The Fight to Survive
Russia's opposition got crushed in last weekend's local elections. But that didn't exactly come as a surprise.
Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia’s two biggest cities, have offered fruitful ground for Russia’s opposition in recent years. In 2011-2013, pro-democracy activists managed to organize and stage big public demonstrations that, for a while, offered an eloquent challenge to President Putin’s domination of the political scene. Then, last fall, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny stunned the Kremlin by winning 27 percent of the votes cast in the Moscow mayoral election — a remarkable moral victory made possible by a wide-ranging grassroots campaign conducted by his supporters. If the opposition still had a chance of survival, it seemed, Moscow and St. Petersburg offered the best chances for seizing it.
That’s why a number of pro-democracy activists, including me, decided earlier this year to participate in the Moscow city council elections that took place on Sunday, Sept. 14. In a country where the government holds all the meaningful levers of power, including the media, we weren’t exactly expecting cross-the-board victory. But we had hoped to make at least a meaningful dent, to show that Russians who yearn from freedom can still get their arguments out to the public.
Suffice it to say that it didn’t turn out well. We’ll continue to work with the public, but it’s become clear that participating in the system’s bogus elections is pointless. Of the 45 seats up for grabs in last Sunday’s election, 28 of them went members of United Russia (UR), Vladimir Putin’s pet party, while another ten so-called independents endorsed by UR also made it in. As a result, 38 of the 45 deputies in the city council are now Kremlin loyalists. As expected, the Communists (whom Putin tolerates as a kind of loyal opposition) won five seats, while the liberal party Yabloko ended up with none at all.
Yet everything started out so differently. A year ago, following the success of Alexey Navalny’s campaign for Moscow mayor — one to which many activists contributed — members of the three main opposition parties sat down to plan the opposition’s next move. Of the three, only the Republican Party of Russia-People’s Freedom Party (RPR-PARNAS) was registered to compete, so we opted to make it our common vehicle. In our coalition we decided to open the doors to any activists and members of other unregistered political parties as long as they met our common goal: transforming Russia into a democratic country based on Western values.
By late winter we had a line-up of 37 candidates. They included Maria Gaidar, the daughter of the famous (if much maligned) liberal economist Yegor Gaidar; Olga Romanova, the founder of the Russia Imprisoned civic group; a number of Alexey Navalny’s closest allies; six members of the Fifth of December Party, including me; and a number of well-known activists. To devise and manage the campaign, we brought in experienced professionals from Europe and the United States, including veterans of some of Barack Obama’s political campaigns. We aimed to repeat or even surpass the success of the Navalny campaign by making it bigger, better, and more fun for our thousands of volunteers by using all the latest techniques that social media and technology have to offer.
In the early spring we started working in earnest. Candidates attended workshops and seminars that taught us everything from campaigning door-to-door to public speaking. The experts also worked with us in our districts. I was among the first to start pre-campaigning in the Begovoy district in central Moscow, a neighborhood populated by a mix of underprivileged retirees and members of the upper middle class who’ve lived here since the Soviet times — so I was also one of the first to spot the early warning signs.
The response I got from my meetings with people in the courtyards of their apartment buildings was extremely positive. It was obvious that rank-and-file Russians living in the Soviet-era mass-produced apartment complexes in central Moscow crave someone who actually cares about their needs. After every meeting there were people who took me to their apartments to show me collapsed walls that local authorities still haven’t repaired, pipe leaks that hasn’t been fixed, and piles of complaint letters they’d written to the authorities — all ignored. Every one of them offered me tea and asked me to help improve their living conditions, without really knowing how much I could do for them, but trusting that I would do whatever I could.
I could tell that hard work and sincerity could help us to achieve good results in the upcoming elections. But there was just one problem: From our very first public meeting to the moment we stopped announcing them, the police and security forces made no secret of the fact that they were watching and filming us — something they made very clear to the residents who dared to speak to me. The authorities were clearly worried that they might lose control.
No doubt they knew the details of our planned campaign, and when they started seeing us working with the public, panic set in. They were afraid to miscalculate as they had with Navalny. There is no doubt in my mind that they would have kept Navalny in jail, and out of the mayor’s race, had they ever suspected that he’d win over a quarter of the vote.
By mid-spring we heard that the Duma, Russia’s national parliament, was considering a new law that would ban RPR-PARNAS from running in the elections. And sure enough, the authorities soon came up with a rule preventing parties from running for seats in any legislative body that doesn’t already include their members unless they collect signatures for their candidates.
By May, the law had been passed, presenting candidates with a brutally difficult decision. I knew that it was practically impossible to collect 5,000 signatures in less than a month in the middle of the summer and with our very limited resources. And, even if by some miracle we succeeded, it was clear to me that the authorities were now determined to prevent us from running, which meant that they’d figure out a way to block us no matter what. The trick with signatures had been used on opposition candidates before. It also seemed to me that the war in Ukraine made the elections even less valid and worthy. Trying to win a local parliamentary seat that could help improve the lives of Muscovites even as the highest office in the country was on the verge of causing Russia’s downfall made increasingly less sense.
By June, I decided to stop playing a game where the authorities kept changing the rules. I opted instead to continue work in my district on specific housing-related issues. My colleagues who decided to collect signatures anyway either failed to collect the required number or were turned away on the transparent pretext that some of their signatures had been "falsified" (which, of course, wasn’t the case).
So for us, the real Russian opposition, the Moscow city council elections were over months ago. Now it’s become bad taste to even talk about elections in opposition circles. The government’s campaign to boost support by trumpeting its annexation of Crimea and demonizing the West is deepening the divide between the pro-democratic forces and everyone else. As a result, Russia’s opposition now has a much bigger problem on our hands: survival.