In Moscow, Official 'Win' Is a Big Loss for the Kremlin

Authoritarian regimes often hasten their end with their own arrogance and underestimation of opponents. Too often, they start believing their own propaganda. When, this past summer, the Russian authorities made the decision not to bar opposition leader Alexei Navalny from the Moscow mayoral election, the calculation was that he would receive a meager result, and the Kremlin would kill two birds with one stone—show that elections in Russia are “honest,” and that the opposition has “no support.” A July poll by the pro-Kremlin Public Opinion Foundation reported Navalny’s support in the Moscow election at 6 percent. Pro-Kremlin “analysts” confidently predicted that this figure was “the ceiling” for the opposition candidate.

Could Navalny Force a Political Crisis for Putin?

Moscow’s vote on September 8th will be much more than an election for mayor—although that in itself would be pretty important. For the first time in more than a decade, a political alternative is emerging in Russia—despite the media censorship, the administrative pressure, and the vastly superior resources of the ruling regime. Alexei Navalny’s insurgent campaign for Moscow mayor has already been described as Russia’s first modern (US-style) political campaign: he has met face-to-face with voters every day; raised funds through individual, often small, donations; drawn thousands of volunteers willing to contribute their time and effort; and inspired genuine public enthusiasm for a political cause not seen in Russia since at least the early 1990s.

That cause is not a particular program or even a particular candidate—it is change, after nearly 14 years of repressive and corrupt rule by Vladimir Putin and his associates from the former Soviet KGB and the Ozero dacha cooperative.

Honoring Yeltsin in Tallinn

Last week, a new monument was unveiled in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. The bas-relief mounted on Nunne Street, in Old Town, bears an inscription in three languages—Estonian, Russian, and English: “In memory of Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, to honor his role in the peaceful restoration of Estonia’s independence in 1990–1991.”

Created by Estonian sculptor Rene Reinumae, the bas-relief is based on the bust of Yeltsin by legendary Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny. The idea of erecting a monument to Russia’s first (and, so far, only) democratically elected leader in the Estonian capital was conceived and realized by a nonprofit group, Memory Initiative (Malestuse initsiatiiv), whose members include Heiki Ahonen, director of the Museum of the Occupations and a former political prisoner; Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Estonian Parliament’s foreign affairs committee; and Matti Pats, the grandson of Konstantin Pats, the first and last president of interwar independent Estonia. The funds for the bas-relief were raised from individual donations.

Remembering Seven Dissidents and Soviet Brutality

August 25, 1968, was one of the most important days in the history of the Soviet dissident movement. That Sunday, seven people came out into Moscow’s Red Square in an open demonstration of protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Soviet tanks had rolled into that country on August 21st in an effort to suppress the “Prague Spring”—a dangerous precedent of political liberalization in the Communist bloc. Soviet newspapers demonstrated “nationwide support” for the invasion, while “workers’ collectives” across the country passed on-cue resolutions in favor of Operation Danube.

At noon on August 25th, seven people—Larisa Bogoraz, Konstantin Babitsky, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremlyuga, Pavel Litvinov, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, and Viktor Fainberg—sat down by the Place of Skulls on Red Square, across from the Kremlin’s Spasskaya gate. The demonstration was silent; the protesters raised a small Czechoslovak flag and makeshift posters reading “Long live free and independent Czechoslovakia!,” “Down with the occupiers!,” and, perhaps most famously, “For your freedom and ours!”

A Local Election in Yaroslavl, Russia's Opposition Capital

While most of the attention in the run-up to Russia’s September 8th regional elections has understandably been focused on the election for Moscow mayor, where protest leader Alexei Navalny is challenging the Kremlin-backed incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, there are other campaigns of considerable interest—and considerable potential for new troubles for the regime.

Moscow’s Least Popular Mayoral Candidate

The Moscow mayoral election that takes place a month from now is Russia’s most heated political contest in years and will undoubtedly have nationwide ramifications. Fearful of a resumption of mass protests on the scale of 2011–2012, the authorities decided not to bar the leading opposition candidate, Alexei Navalny, from the ballot. The stakes could not be higher, either for the Kremlin or for the pro-democracy forces. The former wants to show that it can still win a relatively honest election, and the latter need to prove Moscow’s status as the main opposition stronghold.

According to the latest poll by Superjob research group, with four full weeks left in the campaign, the Kremlin-backed incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, is supported by 53 percent of those who have already made up their minds. Navalny is in second place, with 32 percent. None of the remaining four candidates has more than 6 percent in the poll.

Navalny's Campaign for Mayor Returns Politics to Russia

This summer, Russia has skipped its traditional political lull. As the September 8th mayoral election draws closer, Moscow finds itself at the center of a heated campaign that would seem more appropriate in the free-wheeling 1990s than in the era of Putin’s authoritarian stagnation. For the first time in more than a decade, real politics and real competition have returned to Russia’s capital. The “culprit”? Alexei Navalny, the 37-year-old anticorruption campaigner who has emerged as a leading figure in the Russian protest movement since the 100,000-strong pro-democracy rallies in December 2011, which signaled the long-awaited political awakening of the country’s middle class.

Kremlin Arrests Leading Opposition Mayor

The Putin regime has a multitier system of ensuring that no genuine opponent ever comes near a position of power. For the most part, opposition candidates are simply barred from participating in elections—as happened with Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Bukovsky in 2008; with the People’s Freedom Party in 2011; and with Grigory Yavlinsky in 2012.

Putin’s Police Raid Human Rights Group

“You are scaring the … public. Nothing like that is happening here,” Vladimir Putin told German ARD television in April. “There is no need to scare anybody [by saying] that someone is being seized, arrested, confiscated [sic] … There are some administrative sanctions, but I believe that they are absolutely within the bounds of civilized rules.” The Kremlin leader was responding to a question about the ongoing crackdown against Russian NGOs, which have been forced by a new law to label themselves as “foreign agents”—which, in the Russian language, is synonymous with “foreign spies.” Organizations that have refused to accept this slanderous label—including all of Russia’s leading human rights NGOs—are facing forced dissolution.

Why Is Putin Still in the G-8?

Fifteen years ago, the United Kingdom hosted the first official summit of the “Group of Eight.” The 1998 meeting in Birmingham marked the first time that Russia participated as a full member in the club of the world’s leading industrialized democracies—a unique international organization based not only on its members’ geopolitical influence, but also on their adherence to the values of political and economic freedom. Despite the many social problems at the time, Russia in 1998 clearly met the criteria for G-8 membership: It had free competitive elections, a robust independent media—including national television—and a genuine pluralistic Parliament.

Will Obama Ignore Human Rights in Talk with Putin?

On Monday, US President Barack Obama will meet with Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland. According to the White House, their bilateral agenda will include Afghanistan, Syria, missile defense, counterterrorism, and economic cooperation. No mention, at least so far, has been made of anything relating to democracy and human rights—despite Putin’s unprecedented crackdown, which now includes not only fraudulent elections and media censorship, but also political show trials and state-driven paranoia about “foreign agents,” as the Kremlin is labeling independent NGOs. Several participants of a May 2012 anti-Putin rally in Moscow are in jail for “inciting riots”; Alexei Navalny, a prominent anticorruption campaigner and opposition candidate for Moscow mayor, is on trial; and a third criminal case is reportedly being prepared against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s best-known political prisoner, who has already spent nearly a decade behind bars.

EU Panders to Putin, Shelves Human Rights

On Monday and Tuesday, Yekaterinburg, Europe’s easternmost city, hosts the bilateral EU-Russia summit attended by the respective leaders—EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to Van Rompuy, “there remains a lot of untapped potential to deepen our strategic partnership in all areas,” and the summit will focus in particular on “modernization, visas and mobility, and trade” as well as “measures to stimulate economic growth and jobs.” One of the main issues at the summit will be the negotiation of a new bilateral agreement between the EU and Russia.

The Kremlin shares Brussels’ optimism regarding the summit: Vladimir Chizhov, Moscow’s EU representative, has spoken of “a unique historical chance for our cooperation to move to a new level,” stressing his expectation that human rights will not come up for discussion to avoid “making the atmosphere toxic.”

A Glimpse of Truth in the Kremlin's Democracy Charade

Most of the time, the Kremlin is trying to preserve a smokescreen of “legality” around its actions—and the Russian regime’s Western apologists are happy to follow suit. In their pretend world (the true worth of which is well known to them), Vladimir Putin and the current State Duma have been “elected by voters”; the government “does not interfere” with the courts or the media; and jailed opponents of the regime are not political prisoners, but “criminals.”

A Rare Case of Justice in Russia

Good news from Russia, politically speaking, is a scarce commodity—especially if it involves opponents of Vladimir Putin. On Thursday, a Moscow City Court judge overturned the extension of pretrial detention for Vladimir Akimenkov, one of 17 people who are currently being held behind bars in the so-called “Bolotnaya case.” According to the government’s version, the mass protests against Putin’s inauguration on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, turned into “riots.” An independent expert commission established by human rights groups has concluded that the violence was deliberately provoked by the authorities to create a pretext for the subsequent crackdown.

Russia’s Protests Resume Amid Heightening Repression

On Monday, some 30,000 people gathered on Bolotnaya Square—the site of the unprecedented anti-Putin protests in 2011 and 2012—in a rally that was marked, in the words of media commentators, by “hope without illusion” and “solidarity without euphoria.” This protest was not, as a year ago, directed against a fraudulent “election” that returned Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin. This time, Muscovites came out to protest the looming transformation of an authoritarian regime into a full-fledged police state.


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