Kremlin faces headache with heated Moscow city election

Authorities scaling back legal assault on protesters to ‘prevent electoral catastrophe’

Russian police officers prepare to block protesters during a rally in support of opposition candidates in the Moscow city duma elections. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

Russian police officers prepare to block protesters during a rally in support of opposition candidates in the Moscow city duma elections. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

 

The Kremlin hopes the Moscow city parliament election taking place this Sunday will turn the page on the political turmoil of the past two months that has spilled on to the streets of the Russian capital in the biggest anti-government demonstrations in years.

However, opposition leaders say Muscovites have finally found the courage to stand up for their rights, and the authorities may well face an autumn of discontent.

In the past no one has taken much interest in the Moscow city duma, a 45-seat legislature dominated by members of the Kremlin’s United Russia Party. But a group of mainly young municipal deputies and opposition activists saw the election as an opportunity to get more involved in politics and change the way the city is run.

Deputies, they say, should make use of their powers to raise questions about the distribution of Moscow’s massive annual budget of 2.17 trillion rubles and the choice of the business groups that win lucrative urban contracts.

Moscow’s election commission saw trouble coming and demanded that all independents collect thousands of voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. Officials then found many of the signatures wanting and rejected unwelcome candidates.

Russian opposition leaders united with the disappointed candidates to call a series of protests that at their height in late July and early August drew tens of thousands of people on to the streets demanding free and fair elections. Law enforcers cracked down with unprecedented force, arresting thousands of demonstrators and jailing opposition leaders for breaching public meeting laws.

What was most striking about the rallies was that, unlike at protests in Paris and Hong Kong, Russian demonstrators were almost always peaceful even when confronted with police violence.

That has not stopped state prosecutors from targeting 15 protesters with criminal “mass rioting” charges and accusing others of assaulting police or inciting violence via Twitter.

Battle lost

As election day approaches, it’s clear that the disqualified candidates have lost the battle for representation in Moscow’s duma. But they’re still campaigning to ensure United Russia suffers a crippling defeat at the poll. Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most popular opposition leader, is urging voters to pick candidates best able to defeat the Kremlin’s party regardless of their political stripes.

At political talk shows on Kremlin-controlled television, commentators repeat the mantra that western powers are meddling in the election to weaken Russia. But the majority of Russians aren’t buying the propaganda, according to a survey published this week by the Levada Center, an independent Russian pollster.

Life has moved on and people are relying less on television and more on the internet and social media to source information. In a sign of the times, young protesters surrounded state TV reporters at a recent protest shouting “propagandist” and “Enough of your lies”.

There are some indications that the Kremlin might consider modifying its repressive policies. Russia’s Investigative Committee announced this week that charges against five of the 14 defendants accused of mass rioting had been dropped for want of evidence.

Courts in overdrive

Moscow courts, meanwhile, were in overdrive working to rule on criminal cases arising from the protests before the election takes place. Seven men were sent to jail this week for two to three years for assaulting police officers at an unauthorised demonstration on July 27th. A five-year sentence was handed to a defendant for a post on Twitter calling for the de-anonymisation of riot police and their children, which prosecutors interpreted as a call for violence.

However, in a few cases the courts have shown mercy. A judge ordered the release of a student who had been charged for throwing a plastic bottle at policemen even though he had pleaded guilty. Another rejected the prosecutor’s request to strip a couple of their parental rights for taking their child to a protest and allowed them to take the child home.

In dropping some criminal charges, the authorities were trying to cool down the angry mood – not just in society but in a large part of the Russian elite that is disturbed by the rise in political repression, said Alexander Kinev, a Russian political scientist. “People don’t like the creeping militarisation of Russian politics,” he told Echo Moskvy radio. “No one wants to live in a police state.”

Grigory Yudin, a sociology and philosophy professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, said the authorities were scaling back the legal assault in “a desperate attempt to prevent an electoral catastrophe”.

Continued repressions risked turning the September 8th poll into a referendum on the simple question: ‘Do you like what the state is doing now?”

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