By minimizing the risks of opposition candidates running for the Moscow city parliament, the Moscow mayor’s office and the Kremlin have brought about a political crisis. The decision to refuse to register opposition candidates has turned into a symbolic event and joined the ranks of controversial plans to build a new cathedral in Yekaterinburg and a landfill site in Russia’s north, which also elicited fierce protest.

The official campaign for the Moscow city parliament has only just begun, and already a protest in central Moscow over opposition candidates being prevented from registering to run has become the biggest political protest since the mass rallies of the winter of 2011–2012. Elections for a not particularly influential city parliament, which usually pass unnoticed, have unexpectedly become a key political event, eclipsing even the campaign for governor in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second city. A mood of general discontent has been exacerbated by clumsy actions and mistakes by the political blocs within the mayor’s office and the Kremlin, turning a routine campaign into a major political crisis.

It seems that the mayor’s office and the Kremlin had planned to hold these elections using the same template as the last time they were held, in 2014. Turnout then was just 21 percent, but the results were what was needed. Only one candidate from the ruling administration failed to get in, and a few districts allowed little-known representatives from the in-system opposition to take part, for appearances’ sake. Genuine opposition candidates also tried to run and were rejected on various grounds relating to the signatures that candidates have to collect to be eligible, but it didn’t lead to protests. 

Back then, city politics was under the supervision of Deputy Mayor Anastasia Rakova, who was also in charge of the mayoral elections in 2018, which passed without scandal. Despite these low-profile and successful (for the authorities) campaigns, Rakova was moved from the mayor’s office’s political bloc to its social department. The order came down from the presidential administration: Rakova had kept supervisors from the Kremlin at arm’s length in the campaign to get Mayor Sergei Sobyanin elected, and had shown initiative, which didn’t go down well in the Kremlin. 

The current parliamentary campaign is being handled by Deputy Mayor Natalia Sergunina, who previously worked in the economic department. Political campaigns are entirely new territory for both Sergunina and her subordinate Alexei Nemeryuk (head of the trade and services department), and this is one reason for the current crisis.

Originally, the pair wanted to recruit quite well-known figures as candidates from the mayor’s office, such as journalists and actors. Of course, such freshly baked politicians might be moderately opposition-minded.

The best example of the kind of candidate the mayor’s office wanted to field is Nyuta Federmesser, founder of a hospice charity foundation, who initially agreed to run. Other potential deputies were not so easy to find: “moderately opposition-minded” figures didn’t want to be associated with the authorities.

The mayor’s office wasn’t too worried. After all, the Moscow city parliament is better protected than other regional parliaments from undesirable candidates getting through: it’s practically an impenetrable fortress. Deputies are elected entirely by district, so there’s no chance of a party list victory for a charismatic leader. Representatives of parties that are represented in parliament are exempt from having to collect signatures, while independents and unrepresented party members have to prove they have the support of 3 percent of voters in their district: usually 5,000–6,000 signatures. This barrier appeared virtually impossible to overcome, so the mayor’s office took a relaxed approach.

Their blasé attitude was helped by the structure of Moscow politics, which, since the time of former mayor Yury Luzhkov, has been built around the notion that ordinary Muscovites should know of only one citywide politician: the mayor. Reaching that level from the grassroots level is virtually impossible. Municipal deputies have hardly any authority and don’t get the chance to make a name for themselves through real deeds or successes.

Another factor in the current protests is the general discontent with the authorities sweeping the country, including Moscow: the ratings of both President Vladimir Putin and the ruling United Russia party are falling, and complaints about Mayor Sobyanin are mounting. This accumulated frustration is forcing people to take an interest in politics.

In the past few years, a number of protest groups have sprung up around the capital: people disgruntled by the city renovation program, the destruction of parks and squares, and construction. This local anger manifested itself at the municipal elections in 2017, when opposition figures were elected in several districts, winning a significant proportion of deputies’ seats on many councils. Some opposition activists have the official status of council heads, such as Ilya Yashin and Elena Rusakova.

There are no outstanding figures among the candidates loyal to the authorities: Luzhkov’s system of One Moscow, One Politician made it impossible for such a personality to emerge: not only among the opposition, but also within the city’s power vertical. Federmesser, the charity worker, could have become such a candidate, but ultimately she refused to take part in the campaign, having been criticized by the opposition and having failed to get along with the mayor’s office technologists.

Seeing that the situation was not going well, the authorities decided to simply not allow most of the independent candidates to take part in the elections. For the presidential administration and the mayor’s office, refusing to register candidates is standard procedure and logical: better to be safe than sorry. In any case, they have always rejected undesirables, and it’s always been fine. 

For the Kremlin, it’s a matter of principle not to let through candidates from outside the system, such as Yashin, members of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s team, and Duma deputies-turned-opposition-activists Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov. For the Moscow parliament, a small faction of opposition politicians wouldn’t change much—but it would change a lot in elections to the State Duma in 2021. Municipal deputies are ready-made challengers in that contest. 

Some of the deputies were, it seems, weeded out by the mayor’s office itself. These were strong local politicians such as municipal councilor Yulia Galyamina, who could have created problems for candidates from the administration. 

So by minimizing the risks, the mayor’s office and the Kremlin have brought about a political crisis. The decision to refuse to register opposition candidates has turned into a symbolic event and joined the ranks of controversial plans to build a new cathedral in Yekaterinburg and a landfill site in Russia’s north, which also elicited fierce protest.

The crude, ham-fisted refusal to register candidates by declaring the signatures of real people invalid brought out onto the streets people who might not under other circumstances have voted for the candidates being turned away. Support for independent candidates has turned into a manifestation of the protesters’ own existence: even the slogan under which the protests in Moscow are being held is “We exist.” 

The protests of recent months—in Arkhangelsk against landfill sites, in Yekaterinburg against the building of a church on parkland, and in Ingushetia against changes to its territory—show that people continue to take to the streets until the authorities make some kind of concession. But the Moscow protests are entirely political, and for the Kremlin, which is prepared to compromise on social issues, any political concession is a sign of weakness. 

Ultimately, the power vertical’s inflexibility in Moscow has turned routine elections into a source of political problems that could end in a crowd of thousands holding an unsanctioned rally outside the mayor’s office, or in mass voting for any candidate except the one backed by the mayor’s office. In that eventuality, the risk of ending up with a Moscow city parliament that is hard to control doesn’t look so remote. The city parliament doesn’t have that much authority, but it is capable of blocking the passing of a budget, and even of expressing a lack of confidence in the mayor. 

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