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Analysis: After 'Significant' Regional Elections, Russia's Opposition Looks To The Future

A young Russian opposition protester carries an image of President Vladimir Putin with the Russian word "Thief" during a rally against planned increases to the nationwide pension age in St. Petersburg on September 9.

More than a week after regional elections, Russia's anti-Putin opposition is struggling to understand exactly what was achieved and what comes next.

For both the Kremlin and the opposition, the September 8 vote was a precursor to the State Duma elections set for 2021. They're also part of a political process overshadowed by the question of what will become of President Vladimir Putin at the end of his current term in 2024.

"This was not a revolution," political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told RFE/RL. "In my time I have seen many cases when people were saying that we 'have woken up in a new country,' but the country remained the same. But nonetheless, this was a very significant political result."

In many ways, the latest elections were a continuation of the patterns of Putin's "managed democracy."

The Kremlin managed to secure victories in all 18 gubernatorial races, ensuring firm control over regional administrative resources for future ballots.

Government opponents say that the Kremlin employed an array of instruments, including election commissions, law enforcement agencies, and the courts, to produce voting results it sought.

Moscow Pushback

In Moscow, however, the story was different.

United Russia saw its majority in the 45-seat City Duma cut from 28 to 25. The independent Yabloko party elected three deputies, as well as a fourth independent candidate who was supported by the party.

Sixteen seats were taken by deputies from the Communist Party and the A Just Russia Party -- parties that form part of the so-called systemic opposition and that claim to offer an alternative to United Russia while in fact routinely supporting it.

A further 10 seats were captured by independents who have yet to establish a political course.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (file photo)
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (file photo)

That result, while unpleasant for Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, is acceptable to him, analyst Kirill Rogov said.

"They [United Russia] have retained their majority," he told RFE/RL. "The opposition figures [who won seats] are for the most part known to them. They do not present any sort of fatal danger."

Konstantin Yankauskas, a Moscow district deputy who wanted to run for the City Duma from opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's organization but saw his application rejected, expressed hope that some of the new deputies might surprise Sobyanin.

"There are now 10 independent deputies who will help us all together protect our city from Sobyanin's 'construction mafia,' from total reconstruction, from the 'optimization' of medical services, and so on," Yankauskas said. "For me, as a district deputy, this is of primary importance."

Making Noise

Even before the September 19 convocation of the new City Duma, some of the new deputies have begun to make noise.

On September 11, the Communist Party published a statement calling for an end to all criminal prosecutions related to the preelection protests, the annulment of the results of electronic voting, and the resignation of Moscow's top election official.

The statement was endorsed by all the new Communist deputies and an unspecified number of independents. Independents Yelena Shuvalova and Pavel Tarasov reposted the statement on their social-media accounts.

Yankauskas further noted that United Russia lost all three districts representing the center of the capital. That could make it easier for the democratic opposition to hold demonstrations without Sobyanin's permission.

"We have every right now to hold meetings of elected deputies of the Moscow City Duma with their constituents on the territory of their district," he said.

Perhaps the most important innovation, though, was the "smart voting" strategy that Navalny developed.

Two Russian women in traditional dress pose with opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, whom one analyst has described as "the best political animal in our political zoo." (file photo)
Two Russian women in traditional dress pose with opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, whom one analyst has described as "the best political animal in our political zoo." (file photo)

Under that slogan, he created a list of candidates across the country who were seen as best able to defeat their United Russia-backed rivals and then he urged opposition-minded voters to vote for them.

The strategy was partially credited for most effectively harnessing the anti-Kremlin electorate to deal a blow to the increasingly unpopular ruling party, both in Moscow and nationwide. Yabloko was able to elect a record 160 candidates across the country, in part because of the smart-vote strategy.

Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said the success of the strategy could put an end to the long-running debate among opposition figures about whether and how to participate in elections.

Boycotting elections only gives greater sway to the pro-Kremlin electorate, he said, which is largely made up of state-sector workers, pensioners, and the military, and who can be easily mobilized to vote by the Kremlin.

"The majority of those who do not like the current authorities express that attitude by not voting," Oreshkin said. "And the authorities really welcome this."

If smart voting had been used in the last State Duma elections, Oreshkin said, there could have been as many as five Yabloko deputies elected to the legislature.

Political Player

In the September 8 elections, Navalny created the list of smart-voting-endorsed candidates, without consulting them, and none of the candidates who appeared on the list rejected his support.

In the next national elections for the Duma in 2021, Oreshkin predicted, anti-Kremlin candidates will likely jockey to get the smart-voting endorsement, further increasing Navalny's potential influence.

The smart-voting strategy has made Navalny "the best political animal in our political zoo," Oreshkin said.

"Navalny has become a seriously influential political player," he added, "and that is why the authorities need to deal with him harshly."

Since the elections, Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation has seen its offices searched and its equipment seized across the country -- a major escalation of pressure on the group from authorities.

In the last elections, "an enormous number of people came out and voted against United Russia…and against police excess," opposition politician Yankauskas noted.

"I am not saying that we are now in a different country or that we have become a democracy with human rights and all that," he told RFE/RL. "But this definitely happened and we must acknowledge it. Maybe we can even congratulate ourselves a little and now we will work with that fact and enlarge our success."

Oreshkin was less sanguine about the future.

"As long as the authorities have money to pay people off -- regional elites, the security agencies, the media elites -- the situation will remain under their control," he said. "I don't think the authorities are too nervous about the future. If they need to, they just send the National Guard into the streets to establish order."

With reporting by Mikhail Sokolov of RFE/RL's Russian Service