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How A Local Vote Rocked Russia: Moscow Election Caps Summer Of Discontent

People take part in a rally in support of independent candidates for Moscow's elections on July 20.
People take part in a rally in support of independent candidates for Moscow's elections on July 20.

MOSCOW -- Five years in prison for a tweet; four for repeatedly protesting; three for using pepper spray; two for pulling a policeman's arm.

Those are just a few of the sentences imposed against Russians who took part in the protest wave that has rocked the country's capital since July, galvanizing the embattled opposition in ways not seen since the run-up to Vladimir Putin's election to a third presidential term in 2012.

A summer of discontent in Russia's capital culminates this weekend with a vote that might have gone unnoticed even by many Muscovites if not for the exclusion of a slew of independent candidates from the ballot by electoral officials. Instead, anger over that decision led to large rallies that have shone a spotlight on growing public disaffection less than 18 months into what could be Putin's final Kremlin term.

Many of those barred from the ballot in the September 8 election of Moscow's legislative assembly were backed by Aleksei Navalny, the opposition politician and anti-corruption crusader who gave the Kremlin a scare with a strong second-place showing in a mayoral vote in 2013 and has organized numerous protests in the capital and across the country since then, including rallies in the capital almost every week since mid-July.

Met with a severe crackdown in the streets and the courtrooms of the city, the opposition has extracted few concessions despite a dogged campaign -- both through demonstrations and formal appeals -- to get its candidates on the ballot. As Muscovites head to the polls, choosing from a list of politicians that excludes the government's most outspoken critics and virtually all independents, many analysts view the unexpected, unprecedented events of the summer as a reflection of a nationwide climate of discontent.

A Primer On Moscow Protests
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"This is a manifestation of a major process of transformation in Russian public opinion," says Yekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow-based political scientist. "It's a change in political behavior that demonstrates changes in the public mood."

Growing Discontent

The current protest wave can be placed within a broader timeline of popular unrest that has unfolded since 2016. Jingoist fervor fueled by Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, which temporarily elevated Putin's approval rating and rallied his electorate around the flag, began to fade as a stagnating economy and wariness of foreign escapades took their toll.

Since 2017, a "normalization of protest" has occurred, Schulmann says, with frequent rallies across Russia sparked primarily by anger over wages and labor conditions, local quality-of-life concerns from garbage dumps to construction projects, and a widespread perception that officials no longer listen to voters.

Since Putin's election to a fourth, six-year term in March 2018, approval ratings for him and his government have dropped. A highly unpopular pension reform last fall further fueled the protest mood.

Discontent has manifested not only in street protests. In September 2018, voters in gubernatorial elections across Russia chose politicians not tied to the ruling United Russia party in four regions, dealing a defeat to Moscow-backed candidates who had the administrative resources to stage solid, high-budget election campaigns.

"People are afraid to go on the streets, and one way to express dissatisfaction with the government is to vote against United Russia," political scientist Aleksei Makarkin told RFE/RL at the time.

Government critics say the decision to bar independents and opposition candidates from the Moscow City Duma election was designed to prevent that from happening. The official line of the election commission is that the 5,000 signatures submitted by each of the excluded politicians in order to get on the ballot contained too many errors to be judged valid; the politicians in question, and their supporters, insist the lists they supplied were legitimate and complete.

But barring the opposition from fielding candidates may have backfired by inspiring Kremlin detractors and frustrated Muscovites to take to the streets in protest. Thousands came out despite the threat of arrest and police beatings, though the numbers still paled in comparison with the upheaval of the 2011-12 protest wave, which gathered roughly three times the number of demonstrators.

Aleksei Navalny is detained during a rally in Moscow in June.
Aleksei Navalny is detained during a rally in Moscow in June.

Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, subject to almost weekly raids by masked police, has supplemented its calls for a high turnout at street protests with a steady stream of embarrassing investigations linking members of the ruling elite to large assets and luxury properties allegedly acquired through embezzlement of state funds. As Russians outside thecapital wonder why Muscovites are risking arrest to protest the exclusion of opposition candidates from a legislative body with only 45 deputies and limited decision-making powers, Navalny's investigations are singling out employees of the Moscow government -- shedding light on exactly the kind of corruption that opposition politicians, if elected to the city duma, would seek to expose.

'Severe Repression'

The authorities have responded with force. About 2,700 people have been detained since the protest wave began in July, including several bystanders and passersby. Many have been beaten by police.

Courts in Moscow have convicted several protesters in the week preceding Sunday's vote, handing down sentences that critics say are excessive or entirely unmerited. Ivan Podkopayev was sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly using pepper spray against a serviceman involved in suppressing the protests. Danila Beglets received two years for tugging a riot policeman. Konstantin Kotov, the second person ever to be convicted under a 2014 law criminalizing repeat attendance at unsanctioned protests, got a four-year sentence.

But prosecutors reserved the harshest punishment for blogger Vladislav Sinitsa. On July 31, Sinitsa took to Twitter to add his views to a debate about calls for activists to expose the identity of police officers who beat peaceful protesters. "They'll look at happy family photos, study their geolocation, and then the child of the noble protector of law and order will no longer appear at school," Sinitsa wrote, adding that the child's parents might receive a "snuff video" in the mail.

On September 3, Sinitsa was sentenced to five years in prison.

Grigory Okhotin, an analyst at independent protest monitor OVD-Info, called the crackdown "one of the most severe political repressions since we began monitoring, and probably since the beginning of modern Russia."

In addition to the court cases and the police violence, which has gone further than measures taken during the 2011-12 protests, the government has used other levers of power to seek the upper hand. State TV has given limited coverage to the protest movement, but reports in which it featured portrayed those who have taken to Moscow's streets as provocateurs funded and manipulated by the West.

"The U.S. Embassy has been actively involved in all of this," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on a leading talk show the day after an August 3 protest, apparently mischaracterizing a post on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow featuring a map of the planned protest route and warning U.S. citizens against attending.

The Russian parliament has formed a "special" commission to investigate "possible interference in Russia's internal affairs."

Protest Voting?

The tactic does not seem to have deterred the protesters, even if they amount to a small force in a city of over 12 million. A recent survey by the independent Levada Center found that 58 percent of Russians don't buy the line that the protests are funded and organized by the West, and 41 percent see social discontent as their catalyst. That supports the analyses advanced by Schulmann and others.

The political standoff in Moscow may be the inevitable result of a growing atmosphere of disillusionment and falling support for Putin's government, they suggest. Nevertheless, as recently as early July few could have predicted that a local election would lead to Russia's largest protest wave in seven years.

"Frankly speaking I didn't expect this level of crisis during Moscow Duma elections. I expected something of this kind closer to the parliamentary elections in 2021," Schulmann says. "But it evidently came earlier."

Scores Detained In Moscow, Including Opposition Leader
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Having failed to push through its candidates, the opposition is instead resorting to a political strategy devised months ago by Navalny. On September 8, it will urge its supporters to vote for candidates listed on the ballot who are most opposed to those running on behalf of the ruling party. Navalny calls it "smart voting."

But not everyone is on board. Ilya Azar, a well-known journalist and political activist, said he could not bring himself to vote in an unfree election that was only going ahead because police had violently detained and fined protesters, imprisoned others, and barred independent candidates from taking part.

"I can't see myself going to the polling station as if none of this had happened, passing the ladies with pastries and putting my ballot -- with a check mark next to the name of a graciously permitted candidate -- in the box," Azar wrote on Facebook on September 3.

Instead, he added, he will cast his ballot after scrawling something on it that "fits the moment."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.