Moscow’s Mayor Has Kissed Putin’s Ring
The leader of Russia’s capital was popular across the political spectrum—until the country’s most recent protests.
Not long ago, the mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, seemed to have achieved the impossible. Sobyanin had won widespread praise for transforming Russia’s capital into a European-style city with modernized public transport and clean streets. He faced little opposition from the public, and yet kept the approval of President Vladimir Putin. Many hoped, among liberals and the political establishment alike, that he would soon be able to replace the unpopular Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev—and one day perhaps even Putin himself.
After the past few weeks, however, Sobyanin’s reputation is in tatters. On two successive weekends, the streets of Moscow have seen the biggest protests in Russia since 2012, broken up in ugly fashion by police beating and detaining thousands of demonstrators. The mayor has seemed impotent, as the crackdown on protest has been directed from the Kremlin. Both Russia’s rulers and the opposition see the confrontation as a trial run for a bigger showdown in the parliamentary elections of 2021 and the next presidential election of 2024. It no longer seems Sobyanin will play a starring role in either, because he has lost the confidence of both sides.
Sobyanin became mayor of Moscow in 2010, dispatched by Putin to replace Yuri Luzhkov, who had been mayor since 1992 and was widely believed to be corrupt. Rather than a typical Putin crony or idealistic opposition visionary, Sobyanin had the manner of an unimposing though objective technocrat. He nevertheless quickly earned renown across the city for his so-called Europeanizing infrastructure projects: sidewalks were enlarged to make them more pedestrian-friendly, new parks and public spaces were built, and public transport was refurbished. In 2013, he earned some democratic credentials by winning in an open race against opposition protest leader Alexei Navalny, with 51 percent of the vote to Navalny’s 27 percent. In 2018, he won reelection against hardly any opposition at all. The mayor and his team have faced their own accusations of corruption, but his reputation for independence and open-mindedness have mostly withstood the allegations.
The present crisis is another matter entirely. The occasion for the unrest was something fairly run-of-the-mill: the refusal to allow opposition candidates to run in the Moscow city assembly elections. In 2014, before the last elections to the assembly, mayor Sobyanin had secured from Putin the right to have the contests fought between individual candidates without any party lists. It was just like the special dispensation some powerful European cities used to receive from their monarch in medieval times. It worked well for Sobyanin in 2014, when his favored candidates won seats in the assembly nominally as independents. It entrenched the mayor’s status as the only leading member of the official ruling party, United Russia—apart from Putin himself—whose political fate wasn’t tied to the party itself.
This time, however, the practice led to a political crisis. Under new rules, candidates not backed by a political party were required to collect about 5,000 signatures in order to register. Muscovites then watched with growing anger as pro-government candidates were registered, without actively bothering to collect signatures, while popular opposition candidates were denied registration on technical grounds.
The Moscow city authorities could have defused the problem by permitting opposition candidates to register after all. But the Kremlin did not want to back down. The political demonstration held on Moscow’s Sakharov Square on July 27 was the biggest since the street protests of 2011 and 2012. The slogans and banners were about more than just the city elections. The response was brutal. Between the two protests, dozens of opposition activists were detained and charged. It was a deliberate display of raw power. One opposition figure, Mikhail Svetov, was even arrested just after he had left talks in Moscow City Hall.
The mayor appeared on television and expressed his full support for the crackdown. Despite his carefully cultivated image as an independent, it was clear he felt he couldn’t afford to distance himself from Putin and the ruling elite.
Moscow’s crisis has thus become Russia’s crisis. Both sides in the struggle understand that much more is at stake than municipal polls and see this as the first skirmish in a battle for the Kremlin. Normally, police would not have handed out such brutal beatings to peaceful demonstrators complaining about local issues. This a message of force from the country’s rulers that this is what people will get if they challenge the tsar.
That in turn has energized what is known as Russia’s nonsystemic opposition—those outside parliament—who want to get rid of Putin. Three weeks ago they were talking about a modest regional campaign. Now they have a more ambitious program of civic resistance across Russia. They have no clear hope of victory. But they do see a chance to disrupt the Kremlin’s plans for an orderly transition in 2024 between Putin and a chosen successor by channeling various forms of discontent: the unhappiness of the Russian intelligentsia, the economic woes of ordinary people, resentment of Moscow in the provinces, and uncertainties in the elite.
For Putin himself this is nothing less than an existential threat. He has always claimed his regime cannot be defeated in a war, but it has always theoretically been vulnerable to defeat in an election. In practice, Putin seeks to ensure that elections cannot be lost—and the political elite is expected to close ranks. And so, when the threat of a real victory for the opposition looms, Sobyanin has been revealed to have been part of the system all along. He was too much Putin’s soldier to have ever mounted an attack on him.
The state response has been harsher than in the winter of 2011 to 2012. Then, the government met the city’s middle classes halfway by working to deliver the urban classes better digital services, public transport, and green space. This time, the government has escalated the crisis. They have responded to peaceful protests with violence, as if a revolution was underway, more or less saying to the protestors, “You want a revolution, we are ready, let’s fight!” It is as though they are trying to protect themselves from future scenarios by doing surgery on an abscess that is not yet dangerous.
Putin’s is not a regime that has a considered strategy and a consistent ideology; it acts in response to events. The crises, threats, and successes it has experienced all leave their mark and condition future behavior. The ruling elite sees the suppression of the current demonstrations in Moscow as a kind of training exercise for putting down a future revolution. And Sobyanin has proved that he is willing to take part.