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A roadmap for the Moscow crisis

In Moscow, the standoff between the democratic coalition and authorities is approaching its peak. But protesters have a weapon of their own: a clear advantage in the electoral fight.

Grigory Yudin
12 August 2019
Protest in Moscow, 10 August
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(c) Ulf Mauder/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Moscow’s democratic coalition has a clear advantage in electoral struggle - and this is a fact that the Kremlin can’t ignore. In the past month, 19 independent and opposition candidates have tried to run in the Moscow city election, and official refusals to register their candidacies have brought thousands of people onto city streets, under the blows of riot sticks and into jail.

The latest Levada Center opinion poll directly confirms what has been supported by indirect evidence: the level of sympathy for independent candidates in Moscow is high, and is rising as more people find out what’s going on with the campaign. According to the poll, 37% of respondents have a positive attitude to the protests that have gripped the city centre, 27% have a negative attitude, and nine percent are thinking about protesting directly. Given that the poll samples are always biased, this suggests that these figures are on the lower end.

We should thank the Levada Center for their neutral and carefully formulated polling questions (and the Foundation for Developing Civil Society for making the results public). In a situation of political conflict, when sides tend to describe what is happening in different terms, it’s crucial for a researcher to formulate questions without forcing an external interpretation on the respondent. This is particularly clear in a recent poll by the Russia Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM). In this poll, the survey questions were framed in a way that assumed that the refusal to register independent candidates in the Moscow elections was legal, as was any violence against people in the street.

The more Muscovites find out about the scandal surrounding the Moscow City Council elections, the less they understand why candidates aren’t being registered

That said, even in the aggressive survey by the Russia Public Opinion Research Center, more than a quarter of respondents demonstrated a readiness to resist leading questions and express their support for independent candidates. This gave grounds to assume that we were approaching a 50-50 situation in terms of support for independent candidates, but it seems that we’ve now passed it. The “party of riot sticks” is facing a more dispiriting tendency: the more Muscovites find out about the scandal surrounding the Moscow City Council elections, the less they understand why candidates aren’t being registered, and why people are being beaten up and thrown in jail.

The Kremlin is failing to sell the story that people on the Moscow streets are involved in “armed protests” and “mass unrest”, and that angry students are “financed groups”. Worse, they can’t sell it to law enforcement. This is why we’ve seen ridiculous slogans (“Don’t beat National Guard officers, they’re your children”) and anonymous letters from “police officers” denouncing protesters as “foreign stooges” (which, for some reason, have been published by the NTV channel). It’s difficult to convince a police officer encircled by protesters that the angry young people in front of him are, in fact, orchestrating a “state coup”. This is why you have to keep police officers frightened and angry, but this isn’t working.

If you want to know why Vladimir Putin, his press secretary Dmitry Peskov and Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin have remained silent, then the answer lies here. They understand the situation all too well, hence why the Moscow Mayor’s Office has readily issued permits for large political demonstrations.

Right now, the sides are stuck in conflict. Law enforcement are planning on frightening President Putin with threats of “western interference” and solving the issue with truncheons

As a result, consensus is emerging among Muscovites around two clear points:

  1. All candidates need to be permitted to participate in the elections. The people can decide whether to vote for them or not
  2. The violence is not justified, it has to be ended and the police need to stop throwing people in jail without serious justification

These are the two points form a kind of road map for a way out of the Moscow crisis.

Right now, the sides are stuck in conflict. Law enforcement are planning on frightening President Putin with threats of “western interference” and solving the issue with truncheons. Here, their hope is that the violence will push candidate registration off the agenda, demoralise the candidates and their supporters or suck them into a hopeless and protracted street battle, which is unlikely to interest many city residents. This plan is yet to work: the problem isn’t going anywhere and continues to spread through the city, provoking public disbelief at the actions of our political administrators. The picture that law enforcement is proposing looks openly weak - and they are likely to try and make it look more convincing.

But the democratic coalition has a riot stick of its own - a clear advantage in the electoral struggle at this moment. Each of the candidates has thousands of supporters who are angry at the clear violation of their electoral rights, and will be ready to take their revenge via protest votes if their candidates aren’t allowed to run.

At the Moscow council elections, which have, as a rule, an extremely low turnout, this is a significant weapon - and one that could have a decisive influence on the outcome of the elections. The candidates are acting in line with Russian law, honestly going through all legal instances, and a refusal to register candidates at the next instance will only strengthen the feeling of deep injustice at what’s going on. There’s complete unity among the independent candidates, and their demands are supported by candidates from the Communist Party and many from the Just Russia party. All the city deputies understand that their fate depends on the voters, and not only on the Moscow administration.

It’s unclear which side will play its jokers and turn out the strongest. Leading political scientist Adam Przeworski once called elections “paper stones” which rivals throw at one another - precisely because elections permit a society to avoid throwing real stones and physical violence. The situation in Moscow shows us that, at times, paper stones turn out to be pretty heavy - even when the other side isn’t afraid to use physical violence.

The outcome of this campaign is undecided. But right now, those holding the paper stones have the advantage.

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