Today’s news (10th September 2013) has reported promising developments in Russia, where an opposition candidate, Alexey Navalny, won 27% of the vote in Moscow mayoral elections. An anti-drugs activist, also without Kremlin approval, won 33% of the vote in Ekaterinburg to become the new mayor. The Kremlin’s tentative steps towards restoring elements of local ‘democracy’ are not going entirely to plan.
Although some news outlets, including the FT, have hailed the ‘return of real politics in Russia’, no-one underestimates the scale of the task ahead. Through the combined use of patronage and coercion, the Kremlin’s ‘power vertical’ remains very much in-tact. It does not hesitate to use repression, making it very difficult for genuine oppositionists to organise. Obstacles stand in the way of coordinating public gatherings, registering political parties and nominating opposition candidates. Without access to the mass media, opposition parties must win 7% of the vote across Russia in order to gain representation in the Duma. That would be a formidable task even if the votes were counted fairly, which they often are not.
Therefore, while Putin’s grip on power looks shakier than it has done in the past, it is still a force to be reckoned with. The Kremlin has tended to respond to challenges to their power by increasing repression. In the worst case scenario, the minor breakthroughs of these local elections may point to even more challenging times ahead for Russian democrats.