, why not? Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.