After a decade of authoritarian stagnation, three months of pro-democracy protests brought politics back to Russia. Nowhere is this seen more vividly than in the municipalities, which have become an arena of vigorous competition. Although administrative pressure and fraud continue to mark Russian elections, a resurgent civil society and serious monitoring efforts by independent groups have offered at least a measure of counterbalance. The results are evident.
In the March 4th local elections in Moscow, opposition and independent candidates won some 500 out of 1,555 seats on municipal assemblies—up from 150 four years ago. As a result, opposition legislators denied Putin’s United Russia party the two-thirds majorities needed to elect municipal presidents in 20 (of 125) Moscow districts. The authorities here can no longer count on rubber-stamp legislatures. “Previously, voting for the president of the municipal assembly was a formal matter. The local administration and United Russia never had problems with getting the right candidates confirmed,” notes independent legislator Mikhail Velmakin. “Now, for the first time, many assemblies are actually trying to elect rather than appoint their presidents. This is a new experience for Moscow.”
Quiet electoral revolutions are taking place around the country. In the industrial city of Togliatti on the Volga River—the heart of Russia’s automotive industry—liberal mayoral candidate Sergei Andreev soundly defeated United Russia nominee General Alexander Shakhov—57 percent to 40 in the runoff. Mayor-elect Andreev is taking the oath of office this Wednesday. As Kommersant newspaper observed, “Opposition mayors often face a difficult choice: join the ruling party or become the subject of a criminal case. But … the changed political situation after the winter protest wave suggests that the new Togliatti mayor will not have to face this choice.” In the town of Chernogolovka, an independent mayoral candidate also defeated the candidate of United Russia. The authorities attempted to annul the election, but after local residents assembled by the administration building to defend their votes, the result was allowed to stand. In the city of Yaroslavl, Yevgeny Urlashov—supported by an array of opposition groups, including Yabloko and Solidarity—won the first round of the mayoral election, defeating the ruling party’s candidate by 40 to 27 percent. The runoff will be held on Sunday. This will be an important test for Russia’s civil society: the election-monitoring group Golos and former presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov are sending observers to Yaroslavl to ensure a fair vote count. “We need fair elections not just once every six years,” wrote Prokhorov. “We need honest politics in general. And the most topical political subject today is local elections.”
Another crucial test will be the outcome of the political standoff in Astrakhan. In the March 4th mayoral election, opposition leader Oleg Shein ran against United Russia candidate Mikhail Stolyarov. According to the official returns from polling places where votes were counted automatically by machines, Shein defeated Stolyarov by 45 percent to 42. The overall results, which include precincts where vote tallies were tabulated by hand by members of the electoral commissions, showed Stolyarov winning over Shein by 60 percent to 30. Golos concluded that the poll was conducted with “gross violations.” In at least two city districts, monitors were removed from the vote count. Since March 16th, after the electoral commission refused to hear opposition complaints, Shein and a group of supporters have been holding an indefinite hunger strike, demanding a rerun of the election. The protest has been noticed. The State Duma sent a special commission to Astrakhan. The president’s human rights council issued a statement calling on the central electoral commission and federal prosecutors to look into “reports of the flagrant disregard for the law” in the Astrakhan vote. The central electoral commission’s chairman, Vladimir Churov, has called Shein and promised an investigation. “We are waiting for further developments,” blogged the mayoral candidate, now almost two weeks into his hunger strike.
Political competition in Russia will soon rise from the municipal to the regional level. The bill reinstating direct elections for governors—a key concession by the Kremlin in the face of December’s protests—has already passed the first reading in the Duma, and is expected to be signed into law in April. According to well-connected analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, opposition leaders will likely take over some of Russia’s key regions. Thus, Boris Nemtsov “would easily win” the election for governor of Nizhny Novgorod (the post he held from 1991 to 1997), while Vladimir Ryzhkov would equally easily prevail in the gubernatorial race in Altai, the region he represented in the Duma from 1999 to 2007. Prokhorov, in Belkovsky’s estimation, has “a good chance” in the election of Moscow mayor. Meanwhile, Grigory Yavlinsky has indicated his interest in running for governor of St. Petersburg, where liberals have traditionally done well. The first gubernatorial elections will be held in October. Russian politics, it seems, is once again becoming interesting.