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Moscow Vote Touted As 'Small Revolution' For Russian Opposition

A young boy peeps out from behind the curtains of a voting booth at a polling station during the municipal elections in Moscow on September 10.

MOSCOW -- The Russian opposition is claiming success after a grassroots campaign led by Kremlin critic Dmitry Gudkov helped dissenters win a rare toehold in the capital in weekend elections.

Gudkov's coalition of liberal opposition forces won around 250 of 1,502 seats up for grabs on Moscow's district councils -- seizing majorities in more than a dozen -- and finishing second overall to President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.

"There has been a revolution in [the voter's] mind," Gudkov told RFE/RL's Russian Service, describing the breakthrough for a liberal opposition that has enjoyed little electoral success in a system dominated by Putin and his 17-year grip on power and the media."A demand for serious change has appeared."

Tallies from the September 10 voting saw opposition forces eclipse Kremlin-backed parties in the capital in elections characterized by low turnout six months ahead of a presidential election.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the Moscow results "excellent" and a demonstration of "what pluralism and political competition are all about," singling out two areas that Russia's tightly controlled system is frequently accused of stifling.

A former State Duma deputy, Gudkov backed the candidacies of more than 1,000 Muscovites -- many of them political novices -- in a campaign uniting liberal democratic parties Yabloko and Parnas along with independent candidates.

"This is the beginning of a new era in Russian politics," Vitaly Shklyarov, an adviser to Gudkov's campaign who previously worked within the U.S. presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, said.

"It's an unbelievable performance," Shklyarov said of the opposition mandates won in part by enlisting cohorts of young activists and undertaking the bureaucratic challenges of getting them onto the ballot. "For Russia, this is an unheard-of way of challenging the government."

Mayoral Bid

The broader aim was to muster enough support among district councils to formally endorse a Gudkov bid for the mayor's office in elections a year from now.

A national provision that critics have dubbed the "municipal filter" requires mayoral candidates to demonstrate a prescribed level of support from local councilors across many districts to enter the race.

The head of the Moscow Election Commission, Valentin Gorbunov, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that only the ruling United Russia party won enough seats in the weekend voting to bypass the municipal filter in the capital.

Russian opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov (file photo)
Russian opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov (file photo)

Gorbunov said United Russia won 76 percent of the Moscow vote and second-placed Yabloko got 11.72 percent.

"Muscovites are changing their political preferences," Gorbunov said, adding that "the main flow" of defections was from the Communist Party and A Just Russia toward Yabloko.

Shklyarov said the Gudkov camp's next step would be to campaign for the repeal or modification of the municipal filter requirement -- including in the corridors of city hall with scores of newly elected officials or even street protests, if necessary.

"The campaign is not over," said Skhlyarov. "From today, we're going to define the next step to get the election rules changed and to run for mayor."

Gudkov told RFE/RL that the September 10 voting had shown his grassroots movement demonstrated it was "the only political force in the city that can challenge the mayor and his administration alongside Putin."

"We can forget now about the parliamentary opposition," Gudkov said of parties widely regarded as "systemic" opposition -- nominally opposing the ruling party but falling in line on critical issues -- such as the Communists and A Just Russia. "It no longer exists anymore. Forget about them."

Administrative Resource

The independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper carried an article describing September 10 as a "small municipal revolution," adding that the new opposition bloc in district councils marks the first time in years that opposition-minded Muscovites have had any official political representation.

"Growing authoritarianism against the backdrop of universal apathy has finally collided with grassroots democratic activism," wrote the paper's political editor, Kirill Martynov.

Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator think tank in Moscow, described the capital as a city in need of "renewal" and "political representation for its own interests" rather than being subsumed to national politics.

Oreshkin said the opposition votes were concentrated in central, southwestern, and northwestern Moscow districts -- areas "in old Moscow's progressive, intelligentsia regions."

He then added, in a reference to officials who use their power and influence to push for the status quo, "On the city's periphery, the administrative resource still leads the show."

Pavel Salin, head of the Center for Political Research at Moscow's Financial University, suggested that opposition forces had underachieved in the context of declining trust in mainstream parties in Russia's big cities.

"[But] in general, if we compare the old state of play with the new one, then this is a fairly good result," Salin said. "Most importantly, this is a serious statement of intent: a signal that the starting positions of parties outside the State Duma are very strong."