‘Noon against Putin’: A small gesture and a powerful symbol of Russia’s opposition

The widow of Russia’s late opposition leader Alexei Navalny is calling on voters in the country’s presidential election to turn up at polling stations en masse at 12 noon on March 17 and either vote against Vladimir Putin or spoil their ballot. The protest action, known as “Noon Against Putin”, aims to honour Navalny’s last wishes, while illustrating the high number of voters who are against Russia’s war on Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin is hoping for record turnout in the country’s forthcoming March 15-17 elections. And now the Russian strongman, who is seeking a fifth term in office in a tightly controlled vote, might find his wish has been granted.

But if voters turn out in high numbers on March 17 at noon sharp, Putin might feel he should have been careful what he wished for.

The “Noon against Putin” protest action was called for by the late Alexei Navalny two weeks before his death in an Arctic prison, and is now being continued by his widow Yulia.

Promoters of the protest want Russians to wait until noon on March 17 to go to their polling station. They don’t care which candidate they vote for – as long as it’s not Putin and as long as they come precisely at noon.

“The choice is yours. You can vote for any candidate except Putin,” Navalnaya said in a YouTube video.

“You can ruin the ballot, you can write ‘Navalny’ in big letters on it. And even if you don’t see the point in voting at all, you can just come and stand at the polling station, and then turn around and go home.”

Russia’s presidential election is widely expected to hand Putin another six-year term, keeping him in the Kremlin until at least 2030. The vote is being held with no meaningful opposition challengers and international observers have already raised concerns about its transparency and accountability.

Navalnaya views the polling protest as a gesture of support for the Russian opposition and a powerful way for citizens to show they are against Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Indeed the protest action may be the only thing motivating Russians who are against Putin to turn out and vote.

“How many people will show up is the only interesting figure in these elections,” says Matthew Wyman, a specialist in Russian politics at Keele University in the UK.

‘Navalny’s political legacy’

“We have to sabotage it [the election],” says Maxim Reznik, an exiled Russian opposition figure who came up with the idea for the initiative, when interviewed by independent Russian news website Meduza.

Reznik first suggested the protest action during a debate – “What to do about the presidential election?” – broadcast in January 2024 on the opposition channel Dozhd.

Since then, most of Russia’s leading opposition figures have voiced their support for the “Noon Against Putin” initiative, starting with Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation, which rarely misses an opportunity to promote it.

Novaya Gazeta, the independent Russian newspaper, has even called the protest action “Navalny’s will”.

“It’s very appropriate to link it to Navalny because it’s the kind of thing he would have done,” Wyman points out.

“It is in the spirit of a lot of things Navalny was doing and asking people to do: it’s not difficult, and with small steps you can hope to make big changes,” adds Jenny Mathers, a specialist in Russia at Aberystwyth University in Wales.

“Noon against Putin” ties in perfectly with this strategy. Going to the polling station at a specific time calls for no particular effort from voters – neither does it put them at risk.

“What they are doing is trying to find ways to show resistance without risk of being put in jail. The protest is brilliant because they are doing exactly what the regime wants you to do: going to vote,” says Wyman, adding that the police would find it hard to justify arresting voters for doing their civic duty.

Mathers suggests it is important to start with small steps.

“The idea is to rebuild civil society and a credible opposition force that has been badly hit lately,” she notes. “After small steps, maybe a bigger one will come? I see it as one piece of a long-lasting campaign,” Mathers adds.

The number of Russians opposed to the war

This type of protest action illustrates “the creativity of actions undertaken by the opposition in Russia”, explains Wyman, adding that “the space to protest has been kind of reduced and reduced”.

“Noon against Putin” is just one of a long list of initiatives in a similar vein. Demonstrators have held up blank sheets of paper to symbolise the censorship of any criticism of Russia’s war on Ukraine, and activists have added QR codes to advertising billboards so that citizens can access websites critical of Putin.

“These are the kind of practices you see in regimes that become more and more oppressive,” says Mathers.

“It is like what China does, when they use Winnie the Pooh,” adds Mathers, referring to China’s ban of a Winnie the Pooh film after the Chinese used memes to mock their leader Xi Pingping by comparing him to the honey-loving bear.

Some wonder if the protest action will have any real impact.

“Obviously it’s not going to change the outcome of the election,” admits Mathers.

However, Wyman believes it will give a “better picture” of the strength of the opposition to the war on Ukraine.

The vast crowds that gathered for Navalny’s funeral on March 1 have already given some insight into the feeling of dissent in Russia. At least 27,000 people came to say farewell to Navalny at Borisovsky cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow, according to a count by the independent Russian news outlet Mediazona.

But Stephen Hall, a Russia specialist at the University of Bath, predicts that voter turnout will be much higher than it was for Navalny’s funeral – pointing out that it was mainly Muscovites who attended, and that police had warned people to stay away.

“Here the risk of arrest is low and it’s [taking place] all over Russia.

“This is a low risk way to show you’re against the regime and the war.”

Stealing the media limelight from Putin

Hall believes one of “Noon Against Putin’s” main challenges will be mobilising people outside of Moscow or St Petersburg.

“Putin has always counted on popular support on the outskirts of major urban centres. If long queues form in front of polling stations all over Russia at midday on Sunday, he may start to worry about the real level of his popularity,” he explains.

“Noon against Putin” also aims to steal the media spotlight from the Kremlin.

“The regime wants this election to be non-controversial. So the more disruption there is, like huge numbers going to polling stations at noon, the more this might be a problem for Putin,” says Mathers.

“Putin desperately wants all the world headlines after the election to say he ‘got 85 percent’,” says Reznik.

“But now, rest assured, you’ll see! All the headlines won’t be about Putin’s performance but about what happened at ‘Noon’,” Reznik adds.

“It’s about creating a counter-narrative,” agrees Matthew Wyman.

This is partly so that Russians opposed to the regime do not feel alone, but it’s also “a way to say to the world we are not all Putin, and that there is a movement to support in Russia”, adds Mathers.

But for that to happen, voters will need to turn out in high numbers at polling stations at noon on Sunday.

This article has been translated from the original in French. 

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