Russian voters can be forgiven some confusion when they choose new lawmakers in Saint Petersburg later this month -- three candidates all have the same name and look eerily alike.
Boris Vishnevsky, a well-known opposition politician running for re-election to the regional parliament in Russia's second city, will compete against two others named "Boris Vishnevsky" and who, like him, are balding and sport a short salt-and-pepper beard.
"This is political fraud," Vishnevsky, a 65-year-old senior member of the liberal Yabloko party, told AFP.
"These people run in the polls not to get elected or present their political programme but to confuse voters. Not only have they changed their names for that -- they've also changed their appearance."
Vishnevsky was stunned when he recently saw a mockup of an official election poster featuring nearly identical photos of him and two other Boris Vishnevskys side by side.
Vishnevsky is among those running in dozens of elections, including polls to elect lawmakers to the lower house State Duma, taking place in Russia on September 17-19, with nearly all vocal Kremlin critics barred from running.
He said he knew he might have to run against spoilers -- a common political tactic in Russia in which similarly named candidates are used to weaken support for a popular politician.
But Vishnevsky was stunned when he recently saw a mockup of an official election poster featuring nearly identical photos of him and two other Boris Vishnevskys side by side.
He said he knew one of his namesakes -- Viktor Bykov, a member of the increasingly unpopular ruling United Russia party.
"Before he became a "Boris Vishnevsky," he looked different -- without a beard," he said.
Novaya Gazeta, Russia's top independent newspaper for which Vishnevsky writes, reported that the second man, Alexei Shmelev, also changed his name ahead of the polls.
Neither of the alleged spoiler candidates could be reached for comment. The local branch of United Russia did not immediately respond when contacted by AFP.
Vishnevsky published a photo of the election poster on Twitter on Sunday and said Monday he had filed an official complaint.
The head of Russia's Central Election Commission, called the situation 'a disgrace' and 'a mockery of voters' but suggested little could be done.
In the complaint, he urged the Central Election Commission to look into the matter and said that the official pictures of his rivals had been photoshopped.
Earlier official pictures of one of Vishnevsky's doppelgängers, Bykov, show a much younger man with few signs of a receding hairline.
"I believe that there is manipulation whose only goal is to distort the will of voters," Vishnevsky wrote in his appeal.
Earlier in the day Ella Pamfilova, the head of Russia's Central Election Commission, called the situation "a disgrace" and "a mockery of voters" but suggested little could be done.
Election laws in Russia are "very liberal" and all candidates named Boris Vishnevsky can run in the polls, she said on Kommersant FM radio.
United Russia is polling at less than 30% ahead of the election, according to state-run pollster VTsIOM.
In the run-up to the vote, Russian authorities have waged a crackdown on the opposition and independent media, jailing President Vladimir Putin's top domestic critic Alexei Navalny in February and later outlawing his organisations.
(Thumbnail and banner photo: Boris Vishnevsky, a 65-year-old member of the liberal Yabloko party running for re-election to the regional parliament in Saint Petersburg, poses with a printed image of a mockup of an official election poster featuring nearly identical photos of him and two other Boris Vishnevskys side by side in Saint Petesburg on Sept. 6, 2021. Olga MALTSEVA / AFP)