This editorial was originally published on July 22.
AN IMPORTANT test of civil society in Russia is unfolding on the streets of Moscow. It suggests that despite the authoritarian rule of President Vladimir Putin over nearly two decades, a significant number of people in Russia’s capital are not afraid to speak out. On Saturday, despite rain, some 50,000 people took to the streets in one of the largest demonstrations in recent years.
Next month, the city of Moscow will hold elections for its 45-member Duma, or city council. Many of those seeking seats are from the existing power structure, dominated by Mr. Putin and his much-disliked United Russia party. To get on the ballot, those not connected to a party — the independent candidates — must collect about 5,000 signatures within a three-week period. (Those connected to a party do not.) Despite the high bar, several dozen independent candidates managed to collect the signatures.
Then the authorities decided to disqualify them. No doubt acting on Kremlin orders, the Moscow election commission struck off as invalid thousands of signatures submitted by independents, especially those who command genuine popularity in their districts, such as activist Ilya Yashin. About 30 candidates were barred from running. The chairman of the election commission claimed the signatures were those of dead people — but then some of the signatories began advertising on social media that they were, in fact, alive. The disqualifications were a brazen farce.
Why did the authorities do this? If elected, the independents would gain legitimacy in a major political body in Russia, and they would have rights to question city policy and seek documents. Mr. Putin has recently faced significant outbreaks of mass protest, including demonstrations against a church construction site in Yekaterinburg. He was shaken by the huge demonstrations against him in 2011 and 2012. He might have thought that he could simply consign the independent candidates in Moscow to oblivion.
He was wrong. Street rallies have been held every weekend for the past five weeks to protest the exclusions and demand release of those arrested. In the Saturday march, 256 people in Moscow were detained. In earlier weeks, the police responded with batons and beatings. Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner and leading opposition voice to Mr. Putin, has taken up the cause, and the authorities responded by throwing him in jail and announcing, absurdly, that his organization was being investigated for money laundering. Some of the protesters aimed their ire directly at Mr. Putin, with placards reading “Putin Lies” and “Stop Lying To Us.” Speaking at a rally, Mr. Yashin declared, “I’ve lived half my life under Putin. I’ve had enough.”
President Trump and Mr. Putin spoke by phone in the middle of this, and according to the White House and Kremlin reports of the call, they discussed Siberian wildfires and trade. Not protests in Moscow. Mr. Trump does not care.
Mr. Putin, while creating and maintaining an authoritarian system that has largely blocked dissent and political competition, has not managed to completely extinguish the voice of the people.