The Russian Opposition Protests, Explained

Drew Zirkle | @71RDrewZirkle

Riot police, tear gas, and arbitrary arrests. This scene sounds like its straight out of Hong Kong, where prolific protests erupted earlier this summer and have engulfed the city for months garnering worldwide attention. Although Hong Kong certainly is engaged in one of the most dangerous struggles for geopolitical sovereignty, they have overshadowed a band of freedom fighters that have endured a despotic regime in a land that has never tasted liberty.

Moscow, Russia is the latest battleground against the rising tide of authoritarianism in the world. Despite Russia being America’s greatest rival on the world stage, these protests have received nearly no coverage in Western media. Russia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, meaning that the meager coverage from the Western media has been cursory glances from the outside looking in. Although it may seem a world away, America must start paying attention to Moscow.

Putin’s Grip

Russia is by all accounts an authoritarian state masquerading as a democracy thanks to the man at the top, President Vladamir Putin. Helping secure Putin’s grip on power is his political party, United Russia. The party is a big-tent, right-of-center, authoritarian party which was masterminded by Putin himself in the early 2000’s as a way to cement his popularity during his initial terms as prime minister. As time went on, United Russia became an overwhelming force in Russian politics thanks to the backing of Russian oligarchs and the countless instances of corruption that implicated its members.

This rising action leads us to today, where United Russia dominates every part of Russian politics. It holds 75% of the seats in the State Duma, 75% of the seats in the Russia Federation Council, and over 75% of the seats in all other levels of government in Russia. This means that every element of the Russian government acts as a rubber stamp to the will of Vladimir Putin, who can incite action at any level of government, whether directly or indirectly. This iron grip on Russia’s institutions of power reaches everywhere, including the city government of Moscow, which has become the centerpiece for these protests.

A City in Shambles

Moscow has been under control of United Russia since the party’s formation in 2001. As of now, current Mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, is attempting to subvert what is supposed to be democratic elections for Moscow’s regional parliament, the Moscow City Duma. The elections for the body are supposed to be held on September 8th, 2019 and the newly elected body will replace the current Duma, which is already under the control of the United Russia Party.

A rising tide of opposition has engulfed the United Russia Party in the months leading to the Moscow City Duma elections, threatening to disrupt the autocratic status quo that the citizens of Moscow are subject to under the corrupt regime of United Russia. Muscovites are upset about rising real estate prices coupled with corruption in public housing procurement programs and low wages for public servants in direct opposition to the “May Decree”. There was even a scandal in which tainted food in schools led to thousands of Muscovite children contracting dysentery. The wholesale corruption of the United Russia party has allowed these problems to persist, meaning support for opposition candidates in the election has hit new heights.

Playing the Game

If given a fair fight against the deeply unpopular United Russia candidates, liberal opposition parties may stand a chance. However, the Russian electoral system is crafted to ensure that the ruling party stays in power. In order to be registered as a candidate for Moscow Duma elections, the party of the candidate must have a representative in the State Duma at the national level in Russia. This means that candidates that are not with United Russia, the Communist Party, or two other smaller Russian parties must achieve ballot access through the acquisition of signatures.

A number of suppressed political factions in Russia attempted to coordinate a resistance to the United Russia Party by undertaking a strategic nomination campaign. These factions include the Yabloko Party (A Green Party in Russia), organized candidates under Alexy Navalny (An opposition candidate to Mayor Sobyanin’s 2016 reelection), and organized candidates under Gennady Gudkov (A prominent State Duma member who was expelled for dissidence). These candidates engaged in a strategy in which opposition candidates from different factions would not challenge each other but rather spread their candidates out to challenge the most amount of United Russia candidates possible.

This well planned nominating strategy was paired with an initiative called Smart Vote, which encouraged voters to vote for the opposition candidate with the best chance of beating United Russia regardless of ideology. Coupled together, these tactics made it look as though the opposition had a chance at securing some seats in the Moscow Duma. Countering this well-planned strategy was the rather confusing strategy of the United Russia Candidates, who forfeited their automatic ballot access in order to run as “independents,” with the hope that they could be free from the negative aspects of United Russia’s reputation.

The only snag for the pro-democracy movement was severe and related to signatures and ballot access. Duma candidates without automatic ballot access need signatures from 3% of the constituency they are running in, which wasn’t a problem for most opposition candidates. The catch was that if more than 10% of the signatures were considered invalid by Moscow City Election Commission, the candidate would be disqualified regardless of how many signatures they had. The commission, as with most government institutions in Russia, is completely corrupt and is controlled by Valentin Gorbunov, a United Russia insider who has headed the commission for over two decades.

When the list of approved candidates was announced in early June, all “independent” candidates who were formerly apart of United Russia were approved while nearly all opposition candidates who were running an anti-corruption platform were excluded due to more than 10% of their signatures being declared invalid. This meant that for around 20 serious opposition contenders and 200 candidates, their name would not appear on the ballot on September 8th. Even though it looked as though the campaign was over for the opposition, the resistance was just beginning.

Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

Just when things couldn’t get worse for what seemed like a waning United Russia Party, they did. Despite using corrupt electoral systems to eliminate most of the serious opposition on the ballot, dissent on the street began to erupt in ways typically not seen in Russian society. Protests began on July 14th and were met with brutal police force. The days’ events resulted in 39 detentions, 4 of whom were rejected opposition candidates, as well as 4 hospitalizations. Things began to escalate throughout the next week and with the opposition being denied appeals by the Moscow City Election Commission, it became clear that these candidates would not see their names reinstated on the ballot.

The largest political action since 2012 was executed on July 20th, when nearly 22,000 Muscovites took to the streets in protest of balloting policy. Despite the impassioned protesting, it seemed as though the options for reinstating opposition candidates were beginning to run out. On July 23rd, Russia’s national election authority, the Central Election Commission, sided with the Moscow City Election Commission’s decision to remove candidates from the ballot and chose not to intervene on behalf of the opposition.

July 24th saw the arrest of key opposition leader Alexey Navalny and the interrogation of 6 opposition candidates in relation to a criminal case regarding the hindrance of the work of election commissions. Police searches of opposition candidate HQs were carried out throughout the week, leading to the arrest of prominent would-be opposition candidate Ilya Yashin.

On the morning of July 27th, four more opposition would-be candidates, including prominent grassroots media figure and Navalny ally Lyubov Sobol, were detained for planning an unauthorized rally to take place later in the day. Protesters still came out on the 27th in support of opposition figures and in response, they were met with police force. Police used batons, service dogs, and plainclothes “civil agents” to attack protesters. In all, it is estimated around 1,300 protesters were detained out of the estimated 15-20 thousand attendees.

Afterward, opposition media headquarters like Navalny Live became subject to police raids while Russian state media downplayed the police response. Mayor Sobyanin commended the police for their tactics and lashed out at the protesters, accusing them of trying to take over city hall. Many of those detained in the July 27th protests are being heavily prosecuted under Article 212, Clause 2 of Russian criminal code.

The article criminalizes actions such as “the destruction of property” and “armed resistance to government representatives” within the context of “mass riots.” The charges being levied against these protesters could result in 3-8 years of imprisonment, despite some of the accused only having thrown trash at the police, directed protests, or criticized police on social media. Smaller rallies again took place the next week, with another thousand people being detained and internet being temporarily shut down in Moscow by authorities. These protests were all leading up to August 10th, where a protest approved by Moscow authorities in support of democracy was set to take place.

A Protest to Remember

On the morning of August 10th, the streets of Moscow filled with 60,000 protesters, the largest number yet in any single protest in support of the opposition. A city hall sponsored event meant to overshadow and outperform this protest was lightly attended, showing the high level of support for the Democratic movement among Muscovites. Musicians were scheduled to play and opposition leaders were expected to make appearances, and despite attempts to prevent this by the authorities, things mostly went off as scheduled. The major exception was Lyubov Sobol, who just before the protests, filmed herself being detained by police for the second time in one month in regards to her pro-democracy campaign

Aleksandr’s Story

In order to get a better understanding of the situation in Moscow and the motivations behind the average everyday protester, I spoke with a young man named Aleksandr (a pseudonym to protect himself) who was an informed supporter of the opposition and an attendee of the August 10th protests. Aleksandr made clear that the justification for civil disobedience has remained steadfast yet grown at the same time.

Aleksandr told me that “The driving force behind the protest is the total indignation of citizens over the actions of the government. The catalyst for this was the blatant irregularities in the Moscow City Duma election process.” But the justification behind these protests didn’t stop there. He also told me that “One of the slogans at the rally on August 10 was to ‘release all political prisoners.’ In the eyes of most people, the authorities have discredited themselves, and many people do not like corruption in all sectors of the economy, lawlessness of the police and courts.” The protests, which still, on the whole, are pro-democracy protests, have also expanded into an effort to hold the Mayor and other city authorities responsible for arbitrary arrests and blatant mismanagement.

Aleksandr also remarked that most opposition leaders had been arrested, meaning that the people had to carry on for the most part on their own, which shows the resiliency and genuine power behind the pro-democracy movement in Russia. In regards to the effectiveness of the protest, Aleksandr was optimistic that the protests would garner results. He specifically cited a successful protest earlier in the year which pressured authorities into dropping drug charges fabricated against a prominent opposition journalist as proof that protests can create change in Russia.

As for what Aleksandr believed could come from these protests, the answer was complicated. He noted that “people are trying to get the arrested candidates for deputies and other political prisoners released with protests. Next, citizens demand that these candidates be registered. If it succeeds, it will be a small victory.” Although this seems to be the main desire for the opposition, he also stated that “many of the protesting citizens understand this and would like to change the entire government, the president and other corrupt officials,” which is a much more ambitious and far-reaching goal.

Aleksandr’s most poignant remark regarding the nature of the conflict was “[Moscow’s governing elite] will cling to power to the last, so that they can continue to be enriched by their criminal schemes…citizens want the elections to be fair and people to have their democratically elected representatives. I hope that someday we will succeed.”

As for the results of the August 10th protests, they were not what many had hoped for. Demonstrations that occurred outside of the government-approved location and time-frame resulted in police brutality and 250 arrests. The Russian media downplayed the event and Russian officials refused to budge, leaving the pro-democracy movement less than a month to free their leaders and save the sanctity of their elections from the continued autocratic dynasty of United Russia.

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