Law enforcement officers detain Russian opposition politician Lyubov Sobol before a rally calling for opposition candidates to be registered for elections to Moscow City Duma, Russia. Reuters
Alexander Titov, The Independent
This should have been a boring summer in Moscow as far as politics were concerned. Moscow city council, with elections scheduled for 8 September, is not an especially important or influential body.
Real power is concentrated in the hands of Moscow’s popular mayor, Sergei Sobianin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin.
The mayor’s office’s strategy was to “depoliticise” the elections. The unpopular United Russia party brand was put to one side, as the authorities decided to run their candidates as independents.
The focus was supposed to be on local issues such as public amenities, transport, safety — issues where Moscow under Sobianin is generally thought to be doing rather well.
Running as independents meant that pro-government candidates had to collect signatures in support of their candidacy, putting them in the same boat as opposition candidates.
It is at this point that Moscow’s summer stopped being boring. Sixty-seven independent candidates were found to have irregularities in their signature collection and denied registration as candidates.
Most of them belonged to the opposition.
This is unsurprising given the excessively strict electoral laws, designed to filter out the undesirable candidates.
Pro-government candidates, on the other hand, usually register automatically through their affiliation with the official parties.
Opposition leaders demanded that all candidates were registered, and when the authorities refused, called on its supporters to take to the streets in protest.
The authorities have tried to increase trust in the Russian electoral system in recent years. While not giving up their control of electoral processes, they allowed some latitude in the elections leading to the occasional win for opposition candidates.
But these candidates operate in a repressive environment. Law enforcement chiefs are obsessed about not letting a Maidan-style revolution take place in Russia.
In their book, any unauthorised mass protests must be dealt with swiftly and decisively.
Yet, the Moscow protests so far have been remarkably peaceful, with protesters simply occupying public spaces and on occasion blocking traffic flows. There were no attempts to burn cars or smash shops as with the gilets jaunes in Paris, or to occupy government buildings as in Hong Kong.
The excessive force by the authorities at last weekend’s protests is designed to frighten off more people from joining them.
The authorities don’t care about radical opposition who can only muster a few thousand people for a protest march in Moscow and St Petersburg.
But what they don’t want is for that core opposition to attract the wider public. So far their tactics have worked.
After years of declining real wages and fiscal tightening by the state, public support for the government has been weakening.
This should have allowed radical opposition to increase its appeal, but hasn’t happened so far.
Part of the problem is the opposition’s inability to engage with the wider public’s concerns such as low living standards or the unpopular pension reform.
Instead, the opposition focuses on slogans that appeal to their core supporters, summed up as “Russia without Putin”. This is at a time when Putin still remains relatively popular. The opposition’s focus on unauthorised street protests means that their leaders no longer have any hope in participating in the upcoming elections.
Instead, their strategy is to destabilise the Moscow election campaign by mass protests.
In this respect, police brutality might actually work in the opposition’s favour creating further proof of the regime’s illegitimacy.
The public reaction so far has been split. According to recent polls, about a third of Muscovites support the protests, while 40 per cent do not and the rest don’t care either way.
The authorities for their part have reverted back to their usual tactic of divide and conquer.
They cracked down on the unauthorised protests with surprising brutality detaining thirteen hundred people, with at least ten of those now facing trial.
At the same time there have been meetings and negotiations between election officials and the unregistered candidates.
The latter have been urged to appeal, and it’d be surprising if at least part of those initially blacklisted were not in the end allowed to run.
The Moscow major also authorised an opposition rally in Moscow on 10 August to sap support from an unauthorised rally planned for 3 August.
Authorised rallies tend to attract more people as there is less risk of a police crackdown. It will be interesting to see if there’ll be a significant increase from the 20,000 who attended the previous authorised rally on 20 July.
All of this manoeuvring is meant to split the opposition in the hope that the elections in September can run as planned.
It leaves little space for the outlawed opposition to have any trust in elections in Russia, and so more protests are to be expected throughout the summer and after the September elections.
The authorities will undoubtedly double down on police suppression for these protests.
Whether they peter out, as they have done on previous occasions, or continue in an expanding spiral of dissent, will depend on how successful the opposition is in attracting new supporters — something it’s struggled to achieve so far.
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