The Zhukovsky People's Council this week set up task forces
to address a series of issues, including the environment, housing, urban renewal, transportation, and youth affairs.
It all seems pretty banal at first glance, except for one small detail. The 15-member council
was chosen in a free and fair vote last month at the initiative of local citizens and civic groups -- without the participation of Russia's official electoral authorities.
It has no formal power, but nevertheless meets regularly in sessions open to the public and advertised online
. Member of the People's Council say they intend to "erect a reliable shield against decisions that do not correspond to the interests of the population.”
Local journalist Natalia Znamenskaya
, a member of the council, says they plan to actively attend hearings on local issues -- like an upcoming one on plans to build a 17-story building in a local park -- and go door-to-door to organize residents.
And this trend that began in this town in the Moscow region appears to be spreading.
"The organizers describe the Zhukovsky council as the first organ of popular self-government in Russia that was elected in open, fair, and equal electronic elections," the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta"
wrote in a recent editorial.
"Civic activists are affirming that they will hold similar alternative elections across the entire country. Local people’s councils could be formed in the near future in Voronezh and Yekaterinburg. The technology to hold alternative elections in Russia’s regions is already prepared."
It's probably much too early to call this the start of a grassroots revolution, but it nevertheless appears to be the start of something important.
The idea to form the council in Zhukovsky came about because local activists believed that the town's mayoral election would be falsified.
Andrei Voityuk, a nominally independent candidate backed by the ruling United Russia and the regional governor Andrei Vorobyov, won the election
with 36.8 percent of the vote. Turnout was a dismal 39 percent.
Zhukovsky became a hotbed of opposition in recent years, with activists galvanized by a battle to prevent the felling of a local forest
to make room for a new road.
"If the inhabitants of Zhukovsky had trusted the existing structures and procedures, the idea of an alternative council may not have arisen at all," "Nezavisimaya gazeta"
"If citizens continue to see that the authorities are incapable of organizing transparent and fair elections, they will take their problems to alternative structures."
The alternative election in Zhukovsky, which took place on March 25, followed the model established by the Opposition's Coordinating Council
last year. The vote took place online and was open to anybody proving local residency.
Since it was elected last October
, the Coordinating Council has been much maligned -- perhaps unfairly -- as ineffectual and plagued by the infighting typical of Russia's fractious national opposition.
But one thing the Coordinating Council did was to set an example of self-organizing and grassroots democracy -- one that is now being replicated in the regions.
And as the trend spreads, it will only serve to deepen the crisis plaguing Russia's rulers.
"It is no accident that the opposition increasingly declares that it does not intend to participate in official elections and relies on the spread of parallel structures," "Nezavisimaya gazeta"
"And it is not only nonestablishment opposition figures who are saying this, but also politicians who are not so distant from the Kremlin. They admit that the authorities today are encountering their most dangerous foe -- illegitimacy."
-- Brian Whitmore