The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Kremlin’s foes got on the same page for an election. Can they stay there?

A woman exits a polling booth during a city council election in Moscow on Sept. 8. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

MOSCOW — With the Kremlin’s preferred candidates barely holding on to a majority of the Moscow city council after Sunday’s election, opposition leader Alexei Navalny was in a jubilant mood Monday.

“We won! Congratulations to all,” he wrote on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app. “I am willing to walk around Moscow and kiss everyone. This was the first experience of a huge and very complicated collective action on the part of voters — grass-roots action.”

Navalny was thrilled because the groups arrayed against President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party showed, for once, that when they put aside their differences and act in concert, they can make serious inroads. But those differences are not minor. The coalition that took 20 of the 45 seats in the council was one strictly of convenience, not of ideology.

Navalny had pursued a strategy of “smart voting,” supporting the one candidate in each district who stood the best chance of beating the Kremlin’s surrogate. That put liberals like Navalny — who once played the nationalist card but has dropped it in recent years — on the same side as the Communist Party, and it put 13 Communists on the city council in contrast with four liberals. The other three opposition winners were from a party called Just Russia, which is ideologically closer to the Communists than anyone else.

“In any case this is a fantastic result of smart voting, and we’ve been struggling for this result all together. Thank you all for your participation,” Navalny wrote on Twitter.

Once the council, or city Duma, gets down to business, though, “I don’t believe they can create something like a coalition,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the head of a think tank called R.Politik. “They will not work together.”

Last month, at a Communist Party rally in Moscow, its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, attacked the liberals as being under the sway of foreign governments. While banners with Stalin’s likeness flapped in the breeze, he talked about his party’s wish “to restore the Soviet Union in a new form.”

That is not what Navalny and his allies envision.

The Communist Party is often disdained by urban liberals as a tame grouping nurtured by the Kremlin to give the appearance of democratic opposition in Russia. But it is misguided, Stanovaya said, “to think the Communists are a party that always plays the game with the Kremlin, that they’re under Kremlin control.”

There are party branches all over Russia, creating a strong and widespread network. As quiescent as it has been, Stanovaya said that if it were galvanized, it could pose a bigger threat to the Kremlin than the liberals could ever dream of.

But Putin and his allies can hardly call Sunday’s nationwide voting anything but a success. Every single governor’s race went to the candidate with Kremlin backing. Even as United Russia went to some lengths to hide its identity — taking on different local names or arranging for candidates to run as “independents” — it did better overall, by far, than any other party.

“On the whole, the past election campaign around Russia was very, very successful for the United Russia party. It might have gotten more seats at some places and fewer at others, but on the whole, the party showed its political leadership nationwide,” Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, told journalists on Monday.

With falling popularity, Putin has tried softer touch. But will it last?

Moscow was the party’s main trouble spot. The head of the Moscow party organization, Andrei Metelsky, lost his bid for a council seat after a season of revelations by Navalny’s organization about his wealthy lifestyle.

Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who hoped to create a trouble-free campaign this summer by forcing Navalny’s allies off the ballot, instead presided over large street protests and a brutal police crackdown. That seems to have done more to electrify Moscow’s voters than anything a candidate might have tried.

Ilya Yashin, an opposition activist who was among those stricken from the ballot, said Monday that Sobyanin was the big loser in the election.

“The fact that he publicly expressed solidarity with the security forces, and talked about ‘mass chaos,’ was intended as a sign to the Kremlin of his reliability,” Yashin wrote on Facebook. “But the problem is, the government has become a failure, and despite its huge resources, as it turned out, it can’t control the city.”

Sobyanin was measured in his response to the election.

The elections “were perhaps the most emotional and truly competitive elections in recent history. There were about five candidates running in every district. Passions flared,” said a statement on his website. “The Duma has become more politically diverse. Hopefully, the city parliament will benefit from that. I congratulate all elected deputies. I am hoping for constructive work for the good of our beloved city and that of Muscovites.”

The most serious election day problems were reported in St. Petersburg, including attempts to bribe voters, commit fraud and assault observers. The vote-counting was proceeding slowly Monday, and the head of the Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, urged the local election board not to hurry but to get the count right.

In one day, Moscow police detain more than 1,000 protesters

Crackdown in Moscow suggests new approach against opposition

Perspective: Putin’s power depends on his popularity. That is a weakness.

Perspective: Seeking democracy on the streets of Russia

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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