MOSCOW – On a rainy evening the day after parliamentary elections in December 2011, popular blogger Alexei Navalny led a rally of thousands of angry Muscovites who complained of blatant and pervasive fraud at polling stations across the Russian capital.
After months of protests, it seemed that change was inevitable — yet five years later Navalny is just a bystander, watching a parliamentary election campaign from the sidelines, his Party of Progress barred from participating.
The Sept. 18 vote offers few choices for voters in big cities who raised their voices in 2011, only to be drowned out by the nationalist euphoria that followed Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.
President Vladimir Putin's United Russia and three quasi-opposition parties that derided the protesters are expected to dominate in the polls again. Up for grabs are 450 seats in the Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament. Putin, who enjoys high popularity ratings, won't be up for re-election himself until 2018.
"People want something new but they're being fed the same stuff that was around in 1995," Navalny told The Associated Press at his office in south Moscow.
"I want to run, I'm confident we would make it (to parliament) but we're not allowed," he added.
Since the 2011 protests, Navalny has faced frequent detentions, a smear campaign in state media and two criminal cases — widely seen as retribution — resulting in a suspended sentence that bars him from running for office until at least mid-2018. Before his first conviction in 2013, the 40-year-old lawyer ran for Moscow mayor and won a third of the vote, a stunning result given that he had no access to television and street advertising.
With Navalny barred from running, his associates filed stacks of documents four times to get their own party registered, only to have the registration officially canceled over a disputed deadline less than a year later.
That leaves opposition-minded voters a choice between two parties that openly speak against the Kremlin: former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's Parnas party and Yabloko, led by the same man for 23 years.
Lyubov Ozerova, 48, who traveled 120 kilometers (75 miles) to attend a recent Parnas meeting in Moscow, says she trusted Putin until his foreign policy, the annexation of Crimea and involvement in eastern Ukraine began to take its toll on the economy, reversing more than a decade of almost uninterrupted growth. She believes most people in her town are unlikely to vote.
"People don't have faith in anything anymore," she said. "Most people are too busy with their own problems."
Alexei Makarkin at the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies says such voter attitudes stem from unfulfilled expectations: "In 2011 people turned up to protest, but for ordinary people nothing has changed."
Parnas' top candidates are an unlikely mix in a liberal party: They include bow-tie wearing history professor Andrei Zubov, a monarchist who wants to introduce a tsarist-era song as the new national anthem, and nationalist blogger Vyacheslav Maltsev, who laments a growing income gap and corruption and attracts about 100,000 views to his daily video blogs.
Maltsev talks about current events in the manner of someone sharing pickled cucumbers and a shot of vodka with a neighbor. The 52-year old former regional councilman starts every program by announcing the countdown to the day he believes the next Russian revolution will happen. Parnas leadership came under fire for fielding Maltsev as its number two candidate, in part because of his history of anti-Semitic statements.
Parnas leader Kasyanov expects Maltsev to steal votes from populist parties that criticize the government but stop short of targeting Putin. The risk is that brash figures like Maltsev could alienate Parnas' core liberal voters.
"It's a risk we have to take in order to get a wider front of support," Kasyanov told The Associated Press.
Maltsev's appearances at televised debates became an instant hit on social media, with him likening the Putin regime to a disease — a "protracted gonorrhea," to be more precise.
As a political outsider from the regions, Maltsev helps Parnas deflect attention from Kasyanov, who is regarded by hardline pro-Kremlin activists as a corrupt bureaucrat and Western spy.
In August, pro-Kremlin activists attacked Kasyanov outside a campaign event in southern Russia. In February, a group of men threatened him in a Moscow restaurant and rammed a cake into his face. No one was arrested in either case.
Kasyanov says he has almost become accustomed to the attacks.
"For other candidates, though, it's something new, they are upset and nervous but they understand this proves that we speak the truth and that we are the only (party) that the Kremlin is afraid of," he said.
Over the years, Putin has built a political system that includes the ruling United Russia party and the Communist Party, the LDPR and Just Russia, which all brand themselves as the opposition when they campaign, although they never dare to criticize Putin publicly. And when the time comes to vote for unpopular Kremlin-initiated bills, these parties almost always vote in favor.
"Urban voters have no political representation in the Duma and they would like to have it but this cunning Kremlin system made it so that even without vote rigging we will have no representation," Navalny says.
In a way, Yabloko, founded in 1993 by economist Grigory Yavlinsky and two associates, has been part of that system. Yabloko has never gone as far as Navalny in attacking Putin personally.
Yabloko has rejected joining forces with Parnas for this campaign, refusing "to make a coalition with nationalists and fascists," Yavlinsky says in a clear dig at Maltsev.
Asked about the same old faces appearing in this campaign, including himself, Yavlinsky says "if you have no independent television in the country, it's very difficult to present new politicians."
Political analysts say the real reason is that voters don't want new faces.
"There is no demand for new faces among most voters, especially after Crimea and 2014," says Makarkin, the political analyst. "Most people just sit and watch and they're afraid of change. There's a feeling of depression and fatigue which has a direct impact on the voters, on the turnout and the interest in politics and politicians."
An opinion poll conducted by the Levada polling agency in August showed that 62 percent of Russians say they don't think that the Duma elections could change things. In a sign of the Kremlin's unease at Levada's findings, which also include declining ratings for United Russia, Levada earlier this week was named a foreign agent, a stigma that could eventually lead to its closure.