Local Politics in Moscow Goes Global

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 139

Anti-corruption blogger and Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, Alexei Navalny re-entered the Moscow mayoral election campaign after his implausible release from jail the day after being condemned to five years behind bars on a blatantly fabricated charge. His team has jump-started the work in earnest, mobilizing volunteers for door-to-door persuasion, distributing leaflets and scheduling media interviews—and with this, a long-forgotten “real” electoral politics returns to Moscow as voters discover that their opinions about the future mayor matter (Vedomosti, July 23). What makes this politics rather unusual is that a reasonable vote for keeping an innocent man out of jail could deliver a devastating blow to the whole pseudo-democratic system of power (http://echo.msk.ru/blog/weller_michael/1123388-echo/). Acting mayor Sergei Sobyanin apparently counted on gaining a convincing victory but now he has to engage in a competitive contest—something he is not particularly good at but cannot afford to lose (http://www.polit.ru/article/2013/07/24/agitation/).

Elections in Moscow could be decided by a range of local issues like traffic jams. But they also stir greater controversies like the discontent in the Academy of Sciences, which has been subjected to painful reforms. Moreover, the Moscow elections reflect on international relations as Russia’s capital joins the list of global cities experiencing mass protests, next to Cairo, Istanbul or Rio-de-Janeiro (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 26). President Vladimir Putin cannot understand why Moscow, which has grown so rich under his watch, is so resentful, and he pushes Sobyanin forward to absorb all the angst, while he attempts to position himself on a higher plane above the petty local fray. The forthcoming G20 gathering of world leaders, which will take place in St. Petersburg on September 5–6, seemingly presents a perfect venue for such self-aggrandizement, but it is the meeting with United States President Barack Obama that has gained central importance (http://ria.ru/politics/20130727/952409368.html). For months after the eruption of street protests in Moscow in winter 2012, Putin demonstrated his outrage against “Western interference,” but now he is keen and nervous about the summit, which is supposed to prove his “indispensability” in world politics.

He has good reasons to be nervous because the much-anticipated summit has come under threat from the “Snowden affair,” which in Russia has significance only insofar as the revelations of the too-knowledgeable-by-half Edward Snowden touch so many raw nerves in Washington. Putin was initially rather entertained by this uninvited guest, but now he understands perfectly well that his inability to organize Snowden’s departure from Sheremetyevo airport makes the Russian head of state look ridiculous (http://www.gazeta.ru/comments/2013/07/24_e_5508117.shtml). What is more, this scandal reveals the lack of substance in Russia-US dialogue; Putin shows no interest in proceeding along the arms control track in a “Reset 2.0,” while bilateral cultural and educational ties are badly damaged by the new Russian legislation on restricting the activity of non-governmental organizations (NGO) (http://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/1118728-echo/).

Seeking to create a useful agenda for the upcoming G20 summit, Putin plays with the idea of paying a short visit to Iran in mid-August in order to congratulate President Hassan Rouhani on taking the office (http://expert.ru/2013/07/25/intrigi-irana/). The Iranian authorities, however, insist that Putin not only stop at the port of Bandar e-Anzali but come to Tehran and bring serious economic contracts—for instance on constructing a new nuclear power plant—unless he is ready to resolve the outstanding dispute over the deal for delivering the S-300 surface-to-air missiles (Kommersant, July 27).

Complications with upholding his international status compel Putin to exploit to the maximum another track of boosting his authority—staging a grand celebration of the 1025th anniversary of Russia’s conversion to Christianity (http://ej.ru/?a=note&id=13125). The culmination of these festivities was the visit to Kiev, where the original baptizing happened. And Putin used the occasion to assert that close spiritual ties between Russia and Ukraine should bolster economic integration (http://www.newsru.com/world/27jul2013/putnscross.html). Ukrainian authorities still refuse to accept Putin’s irrefutable offer to join the Custom Union and are rather unhappy about the celebrations turning into an exercise of Russia’s “soft power” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 26).

Growing politicization of the Russian Orthodox Church, promoted by a close personal alliance between Putin and Patriarch Kirill I, is used by the Kremlin as a major resource of public support for the patrimonial system of governance (http://www.gazeta.ru/comments/2013/07/26_a_5510653.shtml). This eagerness of the church to embrace the deeply corrupt regime leaves many believers ill at ease and adds to the resonance of the rebellious performance of the Pussy Riot rock band, which was punished with utmost severity for performing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow Orthodox church last year. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the jailed members of this group, used the hearings, in which she was denied parole, to condemn the “absurdity of the oil-and-gas justice system” and to claim that a growing symbolic power of the opposition would take away state power from the hands of Putin and his lackeys (New Times, July 26).

The high-profile case of Pussy Riot is just one example of disgrace to Putin’s government, brought about by extensive law enforcement repression being used against the political opposition. Interpol has turned down Russia’s request for issuing an international warrant for William Browder, who was found guilty of fraud together with the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who tragically died in prison, and rejected Moscow’s denials of the political character of this prosecution (http://lenta.ru/news/2013/07/27/noway/). The European Court of Human Rights has established that the first court case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev involved a number of violations of their rights, creating legal ground for overturning the verdict (Novaya Gazeta, July 27). Meanwhile, the far-reaching structures of Russia’s police state are gearing up for unleashing further repressions against the malcontents. And Putin, who always resents being pushed, worries about the damage to his international profile but finds it increasingly difficult to control their zeal.

It is remarkable that Navalny, who aims his election campaign at exposing the corruption in and political control over the justice system, does not try to connect with Western critics of Putin’s regime. He maintains that the huge task of exterminating bureaucratic plundering and building the rule of law is primarily a domestic affair that should be accomplished by the efforts of common Russians. His politics is indeed local, and it appeals to deeper feelings of patriotic pride than Putin’s posturing as a world statesman and spending billions on staging the most wasteful Olympic Games in Sochi. What will be happening in Moscow streets and kitchens in the next five weeks will, nevertheless, be a matter of global import.