As preparations are made for Russia's 2024 Presidential campaign, former Federal Security Services (FSB) officer Igor Strelkov declared his desire to enter the race. Strelkov, a sharp critic of President Putin who participated in the war in Donbas, is currently held in a pre-trial detention center after being accused of extremism by Russian authorities.
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On July 21, 2023 Igor Strelkov, a.k.a. Girkin or Runov, was detained by the Russia Federal Security Service (FSB) under the charge of extremism (article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code). Reportedly the arrest was requested by a former employee of Wagner Private Military Company, or the Wagner Group.
Strelkov, himself a former FSB officer and a prominent figure of the war in Donbass (2014) is known as a critic of Russian authorities. In the spring of 2023, Strelkov established the "Klub Rasserzhennykh Patriotov" movement, which sharply criticized the government for its failures in the war in Ukraine, specifically the Russian military's high command and President Vladimir Putin.
This was not Strelkov's first brush with the authorities. For instance, in August of 2022 several Telegram channels reported that Strelkov was detained in Crimea by Russian authorities while trying to join the hostilities on the Russian side as a volunteer. Authorities also interrupted Strelkov's lecture at the nationalist "Listva" publishing house on July 9. "Listva" employees claimed that authorities advised against allowing Strelkov to speak publicly. Nevertheless, authorities are no doubt displeased with Strelkov's stance and criticism.
A post from July 18 on Strelkov's Telegram channel criticizing Putin. Text reads: "Putin reproached.... Putin called... Putin instructed... I might be mistaken but I've never heard even once over past 15 years the following: The president ordered, the president punished, the president gave a command, the president took responsibility... Miserable whining, complaints about [foreign] partners, appeals 'for all good against all bad' – one can hear plenty of those [from him]. But for a very, very long time now, the president's rhetoric does not even remotely resemble the traditional 'masculine standard.' [To this I reply,] 'authenticity, not just appearance.' A lot of talk, a minimum of deeds and total unaccountability for failures – this is the style of 'late Putin' (since 2014). Ah, and also there is barefaced boastful lying. But one can no longer hear the latter since the beginning of the SVO [war in Ukraine]."
Placed in a pre-trial detention center until September 18, Strelkov did not admit guilt. Later, on August 31st, he posted on Telegram, announcing his decision to run in the 2024 presidential elections, saying he would be a much better president than Vladimir Putin during the war with Ukraine. The post contained a list of arguments demonstrating the advantages of a Strelkov presidency. For instance, Strelkov argued that Putin refuses to lead military actions and considers himself incompetent in military affairs, while he, Strelkov, has actual military experience.
The post went on to say that Putin is an "extremely gullible person," citing his past relations with the West: "For 8 years straight he was fooled by Obama, Trump, Macron, Merkel, Poroshenko, and Zelensky. He was fooled in Minsk [referring to the Minsk agreements] and in the Normandy format, in Istanbul [by Erdogan]." He alleged poor performance by the Russian Army and the country's industry during the war with Ukraine, as well as incompetence on the part of officials. Putin, he continued, has failed to dismiss or punish incompetent officials, allowing capital flight from the country and growth in the wealth of oligarchs. The post amassed about a million views, was shared by many channels, and caused a public outcry in Russian media.
Igor Strelkov's Telegram post announcing his presidential bid; In the post, he promised not to 'occupy' the presidential chair for 20 years like Putin has, vowing to leave his post after the war with Ukraine is over, due to poor health.
The Russian legal system does not directly prohibit running for president while being held in a pre-trial detention center or while having a criminal record, although the Russian Constitutional court maintains a different opinion on the latter, thus introducing a ban. Provided Strelkov will be granted such an opportunity, he will need to gather 500 signatures of Russian citizens in order to be registered as a candidate in the election, which is quite doable, as Strelkov's Telegram channel alone has more than 700 thousand subscribers, 21 thousand of whom "upvoted" his post announcing his plan.
Be that as it may, the chances of Strelkov joining the electoral campaign from the pre-trial detention center are pretty low, as the task in a difficult one even for non-detained nonpartisan candidates (provided legal issues will be resolved). One may conclude that the post was largely intended as an attack on Vladimir Putin himself.
Reactions To Strelkov's Presidential Announcement
Strelkov's arrest caused widespread public outcry, but many commentators were bewildered by his candidacy announcement. Indeed, if his earlier criticism of authorities informed his arrest, authorities are unlikely to allow Strelkov's participation in the upcoming election race, which will include campaigning, debates, and other public appearances.
For instance, State Duma deputy and former Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) Prime Minister Alexander Borodai said that Strelkov's announcement should not be taken seriously, since as a former FSB officer, Strelkov "has no principles."
In turn, the leader of the Civil Solidarity movement Georgy Fedorov took the move quite seriously, noting the detainee's right to run a campaign from the pre-trial detention center.
The fascist and Christian Orthodox Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) noted its disagreement with presidential elections as a concept — the group calls for monarchy — but stated that Strelkov's initiative is "rather interesting." RIM has similarly criticized Russian authorities in the past as having 'anti-people' policies.
The Nationalist "Sputnik I Pogrom" group issued a number of leaflets calling Strelkov's release.
Poster supporting Strelkov made by the nationalist group "Sputnik I Pogrom" Text reads: "Freedom for the hero of the 'Russian Spring' of the irredenta of valor, courage, daring, hope. Freedom for Strelkov."
Some claimed that Strelkov's arrest coincided with preparations for Putin's own presidential campaign and that the Kremlin was trying to silence criticism.
Alina Zhestovskaya, political scientist and member of the RAPC (Russian Association of Political Consultants) stated: "As we have all noticed and understood, the authorities have taken an extremely radical stance towards those who criticize them in the context of the SVO [Special Operation In Ukraine]. And the tougher their rhetoric, the tougher the response. I am, frankly, surprised that no one dealt with Strelkov for so long. And after the story with the Prigozhin [coup], there simply could not have been any other development."