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Nothing will ever be the same again…

The recent hotly-contested Moscow mayoral election ended, as predicted, with victory for government candidate Sergey Sobyanin. But Aleksey Navalny did much better than expected, as did opposition candidates who won in other big cities. Maxim Trudolyubov considers the very considerable significance of these elections

This week, Russia entered a new political reality. The unexpectedly strong opposition showings in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk and Petrozavodsk are of great event. 

Moscow election: 

Official result: Sobyanin - 51.37%; Navalny - 27.24% 
Alternative exit poll (SMS-TsIK): Sobyanin - 49.45%, Navalny - 28.52%
(50% needed to avoid second round run-off) 

Some of the post-election talk in Russia has concentrated on the people who didn’t turn out to vote. The turn-out, of course, was derisory - 32%. But voting in Russia is not yet obligatory, as, for instance, in Australia. Not voting is also a choice. 

When you go to vote, on the other hand, it’s best to know why you’re doing it. This time anyone who really wanted to vote, and knew why they wanted to vote, did so. In the past the people who knew what they were voting for were mainly from the public sector, pensioners and others who depend on the state. They used to turn out to support the source of their livelihood (or rather lack of it).  Now they are confused, perhaps because they’ve realized just how much is lacking. 

Sunday’s election attracted many more voters who are less dependent (or would like to be less dependent) on the state.  But they also made another thing clear: automatic ‘pensioner’ voting for the leadership is a thing of the past. And in the big cities, television is no longer a tool for the authorities.

Navalny supporters demand a recount at a post-election rally (just 1.38% separated their man from a second round). Despite his best efforts to obtain legitimacy through election, the closeness of the result and disparity with the exit polls are likely to leave a grey cloud over Mayor Sergei Sobyanin's new term. 

In this new situation the low turnout most probably helped the new candidates, rather than those already in post. In the stand off between the old and the new names, the new triumphed much more quickly than the organisers could have hoped. A quite remarkable feature of the election was the feebleness of the administrative party system developed by the Kremlin around those already in post, the incumbents who ‘carry out their duties’.  In a word, the old officials. This weakness highlights the absence of a real system.

The recent electoral campaign obviously had an over-arching objective, set by the people who consider themselves in charge of developing and running Russian politics. The ostensible reason for this was to ensure ‘political competition, transparency and lawful electoral procedures’ (this is politician Konstantin Kostin relaying the words of Vyacheslav Volodin in a recent Vedomosti article).  We have no idea how they sold this objective to Vladimir Putin, nor indeed why the decision was taken to allow Navalny to stand. Possibly the intention really was to act as a spoiler for Sergei Sobyanin with his (apparently) enormous potential support and long-term plans.

Whatever the actual rationale was for this idea, the experiment has demonstrated to its authors the complete absence of a reliable working institutional structure. And, what is even sadder for the Kremlin, its own candidates do not enjoy any substantive voluntary support. Without the most elementary props – banning candidates from standing, mass vote rigging, and bribery – the structure collapses. New people are starting to win, people who think and act, rather than just devouring the budget.

The Navalny campaign and Sobyanin’s were as different as chalk and cheese.  In an open fight between the ages, Iron couldn’t fail to triumph over Stone.  

As soon as the playing field becomes even vaguely level, people who are able to think for themselves triumph over those who can’t manage without their props. Navalny ran a campaign which, even by world standards, was innovative, active and effective. If political blogger Leonid Volkov and his team had had more time, Navalny would have won the Moscow mayoral election without any problems.  His campaign and Sobyanin’s were as different as chalk and cheese.  In an open fight between the ages, Iron couldn’t fail to triumph over Stone.  

One qualification is important: in the contest between generations and technologies, it’s a question of politics rather than policies.

Two words in support of Sergei Sobyanin. He is not a run of the mill official, because he tries to think and to act. But he concentrated on the city and urban life (however he understands them) i.e. on policies, not politics. Then for some reason he decided to become a political player too, but it was all much too hurried and so frenetic that it worked against him. His team may have had people from the new Iron Age, but Sobyanin continued to function in the old system of benchmarks and values.  Politics, it seems, are weightier then policies, though the latter without the former is an impossibility.

The whole experience of the Moscow (and Yekaterinburg) election is extremely important and will, I’m sure, be subject to minutely detailed study. No future serious campaign in big Russian cities will be the same as the last.  The new rules have already kicked in. 

About the author

Maxim Trudolyubov is the Opinion Page Editor and columnist for Russia’s most influential, independent business daily Vedomosti (founded by Financial Times and Wall Street Journal). He is also Associate Director at the Center for New Media and Society at the New Economic School, Moscow.

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