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'A stage victory for the opposition in Moscow'
Peer Teschendorf in Moscow on the results of the local elections and what they mean for Putin's grip on power

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Reuters
Reuters
Russia's President Putin visits a polling station during the Moscow city parliament election

Read this interview in German.

The local elections in Russia have attracted much international attention although the local level is largely powerless there. Why were Sunday’s elections so important?

The state itself helped the elections to this great importance. Since last year, regional and local elections have been increasingly used by citizens to express their protest. On top of that, in Moscow, there’s a new generation of young politicians who are trying at the local level to implement very concrete policies for the people and thus challenge the existing balance of power.

The great national and international interest in the Moscow elections was generated by the state itself. The high hurdles for the candidates, who among other things had to collect up to 6,000 signatures for admission to the elections, forced the opposition to an intense campaign targeting many individual citizens. For the first time ever, many of those addressed met a candidate for the City Duma. As a result, the opposition candidates became well known in their constituencies.

When the signatures, collected with a lot of effort, were then declared forged, non-existent and ultimately worthless, the thousands who had signed them were dumbfounded. Above all, however, the excessive violence against the peaceful demonstrations caused the protests to become symbolically charged and led to solidarity with the demonstrators. Since then, it has no longer been about the city parliament, but about the relationship between state and citizens.

Can the elections be regarded as a success for the opposition despite the massive exclusion of their candidates?

One can certainly speak of a stage victory for the opposition in Moscow. While the Kremlin’s candidates were confirmed in the gubernatorial elections, conditions in the Moscow City Duma have changed significantly. The party in power (United Russia) could even be deprived of a stable majority in the end, the systemic opposition can count on 19 out of 45 seats and, for the first time since 2005, the opposition party Yabloko will again be represented.

Alexei Navalny ‘smart vote’ strategy, in which lists of candidates with the greatest possible distance from the government were issued, had the desired effect to a certain extent. This way, the opposition was also able to convey its potential if all its candidates had been admitted. In any case, these elections were the most intensely discussed that have taken place in Moscow so far.

The fact that the transfer of seats from ‘United Russia’ to the actually harmless systemic opposition must already be seen as a success also shows, however, the long way the opposition still has to go to really be able to participate in politics. The low voter turnout in Moscow, at around 20 per cent, also shows that mass mobilisation was not successful despite all the protests. And we can doubt whether this will remain only a stage victory or whether the race for the national parliamentary elections in 2021 has become somewhat more open.

Is the power structure of the Putin government seriously becoming shaky at the moment or is that reading too much into the latest developments?

The protests will certainly not directly endanger the president’s position. On the one hand, the protest is still limited to a relatively small group, although it is growing steadily. Putin has sinking but still reliable approval rates among the population and he has an extensive security apparatus. At the same time, the opposition isn’t united; there are many actors, some of whom are at odds with each other.

However, the protests mark the transition to a new phase, at the end of which the current system of government could falter. The protests are strongly supported by the generation that grew up after the end of the Soviet Union. They demand having a say for themselves. It’s the end of the social contract ‘prosperity against participation’, which the government had previously designed.

It seems like the system of the party in power no longer works. ‘United Russia’ was created to procure majorities smoothly and thus control the element of unpredictability while formally maintaining democratic elections. However, the party has become so discredited that many candidates with party membership preferred to run as independent candidates in order not to be punished by the voters. It seems questionable whether the Kremlin will enter the 2021 parliamentary elections this way.

Where does the growing dissatisfaction with the government come from?

Putin came to power when the economy was slowly recovering from the catastrophic 1990s, which deprived many people of the little wealth they had earned. Then, high oil prices promoted economic growth that made the increasing centralisation of power and the restriction of participation forgotten. But Russia is currently in the longest phase of economic stagnation that it has seen in decades.

For the sixth consecutive year, real disposable incomes are falling. Poverty is growing. After the annexation of Crimea, a wave of euphoria made these problems temporarily forgotten. But frustration returned at the latest with raising the retirement age and VAT. In addition to the lack of prosperity, there’s an even more serious factor for dissatisfaction: the feeling that people are no longer respected by the ones in power. Younger people in particular want to have a say and help shape the future, but they hardly see any opportunities to do so. Even the older people simply felt ignored when the retirement age was raised. The impression arose that the state was simply no longer interested in them.

How is the government reacting to the erosion of its legitimacy?

You see different reactions. On the one hand, there are attempts to reach out to people. After protests against the construction of a cathedral in a park in Yekaterinburg, the plans were stopped for the time being. The protests against the arrest of journalist Ivan Golunov led to his unexpected release. At the same time, instead of legitimation through economic success, there’s the attempt to create a patriotic foundation for the president.

The increasing heroisation of the strong political leaders of the past, the patriotic transformation of school education, but also the emphasis on foreign threats are intended to strengthen the legitimacy of the state as a guarantor of Russia’s stability and power. This has been successful. Ultimately, however, control will also be expanded. Laws for stronger control of the Internet as well as the expansion of the surveillance infrastructure in Moscow with cameras for face recognition indicate that there’s a desire to be prepared. The extremely harsh sentences pronounced in recent weeks on the occasion of the protests have to be understood as signals that the state is drawing clear lines here.

Will the situation change at the end of the president’s term of office?

How the question of power will be settled when Putin's fourth term of office ends is something that no one can really predict at the moment. It’s clear, however, that attempts will be made to find a solution that is as stable as possible and does not entail any fundamental change in the power structure. Whether this can succeed will also depend on how the Kremlin deals with the growing willingness of the population to protest. If it’s possible to gradually give the people, and especially the youth more influence and say, the end of the term of office could mark a transition into a power structure that’s slowly opening itself up. If, however, the Kremlin were to seek salvation in increasing exclusion and repression for fear of another Maidan, the conflict would just get more intense.

This interview was conducted by Claudia Detsch.

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