Last week, the electoral commission in Khimki, a northern suburb of Moscow, completed the nomination process for the upcoming mayoral election. Twenty-six candidates are planning to take part in the October 14th vote, with nine of them already registered. Yet the real battle will be between two contenders: Oleg Shakhov, the regime-backed candidate (below, left), and Yevgenia Chirikova, one of the Russian opposition leaders (right). IMR Advisor Vladimir V. Kara-Murza discusses the importance of this campaign for the country’s protest movement.
Although Russia has not had a real election in more than a decade (the last vote which, overall, conformed to OSCE standards was the March 2000 presidential election), participation in an unfair electoral process can still provide the country’s opposition with an important tool for mobilizing its supporters, and can even serve as a catalyst for protests, as in fact happened last December.
It is clear that of the three approaches to the 2011 parliamentary election chosen by various opposition groups—complete boycott; casting ballots with all party-lists crossed-out; and full participation with subsequent monitoring of the vote count—the last proved most effective. If alternative parties had not participated, it would not have been possible to demonstrate that, even according to the official result, the majority of voters rejected United Russia. The officially announced result was 49.3 percent in favor of United Russia candidates, while the real figure, according to independent observers, was around 30-35 percent.
Through the monitoring of the vote count by NGOs and participating parties (first and foremost, the liberal Yabloko), society was provided with the facts about the actual scale of the fraud. As Vladimir Bukovsky noted, “of all the various aspects of unfair elections, people are most outraged by stolen votes.” Had the entire opposition boycotted the December election and not monitored the vote count, it is doubtful that 100,000 protesters would have come to Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue.
The next test for the opposition will come on October 14th, when 73 of Russia's regions will hold local and regional elections.
While, at the federal level, participating in elections could result in mobilizing protest sentiments, at the local level it could actually bring victory to the regime's opponents, despite the government’s control of the electoral commissions and its still powerful administrative resources. This was shown in the recent mayoral elections in Chernogolovka, Togliatti, and Yaroslavl, where independent or opposition candidates defeated United Russia. The newly elected mayor of Yaroslavl, Yevgeny Urlashov (who won 70 percent to 28 percent and was supported by a wide array of opposition groups, from Solidarity to A Just Russia) expressed confidence that his victory will not be United Russia’s only problem, and that the ruling party “will soon deflate to a very small size.”
The next test for the opposition will come on October 14th, when 73 of Russia's regions will hold local and regional elections. In the protest movement, most of the attention is focused on Khimki – and this is not the result of its proximity to Moscow. This town is considered to be the birthplace of civic protest in Putin’s Russia. In the mid-2000s, long before the rallies on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue, the town’s wooded area, “Khimki Forest,” became the focus of confrontation between society and bureaucracy. In violation of the law, the authorities decided to destroy a part of the forest (the only source of vegetation north of the Russian capital) to make way for a high-speed road connecting Moscow with St. Petersburg. The contract to build the highway’s first section was given to the Northwestern Concessional Company co-owned by billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, Vladimir Putin’s onetime judo partner. Opponents of the project maintain that it will lead to an environmental catastrophe in Khimki.
The Khimki Forest Defenders Movement, led by local entrepreneur Yevgenia Chirikova, has brought together environmentalists, human rights defenders, journalists, cultural figures, and other active citizens. In 2010, the campaign expanded beyond Khimki: national opposition leaders began to speak out in support of the cause. In downtown Moscow, a rally against the destruction of the forest attracted more than 5000 protesters (a sizable number in those days). A poll by the Levada Center showed that 76 percent of Khimki residents supported the forest’s defenders.
Faced with the authorities’ determination to proceed with the highway in spite of the protests, the civic movement began to transform itself into a political opposition. “We realized that we cannot count on fairness from the authorities,” Chirikova asserted in late 2010, “And if that is the case, we are launching a political struggle and will be insisting on regime change.” The leader of the Khimki Forest Defenders became an active participant in the winter post-election protests, and has openly supported the Magnitsky Act which would introduce U.S. visa and financial sanctions against Russian officials involved in corruption and human rights violations.
Vladimir Strelchenko, Khimki’s unpopular mayor who had signed the original order to build the highway through the forest, resigned on August 14 2012. This has given the opposition an opportunity to test its strength at the ballot box. On September 9, the Khimki electoral commission registered Yevgenia Chirikova as a mayoral candidate. Along with the promise to stop the construction of the highway, her electoral platform proposes wide-ranging measures to combat corruption, decentralize the budget, provide incentives to businesses, democratize local governance (such as by holding referenda), and ensure government transparency and accountability.
Knowing full well that in today’s Russia, verifying an election victory is no less important than achieving it, Chirikova’s campaign is preparing to send its volunteers to every polling place in Khimki, and to conduct a parallel vote count. (More than one thousand observers were present at the Yaroslavl election.) Leading opposition figures, including Boris Nemtsov of the Republican Party of Russia–People’s Freedom Party, Sergei Mitrokhin of Yabloko, Alexei Navalny of the Anti-Corruption Fund, Sergei Udaltsov of the Left Front, and Ilya Ponomarev of A Just Russia, are backing Chirikova’s candidacy. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of Open Russia foundation and the country’s most famous political prisoner, has urged all opposition forces to “unite in support” of Chirikova.
The regime’s protégé in the Khimki election is the current acting mayor, Oleg Shakhov, who was not officially nominated by United Russia and is running as an independent—not surprisingly, given that 45 percent of Russians consider the ruling party to be a “party of crooks and thieves.” After the December rallies, the authorities’ arsenal of weapons for manipulating elections was significantly depleted: crude methods such as removing unwanted candidates from the ballot, or patently falsifying the vote tally, could lead to a new wave of protests. According to Alexander Kynev, an expert of the Golos poll-monitoring group, “the authorities have begun to use new, softer techniques for programming the [election] results.” One of these techniques is the use of spoilers. The recently established Communist Party for Social Justice and the Communists of Russia party are not only fielding candidates in several regional elections (which in itself can confuse the supporters of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation), but are also putting up nominees with the same names as those from the Communist Party. Another such spoiler is the For Justice party, evidently intended to take votes away from A Just Russia.
The Khimki election has no shortage of spoilers. Among those who could take votes from Chirikova are Alexei Gusenkov of the Greens party, former Yabloko member Igor Belousov (who left the party after it decided to back Chirikova), and Oleg Mitvol of the Greens Alliance, a former government official and ex-prefect of Moscow’s Northern District. Mitvol rose to national prominence in 2003, when he conducted a raid on the editorial offices of the opposition newspaper Novye Izvestia, dismissing its director, legendary journalist Igor Golembiovsky.
Such candidates, however, are unlikely to confuse voters in Russia’s “protest capital.” Moreover, Mitvol’s participation may end up hurting the authorities themselves: the former prefect of Moscow’s Northern District (bordering Khimki) can take votes not only from Chirikova, but from Shakhov as well. A poll commissioned by the presidential administration put Shakhov’s support at 14 percent, which is less than Mitvol’s, who has 23 percent. Chirikova, with 32 percent in the poll, currently leads in voter preferences.
Chirikova's victory would have more than local significance. For one thing, the regime’s opponents will be able to show that they know how to govern and, in Navalny’s words, that they “are interested in more than just rallies.” Of equal importance, Khimki’s move to the opposition column (alongside Yaroslavl, Togliatti, and Chernogolovka) will signify that the protest movement is becoming a real alternative to the regime—albeit, for now, at the local level. It is, indeed, unwise to underestimate the importance of the localities. The peaceful dismantling of Slobodan Milošević’s regime began with his opponents’ victories in the 1996 municipal elections and the ensuing protests against attempted fraud. Four years later, the Serbian opposition achieved full victory.