On September 8, 2019, local elections occurred in many regions of the Russian Federation, including St. Petersburg and Moscow, where the city council (Mosgorduma) was reelected. The capital city’s Mosgorduma does not wield any real power. Its 45 members, excluding the speaker and a couple of committee chairs, work on a part-time basis without pay, gathering for a couple of days a month to rubberstamp decisions made by the Kremlin-appointed mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, and his city government. The turnout, on September 8, in St. Petersburg and Moscow was extremely low, at just over 20 percent of eligible voters. But a number of candidates approved by the ruling United Russia (UR) party lost, including the UR Moscow branch chair Andrei Metelsky, who was recently accused by opposition leader Alexei Navalny of secretly and illegally owning a hotel chain in Austria (Newsru.com, September 9).
United Russia lost 13 seats in the Mosgorduma and will control only a slim majority of 25 out of 45. The main beneficiary of the protest vote in Moscow was the Communist Party (KPRF). A number of independent opposition candidates supported by Navalny were disqualified by the regional election committee because of allegedly failing to produce enough valid citizens’ endorsement signatures. The arbitrary refusal, this summer, to register independent opposition candidates triggered a public protest movement that the authorities suppressed by deploying riot police and paramilitary National Guard (Rosguardia) troops. The corrupt Russian justice system has been busy since July, holding kangaroo courts and handing down fines and prison sentences to activists and opposition leaders. The defendants frequently included innocent passersby who were grabbed by riot police and Rosguardia in the streets of Moscow (see EDM, August 8).
Most opposition leaders and wannabe Mosgorduma candidates, including Navalny, spent almost the entire election campaign in prison. Still, Navalny managed to organize a highly effective “smart voting” movement. In the absence of true opposition candidates on the ballot, Navalny called on his supporters to go and vote “smartly” against the UR-approved people, for others—mostly Communists—believing the main political goal is to punish the ruling party, the Kremlin and Sobyanin. Of course, this strategy essentially disregarded the fact the KPRF and other officially allowed opposition factions do not really oppose the Kremlin and are ideologically quite distant from the outlawed opposition. Still, Navalny’s “smart voting” campaign worked well in Moscow and beyond, punishing UR-supported candidates and promoting Navalny as the undisputed leader of the opposition in Russia. Indeed, it proved that he can wield significant loyal support even from behind bars (Newsru.com, September 10).
President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a highly centralized authoritarian state in which virtually all power and wealth are gathered in Moscow and, afterward, partially distributed nationwide by the Kremlin. The presidency exercises total political, financial and direct police/secret service control over the entire country. In Putin’s Russia, elections mean little, and local elections even less. Local officials have few resources or significant power. The Kremlin can arbitrarily dismiss and incarcerate any elected official and has been increasingly using this power to terrorize regional elites and the business community. Navalny’s “smart voting” campaign, thus, made an effective splash in the otherwise still waters of the public Russian political scene; but it did not change anything of substance. The Kremlin declared the September 8 elections a sound victory for the UR (Interfax, September 9).
The 13 newly elected Mosgorduma KPRF deputies, apparently honoring the substantial support they received from Navalny and his organization win the election, signed a petition demanding an immediate end to the police and judicial political repressions; the release of citizens falsely accused of rioting and extremism during the summer protests; a purge of the corrupt election system; and serious anti-corruption investigations of Moscow and federal government officials (Novaya Gazeta, September 12). Of course, the Kremlin ignored this petition and instead began a massive, countrywide security operation in 39 Russian cities in an attempt to destroy Navalny’s regional network organization. Activists are being apprehended for questioning; their computers and personal credit and bank cards are being confiscated; and the personal bank accounts of activists and family members are being frozen as the Navalny organization is being accused of embezzlement and money laundering (Newsru.com, September 12).
Navalny’s “smart voting” results have made the Kremlin nervous. It turns out the pro-Kremlin UR and the Navalny-led opposition command more or less equal core electoral support in Moscow. The vast 80 percent majority that did not turn out may appear indifferent and passively neutral, but it theoretically could sway in any direction. This social/political situation is somewhat reminiscent of the late 1970s–early 1980s, when economic stagnation and rabid anti-Western Cold War rhetoric resulted in widespread public indifference and passivity that, several years later, suddenly transformed into a wide pro-democracy and anti-corruption movement that broke up the Soviet Union. Today the frightened Russian authorities seemingly follow Cold War traditions: accusing the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies of interfering in the Mosgorduma elections and of Navalny and his supporters being their assets (Interfax, September 10).
In the run up to the September 8 election, Sobyanin announced the minimum old age pension in Moscow will be increased to 19,500 rubles ($310), payable to 1.6 million Moscow retirees. This sum is two times higher than the overall minimum old age pension in the Russian Federation (Interfax, August 27). The payout will most likely intensify resentment of Moscow within the impoverished regions. And it failed in its main intent—to cajole the disciplined senior citizens who grew up in the Soviet era to go out en masse and vote for Sobyanin’s team.
The Russian economy is stagnating. Household incomes and investments are declining, poverty is increasing, and social despair is growing in all parts of society. Renewed economic growth is impossible without serious reforms, which Putin seems unprepared to undertake; but even if he does, a possible looming global recession could make any sustainable economic growth impossible regardless. Apparently, the Kremlin has decided the only practical means to preserve Putin’s rule in the absence of economic growth is via political repression, which will terrorize any possible opponents, especially within the ruling elites, into compliance (Novaya Gazeta, April 17). This policy of internal terror has been stepped up as the authorities go after Navalny and aim to squash the Moscow protests. But resistance is also increasing as the feeling of insecurity and social distress spreads. Stability has long been Putin’s main political trademark, but now it is devolving into an unwelcome curse of stagnation, depression and repression.