MOSCOW (AP) — Alyona Popova’s campaign rhetoric is blunt: Unless she is elected to parliament, there won’t be much hope for a law against domestic violence in Russia.
One of the country’s most ardent feminists, Popova has fought for years to lobby members of the State Duma to adopt legislation to protect women — without success. So she decided to run herself in the election in which voting begins Friday and runs through Sunday.
Popova believes she has a good chance of winning and will be able to push through a domestic violence law. Analysts and recent actions by Russian authorities, however, suggest that both face an uphill battle.
Few reliable official statistics are kept on violence against women in Russia, but it is clearly a national problem. Police routinely turn a blind eye to domestic abuse, and restraining orders don't exist, leaving victims without a key protection.
The Interior Ministry's official magazine, Russia’s Police, reported in 2019 that one in three murders occur within “family and domestic relations”; violent acts of different kinds happen in one out of four families; and 70% of crimes within families and households are against women and children.
There are virtually no legal mechanisms to protect people from domestic abuse. Laws address a wide range of violent crimes, but attempts to create measures that would prevent these crimes from happening have faced resistance from authorities.
Yulia Gorbunova, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Russia and Ukraine, said the available statistics suggest Russia isn’t much different from the rest of the world. She cited World Health Organization data that showed one in three women around the globe suffers from physical or sexualized violence by her partner or others, "and in Russia, the numbers are quite similar.”
“Unfortunately, Russia differs from other countries in a bad way, with its inadequate response — lack of legislation, lack of a normal system of supporting the victims,” she added.
Popova’s decision to run came after her only ally in the Duma — Oksana Pushkina of the ruling United Russia bloc — announced she wasn't seeking reelection.
Popova said she spoke with other advocates about what to do: "To run after Duma lawmakers for five more years, given that this next parliament will be ultra-bigoted, ultra-fundamentalist?” Popova said. “Or to fight for it ourselves?”
Simple assault against a family member was a criminal offense only briefly in 2016 under a measure passed by lawmakers, but it prompted a backlash from conservative groups.
At his annual news conference in December 2016, President Vladimir Putin was asked about parents who could face imprisonment for spanking a child, which the questioner said was “quite traditional” Russian discipline.
Putin responded that “it’s better not to spank children and not to cite traditions,” but agreed that “unceremonious interference with the family is unacceptable,” and promised to review the law. It was decriminalized the next year and was downgraded to a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of about $68.
Women’s rights activists protested vehemently, saying abusers were given a green light.
“Our state is sending us a signal that violence is a staple (of the regime), and nothing should be done against this staple, because otherwise the entire system will fall apart,” Popova said.
Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the upper house of parliament, acknowledged the problem in 2019 and vowed to have a domestic violence bill by the end of the year. One was drafted by Popova, Pushkina and other activists.
It faced weeks of stiff resistance from conservative groups and the Russian Orthodox Church, arguing that the state shouldn’t interfere in family matters. As a result, it was watered down and never came up for a vote.
Nasiliu.Net, a prominent nonprofit that supports domestic violence victims and advocated for the law, has been labeled a “foreign agent,” and given repeated hefty fines.
Diana Barsegyan, its deputy director, said the crippling moves speak volumes about the government’s attitude toward domestic violence.
“In a healthy situation, the state should work together with experts and NGOs on such a huge and complex problem,” Barsegyan said. “And now we’re in a situation when (the government) comes to experts who are dealing with this problem, saying, ’You’re (foreign) agents now, and from now on, it will be difficult for you to work.'”
Pushkina, who in recent years was a firebrand for domestic violence legislation, decided not to run again after United Russia endorsed someone else in her constituency.
“Of course, (the authorities) don't need this pro-feminist agenda today," she said. “Our state policy has taken an ultraconservative path.”
Pushkina said that what Popova stands for resonates with voters, pointing out that even state-funded pollsters found that 70% of Russians support a domestic violence law. She believes Popova will fight for the law if elected, but that authorities will have the final say.
“No matter how hard Alyona fights, if there’s a decision higher up to slow something down, block it or adopt, then that will come to pass,” Pushkina said.
Popova is running in a Moscow district, and her competitors include a famous TV personality widely seen as pro-government and a seasoned lawmaker from the Communist Party.
She said she has fewer resources than her biggest opponents. Her candidacy was put forward by the democratic Yabloko party, which meant that she didn’t need to collect signatures, but the party isn't financing her campaign.
Apathy by voters and their conviction that the election won’t change anything makes campaigning even harder, Popova said, adding: “The scariest thing the authorities achieved over the past 20 years is convincing people that elections are a farce.”
She said she was criticized initially for making domestic violence the cornerstone of her campaign, but it strikes a chord with many people she meets.
“At every meeting we hold (with voters), at least one person either witnessed domestic violence or suffered from it,” she said.
The bill that was shelved had included a system of restraining orders — something that abuse survivors told The Associated Press they wished had been in place when they went to authorities.
Irina Petrakova, 41, suffered years of abuse at the hands of her husband. She said that even when they were finally divorced, he was able to assault her outside the courthouse where she brought a case against him.
“Had the law been in force, had I had a (restraining) order, he wouldn’t have been able to even approach me,” said Petrakova, whose case is before the European Court of Human Rights.
Popova said she receives messages of support from all over Russia. However, political analyst and former Kremlin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov said it is unclear whether she will have enough support within her district.
Domestic violence hasn't been a priority for voters, Gallyamov said, although he notes it has never been on the agenda of a nationwide election before and may have potential because women usually turn out more than men at the polls.
He added that the Kremlin’s constant peddling of traditional values has “annoyed a significant chunk of protest voters so much” that Popova could benefit.
Anna Frants contributed to this report.