At his annual marathon news conference Dec. 14, Vladimir Putin claimed that the reason the upcoming presidential election won’t be competitive is because the opposition lacks a clear positive platform, preferring instead to “make noise in the streets.”
Political ineffectiveness is a regular charge against the Russian opposition, which relies on protests to call the Kremlin to account. The streets are an attractive option for the opposition — in part because they are barred from national contests by a Kremlin-controlled electoral commission. In the past, Putin has campaigned against a roster of nonthreatening challengers who neither debate nor criticize him. Genuine opponents — like anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, who declared his intention to run for president a year ago and opened more than 60 campaign offices across the country — won’t appear on the March ballot because the Central Electoral Commission denied his application to register as a candidate, citing his fraud conviction in a trial that the European Court of Human Rights has called “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable.”
But not all Russian elections are as carefully controlled as the presidential race. And in local politics, the opposition is learning how to take its message from the streets to the ballot box. In September, independent and opposition candidates won a quarter of all council seats in Moscow’s municipal election. In eight districts, including Gagarinky — where Putin lives and votes — not one pro-Kremlin candidate was elected. Here’s how they did it — and why this local victory matters.
From protest to ballot box
On the eve of Putin’s election to a third nonconsecutive term as president in December 2011, massive protests rocked Russia after evidence of widespread fraud in the Duma election was posted online. The protests motivated some to participate in the March 4, 2012, municipal election. They ran for seats on Moscow’s 125 district councils, comprised of 8 to 12 deputies elected every five years. Two hundred independent candidates — read: not aligned with Putin — ran in the 2012 municipal election; of those, 70 won seats.
In September 2017, five times as many independent candidates — a total of 1,046 — ran in the municipal election as independents or representing opposition parties. This time, 267 won seats on district councils.
In fall 2013, I interviewed opposition municipal deputies about their political paths. In October 2017, I returned to Moscow to re-interview these deputies and talk to the newcomers. I found that the opposition is using local contests to develop winning electoral strategies.
In 2012, the independent candidates were a mix of people. Some were local activists recruited by opposition parties; some were newcomers to politics who were outraged by the stories of electoral fraud; others believed that anti-regime protests meant genuine change was coming to Russia’s political system. They were trained in ad hoc “schools for deputies” organized by local Moscow-based civic groups such as the Our City initiative. Volunteer lawyers also helped to defend these independent candidates when electoral commissions tried to disqualify them.
In 2017, opposition-minded individuals were funneled into the election through United Democrats, a project organized by Dimitri Gudkov and Maxim Katz, which recruited candidates under the slogan, “If you’re against Putin, we’ll help you.” The project, described to me by municipal deputies as “political Uber,” trained candidates, paid for the production of campaign materials, and built fundraising websites. Like the ride-sharing app that connects drivers to passengers, it gave aspiring politicians the means to effectively reach voters. Most important, the project produced templates of registration forms that could not easily be challenged by the city’s electoral commissions, thereby overcoming the traditionally steep administrative barriers to political candidacy in Russia.
Not all opposition candidates in Moscow’s 2017 election relied on that project. But almost all adopted a new electoral strategy that involved running in teams. Running as a “bloc” allowed candidates to not only divide the work of campaigning, but also to offer voters a legitimate alternative to United Russia. In previous years, even if they managed to get elected, solitary opposition deputies had a hard time influencing the district councils. By running in teams, candidates could reassure voters that if elected, they would be able to advance their agendas.
The strategy worked. Entire opposition teams were elected in 38 districts in Moscow.
Over two election cycles in Moscow, the opposition developed effective strategies for running and winning. Crucially for Russia’s political future, some of these strategies — particularly training and online campaign tools — can easily be transported to other Russian regions.
So you’ve won. Now what?
Electoral innovation in an authoritarian state is important in its own right. But the election of opposition municipal deputies in Moscow will also have immediate political consequences.
First, there are now enough opposition deputies to allow a regime opponent — Dimitri Gudkov — to run in Moscow’s 2018 mayoral election. As of 2012, candidates for mayor of Moscow must collect signatures from at least 110 municipal deputies to register their candidacy. In 2013, Nalavny ran an exciting, Western-style campaign for mayor — but was only able to participate because United Russia deputies helped him register. In 2018, Gudkov may not need United Russia’s help or permission to run for mayor of Russia’s capital city.
Second, though their powers are limited, municipal deputies can have a real impact on the lives of Muskovites — overseeing housing repairs, park construction and urban planning initiatives. They are now deeply involved in the ongoing renovation of Khrushchev-era buildings, an issue that affects thousands of residents.
Lastly, municipal deputies have the right to organize public events in their districts without seeking permission from city authorities. In recent years, the Kremlin has introduced laws restricting freedom of assembly. Events organized by deputies provide legal cover to participants who would otherwise face fines and arrest.
One newly elected municipal deputy recently organized a “Day of free elections” in Moscow that marked the six-year anniversary of Russia’s anti-regime protests with speeches about citizen’s rights. The Dec. 24 event allowed the opposition to do what Putin suggested in his news conference: advance a positive platform — while continuing to make noise in the streets.
Yana Gorokhovskaia is a postdoctoral fellow in Russian politics at the Harriman Institute for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at Columbia University. Find her on Twitter @gorokhovskaia.