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Is Vladimir Putin Losing Power? The Elections in Russia, Explained

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For some reason, I keep hearing about an election in Moscow. Why does that matter? Can you tell me in a sentence?

On Sep. 8, Moscow had elections for its city council, Putin’s side lost seats when they weren’t supposed to, and this suggests the Russian government’s strength is weakening.

Can you elaborate?

There was a long protest summer in Russia, where activists called for free and fair elections. There are 45 seats in the Moscow Duma, i.e. the City Council. Half a decade ago, Putin’s party nabbed thirty-eight of them. This time they took only twenty-five. Most of the opposition parties were essentially banned from running their people. But the Communist Party, which is still around (and legal), landed thirteen candidates in Moscow’s council. This is widely understood as a protest vote against widespread government corruption, and a possible harbinger of things to come.

How did this happen, exactly?

Putin’s party is less popular than it used to be. The most prominent opposition leader is an ex-blogger named Alexei Navalny. That name will be coming up a lot.

The government of Russia uses legal and extra-legal methods to frustrate the opposition from running. Navalny and his allies asked anti-Putin voters to employ a tactic referred to as “smart voting.” Al-Jazeera reports:

The idea was to push out ruling party candidates by systematically voting for the next person with the best chance of beating them – a strategy that appears to have worked. “We fought together and we won,” wrote Navalny on his YouTube channel on Monday evening, adding on Twitter that it was a “fantastic victory” for his new tool, dreamt up while he was in prison last year.

Is the Moscow victory a big deal?

On one hand, critics are right to point out that the Moscow Duma, or City Council, doesn’t have a lot of power. Moscow voter turnout was low, barely a fifth of the population. The Putin government’s hold on power means lots of would-be voters have become apolitical. As one political candidate noted, “These weren’t real elections, lots of candidates who would clearly have won weren’t allowed to run.” In the rest of the country, Putin’s party did decently, and the Kremlin’s preferred candidates won.

In a larger sense, however, this victory is absolutely noteworthy.

Moscow matters because, as NPR points out, Russia is an incredibly centralized country. To quote Lucian Kim, “Moscow plays the role of New York, Washington and Los Angeles combined. And so what happens here really determines the way that the whole country goes.”

In that context, it doesn’t matter that the Council itself has no power. A win there means a terrible loss of face for Putin and Putin’s government. It means a strike at the heart of Putin country; the media has noticed, the international fora have noticed; everyone has noticed. An unlikely victory, even of a government-approved party inside a largely ornamental governmental institution, matters. It endows the entire anti-Putin opposition with legitimacy. As Leonid Ragozin wrote:

For opposition politicians, the greatest challenge isn’t the government’s systematic efforts to ban them from standing in elections or crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters. It’s something Russians call beznadyoga — a collective feeling of hopelessness that paralyzes any sustained effort to overturn the status quo and marginalizes those who try. It’s this aspect of the collective Russian psyche that the opposition, led by Alexei Navalny, smashed on Sunday, after a two-month marathon of protests in the Russian capital.

For comparison, it would be as if Trump lost the Republican nomination in the first couple of important presidential primary states. Even though he’d still be President, and even though he’d still have the widespread approval of his party, there’d be big questions about his government’s ability to rule. Especially if your brand is stability, popularity, and order.

There used to be a saying in American politics: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” Back in the day, whoever won a Presidential nomination in Maine typically won in the rest of the country. At some point, it stopped mattering whether Maine was an accurate predictor of the country; electoral campaigns simply wanted to look like winners, so they began spending money there early. The appearance of winning Maine mattered that much. As Moscow goes, so goes the nation.

Can you tell me more about the opposition?

The current opposition to Putin is a network of dissenting parties and organizations. These are split into two camps. First, the opposition parties in the Russian Duma (or Parliament), who buy into the government system. They tacitly support the Putin government. As Vox explains,

With the exception of the Yabloko party members, the opposition candidates who won are part of Russia’s “systemic opposition.” These are parties that are more or less loyal to the Kremlin and are sanctioned by the government to operate as “opposition” parties and stand for elections. In other words, they’re mostly a sham meant to provide a veneer of democracy on an undemocratic system. ... [Smart voting] helped elevate the Communist Party and others that aren’t natural allies for the pro-democracy opposition, but also drew votes away from the more explicitly pro-Putin and United Russia candidates.

Second in the opposition are the patchwork of parties and organizations outside of the Duma. And I mean patchwork. Wikipedia describes Russian anti-Putinists as varying “in political ideology, ranging from liberals and socialists to nationalists and monarchists as well as apolitical individuals.” All want the downfall of the Putin regime; all are marginalized to varying degrees by the Russian government; they have been harassed in every kind of way. Among themselves, the Russian Opposition agrees on almost nothing, except their belief that Russia is incredibly corrupt and that Putin must go.

Can you elaborate on who the players are? Besides Putin.

The current ruling party of Russia is “United Russia,” the conservative-ish party of Putin and his right-hand man Dmitry Medvedev. UR is the largest political faction in Russia. Beyond an ideological support for broad nationalism, UR exists mostly as the forum for Putin’s government to be regularly re-elected. They hold three-fourths of the seats in the Russian national legislature—the State Duma—and have since 2007.

When news reports say that Putin has lost strength in the Moscow parliament, they are technically referring to United Russia’s loss of strength. To quote Julian Colling of Al-Jazeera, “United Russia has been perceived as a spent political force for some time now,” particularly:

after a deeply unpopular reform last year to raise the retirement age. The party was polling so poorly that most candidates endorsed by the power were running as “independents” – all of them in the capital.

United Russia has diminished strength. Sensing an opportunity, the opposition has been spreading its power beyond Moscow, which is the usual headquarters of anti-Putin sentiment.

Can you tell me about Navalny?

A couple of years ago, Alexei Navalny was an anti-corruption blogger with a LiveJournal and a cause. Since that time, he has become an important Putin critic, both at home and abroad. He famous called United Russia “Partiya zhulikov i vorov” — “A party of crooks and thieves.” Navalny founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which has been his principal forum to criticize Putin. The ACP had a large hand in this summer’s protests. Navalny has run for office several times, and either been barred from elections or straight-up lost. His current political party is Russia of the Future. Like practically everyone else opposed to Putin’s government, he’s been arrested a bunch of times.

Has the government reacted to the loss?

It has. On Thursday, the government launched a nationwide offensive, raiding hundreds of homes, offices, and workplaces tied to the opposition. Navalny and his supporters, and plenty of allied groups, are being accused of corruption charges that are widely considered to be entirely political. As the New York Times reported:

The raids, the biggest operation yet against Mr. Navalny and his supporters, were carried out in more than 40 cities and towns as part of a criminal money-laundering investigation announced in August by the authorities against his Anti-Corruption Foundation. The foundation has been the vanguard of recent street protests in Moscow that led to the arrests of more than 2,000 people.

They detained the punk rock and art group Pussy Riot on September 7, right before the elections. According to the Daily Beast, this is something that Russian activists go through on a daily basis. As group member Nadya Tolokonnikova said, getting hassled works like this: you step outside of your house, get arrested without reason, and go to the police station for six hours, before getting released at 1 A.M. after getting searched and some of your property seized. Tolokonnikova explained:

me, my 17-year-old sister Polina Tolokonnikova, and 14 other Pussy Riot activists were arrested when we left my apartment. We were planning to walk around Moscow with a rainbow flag and Pussian Federation flag, also we had a “PUTIN YOU’D BETTER LEAVE BY YOURSELF” banner and a handful of colorful smoke cannons. Our ultimate goal was the [Russian] White House—we wanted to make an art statement in front of our government. It was a day before the elections in Moscow City Parliament; elections that put Moscow on political fire this summer, causing mass protests and crazy outrage by cops who beat and injured people.

It was the first time she was arrested with her sister, she wrote.

Then came long hours in the police station, with cops trying to force us to give our fingerprints, trying to divide us, trying not to let our lawyer see us, trying to send a 16-year-old activist to spend a night in a hospital (because she’s younger than 18, and her parents were not able to come to the police department). Why all this malicious activity, why all these intimidations? For people just leaving a house with their friends?

What’s the larger story here?

Putin has been steering Russia since 2000, and his grip on power seems unshakable. By any standard, he is the most dominant and influential figure in post-Soviet Russia, and has a large claim to being one of the most important people in Russian history. He’s easily one of the most powerful people in the world.

But it’s also worth remembering that he’s not too different from any other national leader. No matter how authoritarian his government may seem, Putin and United Russia still hold power in a hybrid regime: experts have called the Russian Federation a “managed democracy.” But even in a managed democracy, the forms must be maintained. Even if side parties are marginalized, the shape of democracy is there, waiting for popular will to grow. The same factors that keep Putin in power—oil revenue and political stability—can just as easily be taken away. Putin can’t annex Crimea this time to distract from woes at home. Or abroad.

Right now is an unpleasant time for Moscow. There’s the low-key Cold War with America. Additionally, the Kremlin is obsessed with balancing India and China, and extending loans to African nations. This dovetails with a growing rapprochement between Russia and Beijing, including Moscow’s economic pivot to Asia. All of which came after the Ukraine crisis several years ago. The government would kill for some good press right now.

My point is this: Putin is an exceptionally good intelligence officer running a fairly weak country. Realizing this is important, because it makes clear how fragile Putin’s strength is. If a boycott from the west and a challenge at home can disrupt it, then United Russia is hardly the indestructible titan of myth.

To an unusual extent, the governing of the Russian Federation is based on commanding Moscow. Control the city, and you stand a good change of controlling the country.

In a global sense, what’s happening in Russia is happening all over the world. It’s the same old story. We see it in Hong Kong and China, and we see it in Moscow. Today’s leaders came to political power in the late Nineties. Their worldviews were shaped by the pre-9/11 world. An era before the public understood the effects of the Internet usage, the cost of modern economic inequality, and the dangers of massive climate change. If the governments don’t understand these truths, the public does. As Politico noted, “a whole new generation is coming of age that wants to see something other than Putin before they grow old.”

The traumas that forged the governments of today will be ineffective at dealing with the unique challenges of modern civil society, and a rising generation who understands the world order better than the political survivors of the Nineties. It’s true practically everywhere—and certainly in Russia.

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