Despite the unseasonably cold and rainy weather, Muscovites have been gathering by the thousands each evening for the last three days. They are showing support for independent candidates attempting to register for September’s city parliament elections – and to denounce the electoral commissions that are disqualifying many of these candidates.
Because so little is usually at stake, regional parliamentary elections in Russia rarely spark this level of public mobilization. In Moscow, however, the candidates and their campaigns represent a new approach to politics. By engaging the regime on its own terms, rather than boycotting elections because they are unfair, local opposition candidates are making it harder to exclude them. In a country where electoral outcomes are often predictable and voter turnout rates are falling, they are also raising interest in politics.
The current issue is whether a handful of candidates – running as independents and in opposition to Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin – will be allowed to compete for one of 45 seats in the city’s Duma.
To be nominated, each candidate has had to collect between 5,000 and 6,000 signatures from residents, a task that took months of footwork and fundraising. Some of Moscow’s 128 electoral commissions are now disqualifying independent candidates by claiming that their nominating signatures are inauthentic. Although it is common to bar undesirable candidates from participating in elections, the commissions’ claims are comical.
One commission disqualified the signature given by a candidate – Ilya Yashin – in support of another candidate running in a different district. Another commission disqualified the signature of one of the co-authors of the Russian Constitution. Other commissions have simply declared that certain residents do not exist and therefore cannot provide nomination signatures. In response, residents formed a group called “Moscow Ghosts” and have shown up at electoral commissions to prove that they do, in fact, exist.
This particular group of independent candidates for Moscow’s Duma is part of a larger movement of opposition figures entering politics at the local level. The process began in the aftermath of the “For Free Elections” protest wave of 2011-2012. In March 2012, at the same time that Vladimir Putin was elected to his third term as president, a very small group of activists won seats on Moscow’s 125 municipal councils. Most came from the protest movement and were able to turn widespread anti-regime sentiment into votes. Five years later, at the end of an impressive electoral campaign, opposition candidates won a quarter of all seats on Moscow’s municipal councils.
These local politicians are unique because they have chosen to work within Russia’s political system, developing methods to overcome administrative and legal barriers. They have developed methods for meeting registration requirements and built an infrastructure for fundraising and producing campaign materials to reach voters. They have also been able to use their reputations as activists to demonstrate their commitment and connection to voters.
Whether the candidates are permitted on the ballot (spoiler: most independents won’t be) their campaigns have already impacted political competition in Russia. For one, they have contributed to the decline of the ruling United Russia party’s brand. Though the party chose candidates in the spring, none are running using the party’s label in Moscow’s election – they are balloting as independents, but will be part of the United Russia bloc once elected. Outside of Moscow, fewer governors are running on United Russia’s platform. Instead, even though they are not required, United Russia candidates are collecting nomination signatures, eager to prove that they too have voters’ support.
Opposition candidates’ ability to surmount legal obstacles to political participation has forced the government to employ more and more transparent manipulation. This is a dangerous strategy. As the mass protests of 2011 and 2012 showed, heavy-handed electoral manipulation tends to bring Russians into the streets.
Yana Gorokhovskaia was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute from 2016-2019. She researches authoritarian politics and civil society in post-Soviet states.