Monday, September 11, 2017

Does ‘the Small Municipal Revolution in Moscow’ Mean Kremlin Can’t Rely on Elections as a Legitimating Tool?

Paul Goble

Staunton, September 11 – Yesterday, opposition candidates won approximately 190 seats in Moscow’s municipal district elections and what is more took a majority in 14 of the municipal assemblies, a development some are dismissing given the level of the offices involved but others see as a “small municipal revolution” that deprives the Kremlin of a legitimating tool.

Simon Zhavoronkov of is among those who aren’t making too much of what has happened. He points out that no one should forget that United Russia candidates won the overwhelming majority of all district seats as well as the far more important gubernatorial competitions (

                Not only did the opposition win only a few seats at the lowest and least important legislative bodies, but it won its fraction in Moscow in precisely the same places it has been doing relatively well since the end of the 1980s, and “over the last 30 years,” Zhavoronkov continues, “not too much has changed.”

            Several factors came together to help the opposition this time around: the consolidation of the liberal candidates under a single umbrella brand, tighter control over election commissions, and also the decision of the Moscow mayor’s office to suppress rather than boost turnout in this election.

            As a result, the political commentator continues, turnout was far smaller than in the Moscow city Duma elections, and the opposition got its supporters to the polls at a time when United Russia was not making much of an effort in that direction.

            At the other end of reactions to this vote is Kirill Martynov, the politics editor of Novaya gazeta.    He argues that the vote represents “a small municipal revolution” and establishes “a stable opposition at the local Moscow level” which is thus in a position to “correct the trajectory of recent Russian politics (

            The opposition deputies will be able to make real demands on the authorities about budgets and other key issues, and they will in some places be in a position to vote out the administrator.  Indeed, Martynov says, their appearance sets the stage for “a political confrontation of executive and legislative powers that people in Russia had begun to forget.”

            The leaders of the opposition in Moscow from the very beginning said, Martynov continues, that “the municipal assemblies can be used as a public tribune” to express positions on a wide variety of issues and not simply points of disagreement with the local leaders. In this way, what has occurred is a reduction of the sense of unanimity the Kremlin has promoted.

            All this means that “the almost mythical 14 percent” – that is the share of the electorate that doesn’t say it supports Putin – now has a voice, the Novaya gazeta commentator says, because at the municipal level there was no check like the five percent barrier that kept them from being elected to the Russian Duma.

            Of course, he continues, this “municipal revolution became possible because of the miscalculation of the authorities.” They thought if they kept turnout down, they would win easily. Just the reverse has happened. And that sets the stage both for the sorting out of who will lead the opposition and of who may challenge for the Moscow mayor’s position next year.

            Zhavoronkov is probably too pessimistic and Martynov too optimistic, but a third commentary suggests what may be the most important fallout from this vote: the Russian government can no longer count on elections to be an automatic instrument of legitimation. Instead, they may become one that leads to “destabilization” (

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