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Moscow, as the intellectual, cultural, and business center of Russia, has a very high proportion of highly educated, well-traveled professionals. During the Putin era, this class has been left to immerse itself in private lives and careers, and incentivized to ignore politics. So for many years, they have been dormant.
But that changed in July, when Moscow’s unelected technocratic administration opted to bar 19 independent candidates from registering for elections to the city’s largely toothless city council. The blunt denial of a minor political exercise has triggered weekly protests in the city, with crowds reaching up to 60,000, the largest such demonstrations in almost a decade.
Yet as in the previous cycle of protests against election fraud, the current wave is probably limited by its social base. Urban professionals and Russia’s liberal opposition, including anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, have thus far seemed unable to forge connections with the broader masses of Russians, or even Muscovites. Surveys suggest that many more Russians are growing restive after several years of stagnating incomes and slow economic growth, and disenchanted with their government, but their priorities lie more with bread-and-butter issues.
It is Russia’s biggest political crisis in almost a decade, and one that seems to define the limits of democratic evolution under Vladimir Putin.
Throughout the summer, central Moscow has been rocked by weekly protests – some permitted by authorities, others not – against the city’s unelected technocratic administration. Even the licensed rallies have been hemmed in by massive, intimidating police presence. The unauthorized, flash-mob-style protests held on alternate weeks have been met with unprecedented police brutality and mass detentions.
At the heart of the demonstrations is the outrage of a large and influential segment of the population at the curtailment of their limited democratic rights in the Putin era. This group, which seems to be primarily made of liberal, cosmopolitan professionals, has been left to immerse in their private lives and careers and incentivized to ignore politics for most of the Putin era.
“Many are engaged in civic activism, they are active in social media, and tend to be very politically aware,” says Masha Lipman, editor of Counterpoint, a Russian political journal published by George Washington University. But instead of being allowed what they regard as their right to vote for candidates who speak their own political language in a minor municipal election, they were denied and then subjected to weeks of police violence. “This is what drove the protests.”
Moscow authorities made the fateful decision in early July to bar 19 independent candidates, mostly known liberal activists, from registering for Sept. 8 elections to Moscow’s largely toothless 45-seat city council.
The electoral commission cited irregularities in meeting the onerous requirements for registering an independent candidacy, including gathering nominating signatures from 3% of a constituency’s voters within one month, as the reason for barring those activists. Thousands of people who signed nomination forms for independent candidates saw their signatures dismissed as fake by bureaucrats, and were even ignored when some turned up in an effort to verify them.
Yet the commission also allowed several independent candidates associated with the pro-government United Russia party to scrape through the process.
The message was not lost on anyone.
“It seems clear that the government is adamant about not letting anybody who is independent and critical-minded win office above a certain level,” says Ms. Lipman. “Even though the Moscow city council has limited authority, it seems to be the cutoff point. ... The status of city councilor gives much more access to government documents, institutions, and procedures. The Kremlin wants to make sure this level is free of such ‘troublemakers.’”
That stirred the protests – the largest since Russia’s last protest wave seven years ago – which seemed to blindside Moscow authorities with their size. The first permitted one, on July 20, attracted about 20,000 people. After three weekends of police violence against spontaneous protesters, the second allowed rally on Aug. 10 drew up to 60,000 people.
That may be small compared with the city’s population of 12 million, but it points to an often overlooked fact. Moscow, as the dynamic intellectual, cultural, and business center of Russia, has a very high proportion of highly educated, worldly professionals – the sort of people who tend to be liberal-minded just about everywhere.
Over the course of the Putin era – now 20 years old – this professional class has benefited from radical expansion of popular living standards, impressive improvements in social services and infrastructure, and even brisk growth in non-political civic activism. And during the past several years in Moscow, the city’s technocratic government has re-made the landscape, building new parks, roads, metro lines, and has greatly improved public services – to the benefit of the Muscovite professionals.
The trade-off is that their ability to influence politics is greatly curtailed. For example, critics point out that Moscow’s massive infrastructure projects are decided upon with very little public consultation, and the process of awarding contracts is nontransparent, favoring city-owned and politically friendly businesses.
“On one hand, zero tolerance for any kind of political activism and brutality toward anyone violating that, and on the other hand turning Moscow into a modern, comfortable and more livable metropolis,” says Ms. Lipman. “Nobody is against these improvements. But many people were profoundly offended by [the recent] egregious and unlawful abrogation of their rights.”
A compelling alternative explanation for the protests has been put forward by sociologist Olga Zeveleva, who suggests that it is down to “Putin millennials,” or young people who have grown up knowing no leader but Mr. Putin, have no memory of the catastrophic 1990s that preceded the current era, and are impatient for change.
There may be something in that, but surveys taken at Moscow’s two permitted rallies found that just half of participants were under 33 years old and “it cannot be said that they were mainly schoolchildren or even students.” More than 80% of protesters were permanently registered Muscovites, contradicting official claims that out-of-towners were mainly responsible for the demonstrations.
The limits of Russian democracy
As in the previous cycle of protests against election fraud, the current wave is probably limited by its social base. Urban professionals are willing to take to the streets over an issue of basic democratic rights such as this. But Russia’s liberal opposition, including anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, have thus far seemed unable to forge connections with the broader masses of Russians, or even Muscovites.
Surveys suggest that many more Russians are growing restive after several years of stagnating incomes and slow economic growth, and disenchanted with their government, but their priorities lie more with bread-and-butter issues. Indeed, Vladimir Putin has so far proved far more adept at talking to the working class about their primary concerns.
One more optimistic note is suggested by Boris Kagarlitsky, a veteran Russian leftist and Kremlin opponent. He is running for city council on the ticket of the Just Russia party, one of Russia’s so-called “systemic opposition”: more-or-less loyal parties that already have representation in legislatures at all levels. Candidates nominated by such parties do not have to undergo the onerous signature-gathering and other bureaucratic ordeals that independent candidates must face to get on the ballot.
“There are a lot of new, critical-minded people running in local elections all over Russia this year who are nominated by Just Russia or the Communist Party, and who stand good chances of getting elected,” Mr. Kagarlitsky says. “The irony is that this brutal behavior by Moscow authorities is such a scandal, and has angered so many, that people are going to come out and vote this time – few usually bother with local elections – and they are going to vote for anybody except the pro-government candidates.
“There is a good chance that these elections are going to be disastrous for the government, not despite their clumsy efforts to control them, but because of it,” he says.
But Ms. Lipman says the protests themselves, dramatic as they are, lack organizational staying-power.
“There is nothing in terms of a movement that people can identify with in the long term. When the wave subsides, as it did before, it leaves nothing behind in terms of political organization and trusted leaders to sustain it,” she says.
“Of course nobody wants a revolution. People are rightly leery of any big-time political turmoil. Evolution is preferable. But I don’t see much prospect on the horizon of reaching a society of law, checks and balances, and democracy. I don’t think I will live to see it.”