From the government’s standpoint, the regional and local elections held Sunday in Russia were primarily about getting a ‘convincing’ victory – convincing the ruling elite that President Vladimir Putin’s imprimatur can still carry an election in the boisterous capital, convincing the public that Putin is still in charge, convincing the opposition that their cause is futile, and convincing himself that his political machine still functions. Did it work?
Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist convicted of embezzlement (on what many believe to be flimsy grounds) just before he stood for mayor of Moscow, garnered some 27% of the vote – more than many thought he could, but not enough to force the incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, into a runoff. On the other hand, Sobyanin avoided that runoff with only the slimmest of margins, at 51.37%, which is likely to be questioned when vote tallies can be scrutinized more carefully. Moreover, Putin’s United Russia party lost elections in two major cities – Ekaterinburg and Petrozavodsk – where opposition candidates with strong local backing overcame the country’s most powerful political machine. The Kremlin’s victory, then, was less than resounding.
How all of this looks from the confines of the Kremlin will begin to become clear tomorrow, when Navalny’s appeal against his embezzlement conviction gets its first hearing in court. Whether Navalny goes to jail will be a reflection of how soundly the Kremlin thinks it can sleep without its most prominent opponent behind bars. Former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, due to be released in the spring unless a rumored third trial goes forward, will be watching carefully from his prison cell, as will 12 mostly young men and women arrested for taking part in a protest that turned violent on May 6, 2012.
The opposition, meanwhile, will be drawing its own conclusions. While anecdotal evidence suggests that Navalny’s campaign, with its Obama-style outreach, may have turned off certain constituencies in Moscow, the fact that he did better than his polling numbers with turnout of only about 33% suggests that opposition voters remained relatively motivated, despite Sobyanin’s best efforts to keep them at home. Little of the dirt thrown Navalny’s way – questions raised about past xenophobic comments, a land deal in Montenegro, and so forth – seems to have stuck. What’s more, a last-ditch effort to use Twitter, Facebook and other online social media to mobilize supporters in the final few hours of voting seems to have had a material impact on turnout, suggesting that the Internet is indeed an effective campaign tool in Russia.
But as the opposition looks to the long slow march to parliamentary elections in December 2016, with numerous regional and local votes along the way, the real lessons from this weekend come not from Moscow, but from Ekaterinburg and Petrozavodsk. The candidates there – anti-narcotics crusader Evgeny Roizman in Ekaterinburg, and Galina Shirshina, a 34-year-old journalist – parlayed their local legitimacy into significant wins. By contrast, Gennady Gudkov a prominent Moscow-based opposition figure who ran for governor of Moscow Oblast, a region that includes most of the capital’s suburbs but not the city itself, was seen as a carpetbagger and lost to United Russia candidate (and fellow carpetbagger) by a tally of 79% to 5%. Putin, in other words, may have coattails that other politicians can ride, but Navalny does not. As a result, the opposition’s best chances for victory are to find the strongest local candidates available, back them and get out of their way.
Political scientist Pavel Baev, Peace Research Institute of Oslo:
No miracles were registered in the Moscow elections, and the Kremlin is probably satisfied with Alexei Navalny’s defeat in the first round – and with Sergei Sobyanin’s victory with such a slim margin that his position in the court hierarchy remains medium-high. What Putin is hardly able to grasp is the significance of the new style of politics that Navalny has introduced with little help from the veterans of liberal opposition but with great support from the newly-emerged corps of volunteers. The air of Olympian superiority, which Putin has long assumed, and his habit of benevolent distribution of minor gifts now look absurdly out-dated, while the sincere readiness to connect with the worries and aspirations of the voters is the “must-have” skill, which the bureaucrats would never be able to master. This new political culture makes it possible for the opposition to make a new step – from the exhilarating street protests in winter-summer 2012 and the energizing election campaign in summer 2013 – to becoming a victorious political force that will try to make sure that Russia has a future.
Political scientist Andrey Makarychev, Institute of Government and Politics, University of Tartu, Estonia:
First, on September 8 it became obvious that the Russian opposition does have its leader. Neither of the previous opposition figures (Nemtsov, Ryzhkov, etc.) managed to garner so many voices, moreover in the capital of Russia.
Second, the political game gets more complicated even without the second round in Moscow. Apparently, to repress someone with the support of about every third resident of Moscow (and this is only in accordance to the official data) is not that simple any longer, especially in terms of possible political effects.
Third, the campaign made clear that political messages in Russia are increasingly camouflaged in aesthetic forms of appeal. Performative – even carnivalesque – aspects of elections will most likely dominate in the future campaigns.
Fourth, the victory of Evgeniy Roizman in Yekaterinburg – a city with very far-reaching ambitions (bidding for EXPO-2020, for example) and strong local identity – is a good sign for a new generation of subnational / regional leaders to appear in other largest cities. Galina Shirshina who unexpectedly won the mayoral election in Petrozavodsk, Karelia is another encouraging example of electoral chances for non – United Russia candidates beyond Moscow. Again, this makes the whole situation more volatile and less controllable from the Kremlin.