At stake in Moscow’s elections

September 5, 2013

Sean Larson and Kristina Mayman analyze the upcoming election in Moscow--and the situation of the opposition two years after democracy protests began to emerge.

MOSCOW, THE cultural, economic and political center of Russia, will hold mayoral elections for the first time in a decade on September 8. Arguably the first election with any genuine independent candidates since the 1996 presidential elections, the Moscow mayor's race is being viewed as a litmus test for the opposition to the ruling party of Russian politics, Vladimir Putin's United Russia.

On June 4, then-Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin resigned the post he had been appointed to, only to declare immediately that he would be running for reelection in the subsequent mayoral race. While Sobyanin remains a member of United Russia, he will be running as an independent candidate. This represents a trend rather than a peculiarity, since United Russia has lost significant credibility and is now widely known as the "party of crooks and thieves."

United Russia's fall began with Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev's endorsement of Putin's presidential candidacy at the party's convention in September 2011, which was the first signal of the end of any hopes that Medvedev would spearhead further liberalization of the Russian political system.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin

Parliamentary elections in December 2011 were exposed as a large-scale fraud in favor of United Russia. The party received only about 35 percent of the vote--even with the election fraud, it still failed to get 50 percent. Protests took place starting the day after the fraudulent elections and continued through the winter and into the spring.

The movement was fueled by Putin's election as president on March 4, taking back the position from Medvedev, in a largely orchestrated race. The response from the street came on May 6, the day before Putin's inauguration, when 60,000 demonstrated against Putin and were brutally repressed by police forces.

IN CONTRAST to those federal elections, the upcoming Moscow elections are viewed by many people with hope that they will actually be competitive. Arguably, the biggest factor causing a stir in the run-up to the vote is the participation of opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Aleksey Navalny.

Navalny was among those arrested in early December at the demonstrations that kicked off the protest movement against United Russia. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail, which only increased his popularity among protesters. His relentless anti-corruption activity online and growing prominence within the opposition made him a target, and he was hit with a series of criminal charges, culminating in a sentence of five years in prison issued in July. More than half of Russians view the case as politically motivated.

Navalny was arrested in court and put behind bars to await the start of his prison term. That day saw the biggest non-sanctioned protest of the decade in one of the most central locations in Moscow. To the surprise of many, that same evening, the prosecutor's office of the Kirov region issued a demand to release Navalny from custody until the beginning of his jail time.

The consensus among opponents of the establishment is that Navalny was needed out of jail in order to legitimize the mayoral race. If the sentence is still carried out, he will be barred from holding public office for life. Some political analysts speculate that the decision on whether Navalny will be imprisoned after the end of the campaign depends at least to some extent on what percentage he gets.

Navalny's release is not the first time the rules have been bent for the benefit of image. For any candidate to run for Moscow mayor, they have to gather at least 110 signatures of Moscow municipal deputies (out of a total of 1,800) from at least 110 municipalities (out of a total of 185). Given the party makeup of the municipalities, only Sobyanin and the Communist candidate Ivan Melnikov had the ability to gather the needed number of signatures.

But a two-candidate race was undesirable for Sobyanin, as it would defeat the vote's legitimizing purpose. Therefore, the Moscow Municipal Deputies' Association gave out the missing signatures to the other four candidates to clear them for running.

The campaign has been fairly uneventful. Sobyanin, following Putin's precedent, refused to participate in televised debates, making them even less significant than they were before. Meanwhile, Sobyanin continues to receive exaggerated amounts of media hoopla, while Navalny is excluded from all billboards and most television channels, except for an occasional smear campaign. The primary publicity channel remaining to Navalny is the street, which his campaign has been flooding with volunteers since the end of June.

Navalny's main message for the campaign is the promise of instituting the rule of law, a reaction to the rampant corruption he was famous for helping to expose. His program relies heavily on the idea that a free market will take care of many existing problems, once corruption is eliminated.

Another big issue is immigration, particularly in the wake of recent police raids against immigrant workers and establishment of detention camps in Moscow. Scapegoating migrant workers has been a central strategy of the Russian ruling class to deflect criticism and active opposition.

On this question, Navalny is far from liberal. He has openly expressed xenophobic beliefs, including toward the people of the Caucasus region, at the southwestern corner of the Russian Federation and a longtime victim of Russian domination, whether under the Tsar or the former Stalinist regime. Navalny has participated in the notorious "Russian Marches," which have served as parades for far-right nationalists, including open fascists. In the 2000s, he was expelled from the Yabloko party for his collaboration with right-wing nationalists.

Since becoming a leading figure of the opposition in 2011 and after, Navalny has toned down his public support for right-wing causes. He didn't attend the most recent "Russian March," though he said this was due to "sickness."

Despite Navalny's prominence, polls show little likelihood that there will be a second round in the election.

As of late August, the government-run VTsIOM agency put gave Sobyanin 64 percent of the vote and Navalny at 15.6 percent. The independent Synovate Comcon and Levada Center predict 58-60 percent for the incumbent mayor and 18-22 percent for Navalny. Navalny's own headquarters have issued different results, putting Sobyanin at 49-51 percent and their own candidate at 24-26 percent. With election-day fraud always a possibility, it's fair to assume that Sobyanin will keep his post, though a run-off between the two top vote-getters on September 8 is still possible.

UNDERSTANDING THE stakes in this election requies examining its context.

In the wake of the collapse of the former USSR in the 1990s and the imposition of mass privatization schemes, an elite class of oligarchs, mainly oil magnates, was created. But the 2000s brought the election of Vladimir Putin, who neutralized or chased many of these oligarchs out of politics. Subsequently, the power concentrated among this group was dispersed to other big businesspeople with wealth from mineral resources, banking and telecom--the oil oligarchs' direct influence on political decisions was significantly weakened.

Soon after coming to office, Putin centralized the many of the federal powers in the hands of the president or presidential representatives and appointees. The main instrument of this consolidation of power was the officially unaffiliated United Russia party, which nonetheless acts completely in line with Putin's political interests. A series of strict limitations has prevented the inclusion of independent parties and candidates on ballots for the state Duma, while the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party have been relegated to the status and function of "loyal opposition."

Thus, the "liberalization" of politics in the post-USSR era has served the consolidation of political power and the fracturing of the opposition that could challenge the political elite. The result has been tight state control over a process of fee market reforms, including ongoing neoliberal privatization, favors to capital and the decimation of institutions of independent working class resistance.

The neoliberal restructuring, which extended into the labor market and housing early in the Putin years, has had widespread effects. As Tony Wood outlined in New Left Review, the financial crisis hit Russia hard, bringing with it skyrocketing unemployment, factory closures, non-payment of wages and rising poverty levels, especially in small towns and rural areas. These factors exacerbated conditions that fed corruption. As in the U.S., the government response to the crisis largely consisted of bailing out banks and prominent Russian companies--at a cost of $200 billion dollars, or about 13 percent of the Russian gross domestic product.

Under these conditions, those presiding over the crisis either had to shore up support or face a potential challenge to their power from below. State workers or employees of state-affiliated companies, which comprise up to 40 percent of the Russian workforce, were insulated from the crisis by Medvedev's 30 percent wage increase, while other working class people were impacted severely. Income inequality in Moscow is massive, with the income of the richest and poorest Muscovites differing by a magnitude of 35-40 times.

The stability of the Russian status quo rests on a longer history, however. The thorough interweaving of the political elites with big business over the course of the 1990s and 2000s has underwritten the stability of the Putin-Medvedev regime, often made even more profitable by large-scale corruption.

However, corruption is not limited to the direct interests of big business and the political elites, but thrives throughout the Russian state. While the latest available Global Integrity Report on Russia, from 2010, praises transparency in Russia (information is made publicly available by the government), it also highlights the relative lack of effective press freedom, a significant gap between the laws and their consistent implementation, flagging election integrity, lack of oversight of the executive branch of government, and extensive bribery and political interference in law enforcement, among other factors.

Meanwhile, ongoing capital flight from Russia, currently estimated at rates of around $$7 billion per month, coupled with extremely low investment levels are major challenges faced by the propertied classes. Small businesses have thus been increasingly pushed to confront their situation of being on the losing end of the selective application of the law--which is why the appeal to the "rule of law" is popular--along with a desire for less interference by the state in their business endeavors.

Far from a challenge to big business profits, this represents a bid by small business owners for a bigger share of the pie. This is why the demands and successes of this middle class are inseparable from the further neoliberalization of the Russian economy, opening up new markets for capital and new avenues for competition.

A conditional letter of support for Navalny's candidacy from 35 business owners and entrepreneurs, initially issued on August 7, has since gathered over 200 supporters. The signatories come mostly from the information technologies industry and claim that they are part of the "knowledge economy," explicitly distancing themselves from the oil-trading businesses that they imply don't produce anything new.

While this by no means represents the entire "professional" class or petty bourgeoisie in Russia, it is symptomatic of the sections of this stratum to stake their interests with the opposition, along the lines expressed in the August letter: "Our support is not an act of charity. We expect the protection of the rule of law from Navalny, support for independent courts and real accountability of public officials. For our part, we will support Navalny's policy by means of our reputation and our financial, organizational and other resources." One signee encapsulated the interests of this class as follows: "Navalny is removing a barrier to the growth of the economy: corruption, which increases 3-5 percent annually."

Part of the efforts to address Russia's capital flight have included major tax cuts for small businesses between 2012 and 2013 and relaxing the criminal code for entrepreneurs under Medvedev, among other changes. This may signal the development of a strategy of expanding economic opportunities for the class of small business owners. However, the precise path of this development remains contested, with big capital still reacting harshly to the small business/professional opposition in many instances, while some measures seem to move in this direction, but are rather weak or slow to implement, such as the amnesty on economic crimes issued on July 2.

Unfortunately for the small- and medium-business-owning class, they comprise only about 22 percent of the Russian economy and must rely in any bid at political power on support beyond the young, liberal professionals who have already hopped on board--that is, they need the support of working Russians. The glue they have tried to use to cohere some kind of opposition has largely consisted been nationalism, but the limits of this are becoming apparent--both insofar as it is the traditional language of the ruling elites and because it is alienating a significant voting bloc of legal immigrants.

SINCE ITS beginning in 2011, the character of the protest movement against the Putin-led regime has changed.

According to surveys of the democracy movement in Moscow and surrounding cities between December 2011 and December 2012 by, the driving force behind protests has been individuals and activists, rather than sustained organizations. As Sean Guillory has written, an extensive report released on the Russian protest movement indicates its ranks have thinned, particularly among youth (the average age of protesters has risen from 30-35 years to 40-45 years), the poor and the working class.

This atrophy can be attributed largely to the success of the state offensive, which has included violent crackdowns by police, searches of oppositionists' apartments, high-profile trials of government critics such as Pussy Riot and Navalny, and the promotion of laws such as the anti-LGBT propaganda law. Despite its relative social weakness, the Left Front in particular has been a target of this crackdown, as Guillory outlines.

The upcoming Moscow elections were designed from the start as a safe bet to give the semblance of legitimacy and a democratic mandate to acting Mayor Sobyanin. Because of this and Sobyanin's overwhelming media presence, it is highly unlikely that he will get less than 50 percent of the vote, pushing the elections into a second round. As Sergei Udaltsov, a leader of the Left Front who remains under house arrest, put it, "In any case, the main event must take place on September 9"--that is, the day after the election.

If the dishonest, non-representative character of the elections pushes discontent into action, this could give new impetus to the protest movement. The activists and protesters of today are an "eclectic and fractious, but determined group," according to Guillory. The protest movement needs participation by youth and the working class to flourish, and to do that, it must aim to provide a real alternative to Putin for wide swathes of Russian society that have not yet taken to the streets.

The tasks of the left in the current political climate were perceptively pinpointed by Russian socialist Ilya Budraitskis:

We, of course, can't dismiss the slogans against corruption and in defense of democracy as mere "false consciousness" to be replaced by anti-capitalist demands. On the contrary, we must show that in the model of capitalism practiced in this part of the world, corruption is not a defect but a decisive structural element.

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