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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Expecting the Worst, Yabloko Mulls Plan B

ST. PETERSBURG -- On the eve of a critical Central Election Commission ruling that will decide whether it can take part in St. Petersburg elections, the liberal Yabloko party is assuming the worst and readying Plan B: Casting blank protest votes.

While Russians no longer have an option to choose "against all" on ballots -- traditionally regarded as protest votes -- they do have the right to take their ballots out of polling stations without actually casting them.

Yabloko officials are mulling over a plan whereby party representatives would collect these uncast ballots and then tabulate them -- giving the public a picture of how many people question the legitimacy of elections that many liberals regard as rigged to favor pro-Kremlin parties.

"This scenario is still being discussed among the liberals, and a final decision will be announced after the Central Election Commission's verdict," said Sergei Gulyayev, a Yabloko lawmaker in the regional legislative assembly .

"There is still hope that [Governor] Valentina Matviyenko's grudge against Yabloko, which appears to be behind the local commission's decision, is not shared by the officials in Moscow, who might take a different view of the political battle here."

The St. Petersburg Election Commission earlier barred Yabloko from fielding candidates in local elections March 11. The reason given for the move was that Yabloko had filed too many invalid signatures in its paperwork.

Gulyayev said election commission officials, in fact, had offered the party a deal: Ease off on criticism of construction of a planned Gazprom headquarters in St. Petersburg in exchange for the right to run in the elections.

"We took some time to consider the offer and thoroughly think it over, but we felt we couldn't make deals with dishonest people," Gulyayev said.

Dmitry Krasnyansky, the election commission's deputy head, dismissed Gulyayev's allegations, saying nearly 12 percent of the signatures filed by Yabloko were invalid; the limit is 10 percent.

Whatever the case, the fact remains that on Friday the Central Election Commission in Moscow will decide once and for all whether the party can take part in the election.

Taking ballots out of polling stations is legal in Russia, but political analysts voice doubt that the tactic will accomplish much.

Yury Korgunyuk of the Indem think tank in Moscow said Yabloko overestimates Russians' level of political interest. "Apathy and inertia are the two predominating trends in Russian society today. Had people been more active politically, there would be no need for such tools. If masses of enraged voters flooded the streets protesting blatant bias against a major democratic party, the authorities would promptly have taken a step back."

Sergei Khokhayev, chairman of the human rights group Memorial, lamented that the last time Russians took to the streets was in January 2005, when proposed pension reforms sparked widespread anger.

"Sadly," Khokhayev said, "it takes a financial matter nowadays to get people out of their homes. As for opposition rallies, with such low attendance, it's impossible to make any difference."

Yabloko's plight has attracted international attention. German and Swedish lawmakers this week sent letters of support for the party to the Central Election Commission, urging officials to let Yabloko field candidates.