Independents battle apathy as Moscow votes
More than 90% of city's local council seats are held by a pro-Kremlin party
Vladimir Putin with Sergei Sobyanin: Over 90 per cent of the seats at Moscow’s local councils are held by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, providing a bedrock of political support for city mayor Sobyanin. Photograph: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Muscovites like to escape the Russian capital on summer weekends and relax in the countryside or tend their vegetable plots. But there’s been no time off for Aleksandra Andreeva, who has been out and about in her constituency every day this past month flagging the local council elections taking place on Sunday.
“I have the energy, the experience and the charisma to succeed in politics,” says the 37-year-old independent deputy at the Lefortovo district council in southeast Moscow. “But only if people come out to vote.”
More than 90 per cent of the seats at Moscow’s local councils are held by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, providing a bedrock of political support for Sergei Sobyanin, the city mayor and a close ally of Vladimir Putin.
But the the elections at 125 municipalities in the city this Sunday could upset the status quo.
Sobyanin has been pursuing a massive urban regeneration programme in Moscow that, while lining the pockets of favoured business moguls, has alienated many city residents. Simmering resentment has sparked an unprecedented interest in local politics with 1,000 independent candidates coming forward to challenge United Russia at the council polls.
Sunday’s elections will set the stage for the mayoral poll in next September, says Dmitry Gudkov, a former opposition Duma in the Russian parliament who has set his sights on the top job at Moscow’s City Hall.
‘A political force’
“This is not about park benches and promoting the wellbeing of a region. We are creating a political force which will change the situation in the country next year and will put forward candidates for the mayor’s office,” he says.
Council deputies can’t dictate policy but they can make life difficult for the city authorities as the “eyes and ears” in the system, says Andreeva, who has made a name for herself in the Lefortovo district lobbying for the conservation of historic buildings. “Deputies can demand access to financial documents and in some cases block construction projects.”
Most of the independents standing at the council elections are young professionals making their first foray into local politics. Open Russia, a pro-democracy organisation founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled former Russian oligarch and arch foe of the Kremlin, has encouraged candidates to come forward, providing advice on how to campaign free of charge.
Vasily Dikaryev, a geography researcher at Moscow State University who is standing for election at the city’s Yakimanka district council believes the new generation of candidates has a good chance of making a big splash at the polls. “People still support Putin, but Sobyanin is really unpopular now,” he says. “People are fed up with the disruption caused by construction projects, the dust and the traffic jams.”
For independent candidates the immediate challenge is to raise awareness about the election and persuade people to come out to vote. It doesn’t help that the campaign has taken place in the holiday season or that there is so little public information about the election.
Russian state media has barely mentioned the polls. There are no billboards in the city flagging the election and no advertisements for individual candidates pasted up on public buildings or at bus stops.
“Moscow authorities have preserved the silence of the tomb about the elections,” says Gudkov.“Their goal is that nobody turns out leaving Sobyanin to vote for all.”
For the most part United Russia candidates have avoided campaigning on the streets and instead made use of government-owned schools and clinics for meetings to drum up support.
Moscow city authorities have been trying by “every means possible to reduce the turn out” at the same time as using “administrative resources” during the campaign, according to a report released this week by the Golos, an independent movement dedicated to upholding voter rights. “This combination could raise the likelihood of a victory for the pro-authorities candidates.”
Independent candidates are battling to break down a wall of political apathy on the streets. Many Muscovites find politics dull and pointless and struggle to even remember the names of their local council deputies. “There’s no faith in the political process,” says Yevgeny Poroshin, a lawyer for Open Russia.
But even if the independents have only a slim chance of victory there are people about determined to chase them off the political patch.
“As soon as we stick up our posters they are torn down,” complains Dikarev. “There’s no point going to the police. They are not interested in petty crimes.”
With five years service as a council deputy under her belt, Andreeva is accustomed to the rough battles of politics. But even she was surprised to find adulterated copies of her campaign poster in circulation proclaiming a goal to “weaken and destroy Russia” and bring the country “to the level of Ukraine”.