Mass protests over local elections rattle the Kremlin, but an alternative to Putin is still elusive

After Russia’s most contentious election in years, the ruling party of President Vladimir Putin appears to have suffered significant losses on Moscow’s city council and the wounds from the fight may signal continued trouble ahead.

No official vote counts have been released but early returns suggest the United Russia party may have been reduced to a minority on the 45 seat council. An official tally is expected later today.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in a succession of weekend protests over what they saw as rigged municipal elections after dozens of independent candidates were told they wouldn’t be allowed to challenge for seats.

Russian police and security services arrested more than 2,000 people and repeatedly raided the offices of opposition figures in one of the largest crackdowns of Putin’s 19-year tenure. 

Even though most liberal-leaning candidates were not allowed to participate, a number of right wing parties as well as Russia’s Communists did take part, and it appears their candidates may have benefited from the anti-government vote.

“Society itself is very frustrated,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a non-resident scholar at Moscow’s Carnegie Centre. 

We don’t have [political] campaigns — the effort of the Kremlin to move forward new ideas is dead– Tatiana Stanovaya, Carnegie Centre

“I think the Kremlin has underestimated the risk coming from the opposition and the protests,” said Stanovaya, who also heads R.Politik, a Paris-based think-tank that studies Russian society.

After almost 20 years with Vladmir Putin at the top of Russia’s government, political stagnation has set in, she says. The protests are a clear indication of the appetite for change.

‘Political life is unhealthy’

Independent public opinion polls suggest Putin’s popularity has sagged as incomes have fallen and the government has made significant cuts to seniors’ pensions.

“We don’t have [political] campaigns — the effort of the Kremlin to move forward new ideas is dead. Society doesn’t know what is good, what is wrong. Political life is unhealthy.”

While municipals councils in Moscow and other Russian cities have very little power, a loss at any level was simply untenable for those at the top of Russia’s power pyramid, says political analyst Maria Lipman.

Watch: Tens of thousands gather for Moscow protests

Demonstrators demand free city-wide elections in spite of a government crackdown, CBC’s Chris Brown reports. 1:52

“Competition has to be eradicated on every level,” she told CBC News. “This regime rules by a political monopoly.” 

What’s especially notable, she says, was how fast the protest movement took shape once candidates began getting disqualified.

“Many people took it personally,” she said, noting that the rules requiring thousands of signatures for challengers to make it onto the ballot amounted to an insurmountable task.

Huge protests, harsh reactions

Just as significant as the size and tenacity of the protests was the harsh reaction of authorities.

Protester Kirill Zhukov ended up with three years in jail for tweaking a policeman’s visor. Computer programmer Konstantin Kotov was sent to a hard labour prison camp for four years for breaking a repressive law that prohibits people from taking part in multiple street demonstrations.

And prosecutors tried to strip two couples of their parental rights for bringing their toddlers to the anti-government rallies.

Stanovaya says she fears such heavy-handed tactics are bound to become more commonplace.

“This is the only instrument they have [left],” she said, referring to the Putin administration.

“They are not ready to build dialogue with liberals or the progressive class, so the only instrument they have is the security services.”

A leaderless movement

While various disqualified candidates took turns leading the calls to take to the streets, none had a national profile or the backing of a political party. Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, spent much of the summer in jail after initially calling for people to take to the streets. By summer’s end, he had split with other activists by advocating for strategic voting rather than street demonstrations.

“This is a leaderless movement. It is driven by moral or emotional motives and they don’t need leaders,” said Lipman.

The problem of the protest leaders is that they want Putin to go away, but they have no alternative– Alexei Mukhin, Centre for Political Information

“[The opposition] rises on a crest from this political outrage that the government is unjust, the government is corrupt, the government is unfair … and then it subsides, and what is left is civic activism.”

Initially, the demonstrators focused their anger on Russia’s electoral commission but, by the end of August, the protests had become a much broader proxy for general discontent over government corruption, a stagnant economy and perceived Kremlin indifference.

What is the alternative to Putin?

However, the inability to put forward a clear alternative to Putin is also likely the opposition’s big weakness, say other observers.

“The problem of the protest leaders is that they want Putin to go away, but they have no alternative,” said Alexei Mukhin, director general of the Centre for Political Information, a Moscow-based think-tank.

“They need this,” he adds, if the protest movement is to mount a significant challenge to the Kremlin establishment.


Russian President Vladimir Putin casts his ballot at a polling station during a city council election in Moscow on Sunday. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The next round of significant elections are for the Duma or Russian parliament in about 18 months time.

The extent to which Kremlin opponents will be able to sustain their outrage until then is uncertain.

Russia has seen similar large street demonstrations before, notably after Putin returned to power in the 2012 elections, but opponents were unable to maintain the momentum.

“People know how to organize around a cause when they see one, but there is no permanent political force left behind —not in terms of a political movement or a party or structures, or even political demands,” says Lipman.

Still, Tatiana Stanovaya says the current discontent in Russian society right now is “flammable” and she doubts it will take much of a spark to ignite things again.

“I think the next campaign will be rather challenging for the Kremlin.”

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