Putin’s Uncomfortable Moscow Surprise. His Opponents Make Ground

This article first appeared on the Wilson Center site.

The round of voting that a few of Russia’s regions had Sunday September 10 was both dull and promising. The elections, the majority of them regional and local, were non-competitive in most places and served the purpose of legitimizing Kremlin’s appointees as elected politicians.

One interesting story was Moscow. It did not shake the ruling party’s positions, but it did break the sleepy rhythm of Russia’s all-too-predictable elections.

During the mayoral election of 2013, Alexei Navalny showed a grassroots alternative to the top-down campaigning the Kremlin habitually uses. This time a group of entrepreneurial political operatives who, just like Navalny, are not part of Russia’s Kremlin-dominated political circuit, introduced a way of making grassroots campaigning scalable.

About a year ago Dmitry Gudkov, 37, a former member of the Russian Duma, and Maxim Katz, 33, a former municipal council member in one of Moscow’s districts, decided to take a crack at municipal council elections in Moscow. Local council members are essentially powerless but Gudkov and Katz decided to help many independent-minded Muscovites win a few of those mandates anyway.

And their protégés, many of them very young, did receive at least 266 mandates, which is a little over 15 percent of Moscow’s council seats. United Russia, the ruling party, won 1,154 seats.

This is not a lot. Winning enough council seats is crucial. Having seats in all of the city’s 110 electoral districts allows one to break through the regional election filter. To register as a candidate for a gubernatorial election one has to collect a said number of supporters among municipal council members.

GettyImages-80906182 Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 29, 2008. NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty

The opposition campaign was not successful in achieving this. The number of seats won does not allow an opposition candidate to run for governor of Moscow in 2018 (Moscow is one of Russia’s federal regions, not just a city). The legislative hurdle created to prevent strangers from running for governors thus did its job.

Nevertheless, the results are encouraging because of the novelty of the approach. The project leaders put together a united platform open for candidates from most movements independent from the ruling party. It is an incubator of sorts: a breeding ground for political campaigns rather than businesses.

Helping Gudkov and Katz was Vitaly Shklyarov, a campaign manager who lives in the United States and has worked on Barack Obama’s and Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns as well as on some U.S. gubernatorial campaigns.

Shklyarov tells me that the Moscow council election of 2017 was probably his most efficient campaign ever. There were more than a 1000 candidates and 267 of them won their respective little races. The campaign attracted about 50 million rubles ($800,000) in small donations and that was the budget for the entire pool of 1000 candidates. “We were spending about $2 a day per candidate,” Shklyarov proudly reported.

The government played its role too. Moscow authorities could have easily stopped their independent challengers from running but decided not to. Local seats are not crucial for most operations of the city government but are nice to have.

The municipal authorities did not advertise the election and placed their bet on a low turnout. The plan apparently was that the usual suspects, the retirees and budget-dependent municipal employees, would show up and vote for the city-friendly deputies.

The turnout, at 15 percent of the eligible voters, was indeed extremely low but it did not work as intended. In the districts with a high percentage of opposition-minded voters it worked against the incumbents.

Prospective council members advertised their campaigns on social networks and mobilized their opposition-minded electorate. This worked in Moscow’s central and south-west districts. Much was also made on social networks of the fact that an electoral neighborhood just south of the Garden Ring, a part of the Gagarin District where Russia’s president Vladimir Putin is a registered voter, was carried entirely by the opposition.

Of course, this is far below Putin’s level of government. He probably hasn’t taken notice of the result. Few people noticed. Most did not vote. It is a symbolic coup, not a real one. And yet the results of this campaign are significant.

Both Kremlin political managers and opposition groups from other regions will study Gudkov’s know-how. Thousands of young people who took part in the campaign as candidates, operatives and volunteers will remember their experience and build on it.

During the few months preceding the vote they strategized, planned, and coordinated hundreds of their peers’ small but real campaigns. It was like a game but it was also a course in applied politics.

With their own eyes, they saw that running for public office in a restrictive political system such as Russia’s is a realistic proposition. Gudkov has also demonstrated that the opposition is not sitting idly; it is capable to field a united front; and does not consist of the one and only Alexei Navalny.

Still, Navalny’s project is arguably the most agile and capable of generating a political agenda of its own.

The kind of door-to-door campaigning that Navalny and Gudkov champion may become a new standard at some point in the future. Muscovites have repeatedly demonstrated that nothing in their culture prevents them from taking part in competitive elections.

That said, Moscow’s 2017 experience could just be an episode. Let us not forget that last Sunday’s symbolic success owes a lot to an extremely low turnout. Only the most active and independent-minded showed up. Even in as sophisticated and well-off a city as Moscow, the general voter supports Kremlin’s policy lines.

“The opposition will have to ensure the sympathies of Moscow’s median voter to produce any meaningful work on a city level,” Kirill Rogov, a renowned political commentator, wrote in an astute piece.

Grassroots campaigning the way Gudkov and Shklyarov do, it has to be official and thus comply with highly complicated rules. They also have to stand up to administrative whim. The Kremlin deals with elections by regulating access to them.

Most elections are decided the moment candidates are registered because only one candidate is truly electable. This means that authorities at the regional and federal level can easily prevent any surprises similar to the one that Moscow just had from happening again.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily.