MOSCOW— A year ago, Russia’s opposition thought the elections taking place Sunday could be a game changer.
After opposition candidate Alexey Navalny’s strong second-place finish in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race, Sunday’s city council elections seemed to present a rare opportunity to grasp a place in Russia’s political firmament. Winning a few seats could legitimatize the opposition as a real alternative to President Vladimir Putin and his allies.
But that was before Navalny was put under house arrest on embezzlement charges, before Russia locked horns with the West over Ukraine, before new election laws took effect, and before the opposition fully fathomed the challenges of running local campaigns, in which anti-Putin messages hardly mattered.
The opposition’s failure to stage a serious showing in the Moscow city council elections — largely expected to rubber-stamp pro-Kremlin United Russia’s grip on power — carries potentially heavy consequences. In a Russia where power is being concentrated and the noose on political dissent is being tightened, such an opportunity may not present itself again.
“I’m not sure I’m going to have a chance in the next years to run for anything,” said Maria Gaidar, an opposition activist who despite deep political roots — her father was former president Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister — had her city council candidacy thrown out by the Moscow courts. “I think that this was one of the last chances for anyone, given the system.”
Gaidar is part of a group of Navalny supporters who decided to coordinate their city council bids as the “For Moscow” coalition. United under platforms that came directly from the 2013 race, the founding members pledged to run as independents, support each other, and, if they won, “pursue transparency and accountability” in the executive, judicial and administrative functions of the city.
Such positions might seem standard politics elsewhere, but in Moscow, they posed a direct challenge to both the historical role of elections — aimed more at legitimizing those already in power than fostering a culture of open choice — and the current incumbent leaders, including Putin.
The positions also, as opposition members learned, had to be adapted to work on the local level.
“Of course the opposition worries about the broader issues,” said Andrei Buzin, co-chairman of the Golos Association, an independent election watchdog. “Candidates talking about broad political themes do not have any future. Only economic issues, or local questions, might bring results.”
Making the opposition’s platform digestible to often apolitical voters required reconfiguring their messaging strategy, as candidates tried — many for the first time — to shift away from anti-Putin slogans toward more mundane matters like trash pickup, street construction and neighborhood playgrounds.
“Regular people want to focus on local things,” Gaidar said, recalling myriad meetings in community yards that attracted a spectrum — “from people that said, ‘But the problem is Putin!’ to people that said, ‘Crimea is ours.’ But the majority of people would say, ‘Shh, shh — we’re not about this here.’ ”
Refining the political message also meant, in many instances, losing an active base of support. The movement that launched Navalny’s mayoral campaign inaugurated a spirit of political volunteerism in Moscow. But without the draw of nationally relevant protests, many Navalny volunteers stayed home, leaving city council candidates to scramble for new ones.
“People went to those rallies because they wanted to feel the atmosphere. It was more for entertainment,” said Yulia Galyamina, a linguist and former journalist running in Moscow’s 9th district. “But people who went were not ready for political struggle — the majority of them, anyway.”
Independent opposition candidates faced many obstacles. In February, Putin signed a law requiring all independent candidates to collect signatures from 3 percent of their constituents. The city didn’t finalize the boundaries of the districts — which expanded from 35 to 45 — until April. Then in May, two of the original “For Moscow” members were slapped with fraud charges, effectively ending their campaigns.
The remaining would-be candidates had a few weeks in the summer to collect approximately 5,000 signatures. It proved an elusive goal for most coalition members.
“Maybe if we spent more money. But I paid for the campaign all out of my personal funds,” said Andrei Bystrov, a lawyer and environmental activist who said he collected more than 3,000 signatures. “I didn’t ask people to give me money because I understood, with 95 percent certainty, that even if we got the signatures, the door would be closed to us.”
That was the case for the two “For Moscow” candidates, Gaidar and Olga Romanova, who did persuade enough Muscovites to give their names and passport information to their campaigns. But the election commission later ruled that too many of their signatures were fraudulent or otherwise inadmissible.
Galyamina is one of just two signatories of the original “For Moscow” manifesto who will be on the ballot Sunday. Both survived by skirting the signature rules altogether and cutting deals with competing moderate opposition party Yabloko — which had the right to register candidates.
“I’m very crafty,” Galyamina said, explaining her decision to seek help from a party that once ousted Navalny from its ranks. “I can be friendly with anyone, even with people that have absolutely different political views, of course, except for United Russia.”
Galyamina said district polls put her in second place but admits she is not confident about her chances. Win or lose, she believes her campaign can launch a larger movement.
“We will create a school of political volunteers. . . . When we have municipal elections, we will nominate 10 active people in every district whom we found during this campaign!” Galyamina said.
But no one knows for sure when the next chance will come. National parliamentary elections are in 2016, but the same administrative obstacles might apply. Municipal elections might come the year before — or they might come the year after. And the trend in parliament, which recently debated ending public elections for regional mayors, seems counter to relaxing the rules on participation.
Yet even if the opposition is unable to run for office in the foreseeable future, the 2014 candidates believe they can create an educated electorate to be ready for the next opportunity.
“People understand that it’s hard to change big systems, so you need to fight for their parks and benches. We need to put our strength into local activities, from the lowest level,” Bystrov said.
“It’s not a question of changing one representative for another, it’s about a change in the system,” Gaidar said. “Putin and his team abuse their power because we let them do that. . . . You can find something of Putin and something of the system in every problem.”