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The Moscow Mayoral Election Will Test Russia's Internet Culture

When Moscow’s civil society exploded after national elections 18 months ago, pouring tens of thousands of protesters into the streets and electrifying a nascent class of Internet-connected “creatives,” it seemed to the world that the Putin regime was for the first time faltering. Demonstrators gathered throughout the country, but only Moscow proved capable of sustaining a truly mass movement. As the weeks passed, Russians shifted their attention to the March 2012 presidential election, which Vladimir Putin won handily, sapping the protest movement of its momentum. In the months since then, the much-hailed Snow Revolution has dissipated, absent a catalyst like the December 2011 parliamentary elections.

Enter Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin and this week’s surprising announcement [ru] that he is calling for snap elections (scheduled for September 8, 2013), transforming the coming summer into a battle over who will lead the city for the next five years. In the 2011-2012 round of protests, Moscow’s urban malcontents were always under pressure to exaggerate the national appeal of their cause. For instance, when Moscow’s oppositionist stars flocked to Astrakhan in April 2012 to support a rogue politician’s hunger strike, it was a transparent attempt to show that Moscow wasn’t alone in the fight against the Putin regime.

It serves to reason that there will be no need for such theatrics in Moscow’s coming mayoral election, where such distractions as demonstrations of artificial solidarity are unnecessary.

Vladimir Milov, discussing migration policy, 7 February 2013, clip from YouTube.

Vladimir Milov, discussing migration policy, 7 February 2013, clip from YouTube.

Politician Vladimir Milov, however, disagrees that Sobyanin has freed Moscow from diversion. Writing in his LiveJournal blog yesterday, June 4, 2013, Milov argued precisely the opposite [ru], insisting that the opposition should stick to its preexisting plan and focus itself on winning seats next year in the Moscow City Council:

Вывод – надо бороться за главную цель, большинство в Мосгордуме, и ни в коем случае не отвлекать ограниченные ресурсы на мэрскую кампанию, заведомо проигрышную. Не все матчи можно выиграть – если мэром останется Собянин, по факту ничего не изменится. Зато если мы отвлечем ресурсы на мэрскую кампанию, перебросив их с выборов в МГД, то там победить будет шансов уже меньше.

[My] conclusion is that we need to pursue the main goal—a majority in the Moscow City Council, and in no way should we divert our limited resources to a mayoral campaign that we’re certain to lose. You can’t win ‘em all, and nothing in fact changes if Sobyanin remains mayor. But if we divert to a mayoral campaign the resources for the city council elections, then our chances of winning seats in the latter only diminish.

For this advice, eDemocracy guru and member of Alexey Navalny’s inner circle, Leonid Volkov, branded [ru] Milov a “Kremlin stooge” (a “murzilka”), snapping that Milov’s political career is likely Kremlin-funded.

Navalny, of course, is the younger generation’s great hope in this race, and he has indicated [ru] his interest in participating, though he’s yet to make it entirely clear if that means he will seek candidacy himself or campaign on behalf of others. (Indeed, in what perhaps provoked Volkov’s ire on Twitter, Milov mocked Navalny’s evasiveness, alluding to its similarities with Putin’s infamous mystique.) Navalny, a blogger, an anti-corruption activist, and a public figure who—according to a recent national poll [ru]—is known to over 40% of the country, would certainly be the most exciting potential candidate to face Sobyanin. If he were to run, his campaign would test the common speculation that Russian mass culture is revolutionized by the demise of television’s monopoly on information (and the concurrent rise of the Internet, where Navalny is a superstar).

The December 2011 parliamentary elections were another experiment in measuring the Internet’s influence, as Navalny used blogs and social networks to spearhead a campaign against the nation’s dominant political party, United Russia. The Web’s reach outside Moscow, however, is debatable. According to a study [ru] conducted last autumn by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), while Web access has been expanding fastest in Russia’s regions, Internet penetration in Moscow and St. Petersburg (at about 70%) is still 20% higher than the national average.

Alexey Navalny attends opposition demonstration in Moscow, 26 February 2012, photo by Evgeniy Isaev, CC 2.0.

Alexey Navalny attends opposition demonstration in Moscow, 26 February 2012, photo by Evgeniy Isaev, CC 2.0.

Even where the Internet reaches Russians outside the capital, the peculiarities of Muscovites’ Western-leaning product preferences (i.e., Facebook and Twitter, instead of Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki) enfeeble the efforts of men like Navalny, unintentionally but thoroughly shrinking their audiences.

In the September mayoral election, none of these obstacles will be present. Moscow’s Internet culture—an eccentricity nationally—can finally perform in the mainstream, as bloggers and netizens pound at their keyboards for the next three months, weighing in, lashing out, and exerting whatever influence they indeed possess.

That said, much depends on whether or not the city will agree to register Navalny as a candidate, if he indeed decides to run. Navalny is currently on trial for embezzlement charges that, if he is convicted, would deprive him of the legal right to stand for elected office. Additionally, the legislation [ru] that will bring Moscow its first elected mayor in ten years is the same document that puts in place significant barriers to candidacy. Unless Navalny can find a registered political party to nominate him, he will have to collect almost 120,000 signatures from the city’s residents. All candidates must also obtain the support of 6% of Moscow’s municipal deputies [ru], who can only endorse a single candidate. (See Article 37, Point 15.5, of Moscow’s city electoral code [ru].)

Leftist activist Sergey Udaltsov, who announced today [ru] on his Ekho Moskvy blog that he, too, intends to run for Sobyanin’s seat, estimates there are only about 90 opposition-leaning deputies from whom one might expect mayoral endorsements. Add to these troubles the fact that more regime-friendly “oppositionists” like Mikhail Prokhorov [ru], Alena Popova [ru], and others could join the contest, and Navalny’s chances do look slim indeed.

If Navalny tries and fails to register for the race, the remaining question will be what reaction it prompts from Moscow’s “urban malcontents.” Will they resort to a despondent boycott, as émigré photoblogger Rustem Adagamov is already advocating [ru], or will Russia’s capital city again rise up, buoyed by the liberating, mobilizing might of the Internet?

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