Yabloko, Russia's oldest liberal party, joined forces with the United Democrats in an attempt to overcome the rifts that have split the democratic opposition and to demonstrate that liberal Russians are still a force to be reckoned with.
It didn't work -- in part, perhaps, because so many voters chose to stay at home. Just 34 percent of the Moscow electorate cast their ballots yesterday. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party posted a convincing victory, taking 28 of the 35 seats in the City Duma. The Communists took four, while the joint forces of the democrats barely overcame the 10 percent barrier needed for representation in the City Duma and took just three seats.
The deputy chairman of Yabloko, Sergei Mitrokhin, cried foul yesterday.
"We have come to the conclusion that the level of falsification in today's Moscow election exceeds anything that has ever been observed in the city before," Mitrokhin said. "What's more, this has been done openly, shamelessly and, I would say, insolently. A well-targeted campaign was run against Yabloko and the United Democrats of Russia throughout the election campaign, which was, in fact, run from within the Kremlin
That's all denied by the head of the Moscow Election Commission, Valentin Gorbunov, who said there were no serious violations either during the vote or the subsequent count.
Moscow is, or was, the bastion of liberal politics in Russia but the democrats are now reduced to just three seats in the City Duma -- and that despite coming together to present a joint front. Commentators described the election as a dress rehearsal for national parliamentary elections in 2007. If so, the outcome does not bode well for democrats of any hue.
In essence, they were fighting not just the Kremlin in yesterday's election but the power, influence, and popularity of Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, who headed Unified Russia's party list. Under his leadership, Moscow has been transformed. With opinion polls suggesting personality would play as important a role as issues, he stood out head and shoulders above everyone else in the contest.
But most dispiriting of all for the democrats is their failure to beat an aging Communist Party. Mitrokhin blamed this on the disqualification of the nationalist Motherland (Rodina) party after the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that one of its television advertisements incited racial hatred. Many had tipped Motherland to take second place after Unified Russia.
Gennadii Zyuganov was not accepting that. Every fifth Muscovite, he said, is now a supporter of the Communist Party.
"Voters in Moscow and throughout the country have seen that we are actively defending their interests and that we're fighting against Law 122 [a controversial law that monetized social-benefit payments] and against raising prices by as much as 100 percent for the provision of communal services," Zyuganov said. "Voters saw too how tough and open we were in defending Soviet power, Soviet ideals, and Red Square. So, in the present situation, we represent the interests of the working masses."
Even allowing for the fact that a low turnout tends to favor the Communist Party, whose well-disciplined support can be better relied on to vote, yesterday's poll leaves the democrats scrabbling for excuses and a strategy in the months ahead.
That the odds were stacked against them few really doubt -- but the uncomfortable reality is that the specter now looms of political oblivion.
VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA is the official representative of the liberal Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) in Washington, D.C., and a co-founder of Free Choice 2008. Kara-Murza described the elections as an "exciting time" for Russian liberals, emphasizing the "breakthrough" achieved when the SPS and the Yabloko party ran a joint list of candidates and secured seats on the city council.
ANDREI PIONTKOVSKII is the executive director of the Moscow-based Strategic Studies Center and a member of Yabloko's Federal Council. In his presentation, Piontkovskii emphasized that liberal values are under assault in the Russia of President Vladimir Putin and analyzed the importance of the SPS-Yabloko cooperation.