Following the traditional summer lull, Russia is entering a new political season. According to recent polls by the independent Levada Center, 42 percent of Russians express their support for the protesters who have been coming to the streets since December to demand free elections and democratic reforms. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin’s favorability rating has fallen from 80 percent in 2008 to 48 percent today. The coming weeks will offer Russian citizens an opportunity to express their discontent both on the streets and (however imperfectly) at the ballot box.
On September 15th, pro-democracy activists are expected to descend on central Moscow in large numbers to reiterate their call for early elections, as well as to voice their protest at the slate of repressive measures recently rammed through the Duma and signed by Putin (among them: a law that recriminalized “slander,” a law that raised fines for “violations” at public protests by 150 times, and a law that tagged Russian nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from abroad as “foreign agents”). “It is entirely possible that the protests will lead to something, and that the government will start talking to the opposition,” says Lev Ponomarev, a veteran human rights campaigner and a former member of the Russian Parliament. “Or streets protests will simply sweep this government away.” Political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov is more cautious: in his view, “the government and the protest movement are unable to weaken each other. [On the one hand], the government is ignoring the protesters. On the other hand, increased pressure from the government does not lead to a significant demobilization of the protesters.”
Perhaps the most interesting question is whether, as a Kremlin-friendly think tank predicted at the beginning of this year, the ranks of the protesters (currently a predominantly urban middle-class movement motivated by demands for political freedoms) will be joined by residents of the provinces unhappy at their deteriorating economic conditions. This year alone, the government has raised utility bills for Russian citizens on average by 5 to 6 percent. Water bills have increased by 12 percent; gas bills, by 15 percent.
An early test of public opinion will come on October 14th, when local and regional elections will be held across Russia (for the first time since 2004, they will include direct gubernatorial elections—a Kremlin concession in the face of the December protests). In Khimki, a northern suburb of Moscow, Yevgenia Churikova, both a national opposition leader and a local environmental activist, is challenging incumbent Acting Mayor Oleg Shakhov (who will be running as an independent in an attempt to disassociate himself from Putin’s increasingly unpopular United Russia party). Unwilling to create a political storm so close to Moscow by removing Chirikova from the ballot, the authorities are trying a “swamping” tactic by registering a large number of candidates (including an evident spoiler, Oleg Mitvol of the Green Alliance party) in the hope of splitting the opposition vote. So far, this does not seem too effective. A poll commissioned by Putin’s administration shows Chirikova ahead with 32 percent, followed by Mitvol at 23 percent, and Shakhov at 14 percent. Since there is no runoff in the Khimki mayoral election, a plurality is enough to win.
In the provinces, the tactics are simpler: municipal legislators, whose signatures are required for the registration of gubernatorial candidates, are forced to sign nominating papers for incumbent pro-Kremlin governors, thus removing the possibility that they may back someone else. Several opposition gubernatorial candidates in Novgorod, Bryansk, and Ryazan have already been forced out of the race due to a lack of signatures. Yet even in the provinces some Kremlin opponents are making it onto the ballot. Provided there are enough independent poll monitors and journalists on October 14th to prevent a mass fraud, the regime may yet receive an unpleasant surprise. One such place is the city of Barnaul in southwestern Siberia, where, after initially barring the Republican Party of Russia–People’s Freedom Party from the legislative election, the authorities had to backtrack and allow its participation. The upcoming polls will be the first major test for the party, which is led by opposition heavyweights Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, and Vladimir Ryzhkov, and which positions itself as one of the principal political voices of the anti-Putin protesters.