Sometime in the early 2010s, Yekaterina Duntsova’s eldest daughter drew a picture of her debating Russian President Vladimir Putin live on prime-time TV.
A decade on, the little-known journalist and mom-of-three from a small town in western Russia recalls the drawing as a joke about her civic activism — but says it also carried a “message about the future.”
Duntsova hopes that future might see her forcing Putin into a run-off in Russia’s next presidential vote, scheduled for March, despite her political inexperience and analysts’ assessments that the Kremlin leader’s tight grip on politics has virtually assured him another term as head of state.
Speaking to The Associated Press in Moscow, Duntsova, a 40-year-old independent, said her message of peace with Ukraine, freedom for imprisoned critics of the government and a “humane” Russia that heeds its citizens’ concerns could give hope to those opposing the Kremlin’s military operation in Ukraine, the decades-long centralization of power and the crackdown on dissent.
“Of course, I am afraid,” she said, citing the Kremlin’s targeting of opposition activists and protesters. But she insisted it is necessary to “present an alternative” to Putin and his policies.
“I’ve spoken with many activists and local lawmakers about the upcoming election, about what’s in store for us. Because there was no obvious candidate … who would stand for similar values (to ours),” she said.
“At some point, the idea came up … that it would be interesting if it were a woman (to run against Putin), because that would really be something different. Rigidity and harshness against softness, kindness, peace,” she added.
As a journalist-turned-grassroots campaigner and local legislator who also holds a law degree, Duntsova weighs her words carefully to avoid falling afoul of Russian laws that restrict expression around the 21-month-old conflict in Ukraine. Opponents of what the Kremlin insists on calling a “special military operation” now face up to 15 years in prison for “discrediting” or “disseminating false information about” the Russian military.
Despite that, Duntsova insisted she wants the fighting in Ukraine to come to a swift end and for Moscow and Kyiv to come to the negotiating table.
“We want peace,” she said.
She declined to talk about what a possible peace agreement might look like, but pointed to Ukrainian authorities’ repeated refusal to open negotiations while Putin is in power.
“It follows that they’re ready to have them with somebody else,” she said.
She added that if elected, her first presidential decree would mandate the release of Russia’s “political prisoners,” without giving names — although in earlier statements she spoke of her readiness to free Putin’s arch-enemy, the anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny.
Duntsova built her career in Rzhev, a historic town of around 60,000 people about 230 kilometers (143 miles) west of Moscow. She said her work for a local TV station instilled in her a passion for engaging with people’s concerns and gradually pushed her toward civic engagement.
“I came to think that I cannot limit myself to just observing what is happening, I need to participate in it myself,” she said.
In 2009, 10 years before she joined the local legislative body, Duntsova gathered nearly 4,000 signatures in support of a grassroots campaign for the reinstatement of direct mayoral elections in Rzhev, scrapped earlier that year amid the Kremlin’s drive to centralize power in Russia.
She hopes that experience will come in useful in her presidential bid. Russian electoral law requires all independent candidates to gather 300,000 unique voter signatures and submit the list for review by the Central Electoral Commission to be allowed to run.
Before they can begin, however, they must be endorsed by a group of at least 500 supporters gathered in a single place. Duntsova said her campaign team plans to hold the meeting in Moscow, despite fears it might be broken up by the authorities.
She has already been called in for questioning in Rzhev after announcing her intent to run in the election, with prosecutors asking her to clarify her political views and use of the term “peace.” She said she invoked her constitutional right to remain silent.
Duntsova stresses she doe not see herself as an opposition politician, but one motivated by “human, usual, ordinary ethical values.”
She spoke of her desire to build a “humane” Russia “that’s peaceful, friendly and ready to cooperate with everyone on the principle of respect.”
“And first of all, this respect must be extended … to people who live here,” she added.
She said she would champion issues close to women, including Russian authorities’ recent controversial attempts to restrict abortion in the increasingly conservative country.
Duntsova readily acknowledged Putin’s enduring popularity in Russian society, but asserted that she and her campaign team would fight on to energize voters who are disillusioned with politics.
“If there is a run-off, that will already be a victory, (showing) that support for the current head of state is not as substantial as they say … And of course, my participation in the election will show people that they have a choice, that they don’t have to stay home, that they should turn out,” she argued.
She insisted she was not a “spoiler candidate” covertly backed by the Kremlin and fielded to give the vote a semblance of competitiveness, a common occurrence in Putin’s Russia.
Most Russian opposition figures expect Putin will be declared the winner in March no matter how voters cast their ballots, and say they hope to focus on undermining the widespread public support he enjoys rather than trying to influence the vote’s outcome.
One group, however, believes there is mileage in putting forward candidates to challenge Putin. A project called Our Headquarters, launched by several activists helping those fleeing Russia to settle abroad, promises to support “democratic candidates with an antiwar position.”
Andrey Davydov, one of the group’s project coordinators, has endorsed Duntsova’s bid. He told the AP her lack of experience in federal-level politics might prove an advantage
But Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst and professor at the Free University of Riga in Latvia, thinks Duntsova has a slim chance of being officially registered as a candidate and “genuinely become a focal point for anti-Putin sentiment.”
Duntsova, for her part, raises the prospect of running again in future elections.
“If we’re not successful this time, it means we will be six years down the line,” she said.