20 years under Putin: a timeline

Next year, Moscow will hold its legislative elections. Traditionally, elections in Russia’s capital city are considered a national event. IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza contends that the democratic opposition stands a significant change of success—but only if it finally manages to unite.


Left to right: Boris Nemtsov, Grigory Yavlinsky, Alexei Navany


Russian politics are made in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and what happens in the two capital cities—be it in August 1991 or in December 2011—always has nationwide ramifications. The same goes for elections. In this regard, neither the Moscow City Duma nor the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly is just another one of Russia’s 83 regional parliaments; rather, each is a federal political platform in its own right. It is not surprising that when former members of the Russian State Duma (such as Grigory Yavlinsky in St. Petersburg or Nikolai Gubenko in Moscow) become members of one of these two city legislatures, this move is not considered a “demotion.”

In this context, the 2014 Moscow City Duma elections are certainly an event of national significance—especially for the Kremlin’s opponents. Moscow is one of Russia’s most opposition-minded cities—indeed, even according to the official figures the majority of its voters rejected Vladimir Putin in March 2012. It is also a place where if outright fraud is not easier to prevent, then it is at least easier to document and publicize than in other regions. The presence of independent media outlets, the wide availability of the Internet, and, most important, significant numbers of politically active citizens are crucial factors that characterize the situation in Moscow. In such circumstances, the opposition—or, to be more precise, the democratic opposition—has a rare chance of gaining a significant number of votes, despite administrative pressures, patently dishonest “campaigns,” the inevitable skewing of vote tallies, and other regular features of Putin-style “elections.”

Receiving 25 or 30 percent of the vote in Moscow would be a breakthrough for the Bolotnaya Square opposition and would demonstrate the groundlessness of the “marginal” label imposed on Kremlin critics by state-controlled television. Such an outcome is entirely possible, even probable. But in order for this to happen next year, the regime’s opponents must invest in significant efforts—not least an effort to change their own attitudes about each other.

Receiving 25 or 30 percent of the vote in Moscow would be a breakthrough for the Bolotnaya Square opposition.

According to the Levada polling center, 17 percent of Muscovites intend to vote for the democrats. Putin’s United Russia Party has 29 percent of voter support, while a generic nationalist party has 18 percent. The democrats’ 17 percent figure includes not only the two independent parties (the Republican Party of Russia–People’s Freedom Party and Yabloko), but also Mikhail Prokhorov’s Civic Platform, which is evidently loyal to the regime. Civic Platform is included in the figure not because this party can be considered a part of the opposition (indeed, the first words that greet visitors to its website are “We are not an opposition”), but because it targets the same voters as the real liberals. The 17 percent figure is, therefore, an estimate of the current strength of the liberal electorate in Russia’s capital city—although actual support for the pro-democracy forces is undoubtedly higher than the combined poll figures of the three aforementioned parties. Once again, the official results of the 2012 presidential elections showed that Prokhorov’s vote in Moscow (which was, in fact, a broader vote for a liberal anti-Putin position) exceeded 20 percent. Everything points to the fact that had Yavlinsky—who is much more acceptable to Russia’s democratic-minded voters than Prokhorov—been on the ballot instead of Prokhorov, the result would have been even higher. Indeed, that was the reason the authorities did not permit Yavlinsky to run. It is also important to note that the People’s Alliance, another potentially significant force in the Moscow elections, is unlikely to be allowed on the ballot: despite the much-trumpeted “liberalization,” the party founded by supporters of Alexei Navalny has been denied registration.


The Moscow City Duma


Needless to say, the consolidation of the opposition is a necessary requirement for success. If political will were present, the numerous artificial barriers to coalition-building that have been created by the authorities (including a ban on forming electoral blocs and a ban on members of one party running on another party’s list) could be overcome—for example, by temporarily resigning from one’s party during the campaign or by opening up a party’s list to independent civic activists, members of unregistered parties and movements, and opinion leaders. The real issue is one of political readiness.

Naturally, the Civic Platform cannot be discussed in this context—strengthening the opposition is evidently not among the goals of the project’s high-level patrons. Indeed, Prokhorov’s party has already rejected the possibility of a coalition with the democrats and, it appears, has entered into an alliance with Yuri Luzhkov, the former mayor of Moscow and former co-chairman of United Russia. The People’s Alliance, as has already been mentioned, does not have the right to participate in elections. This leaves just two pro-democracy groups: the People’s Freedom Party and Yabloko.

Many volumes could be written on the history of relations between these two parties—indeed, many have been (if the People’s Freedom Party is considered the political successor of the now-defunct Democratic Choice of Russia and the Union of Rightist Forces). The widely accepted narrative of these relations is based on two myths. The first one is that Democratic Choice of Russia and the Union of Rightist Forces “have always backed the government.” This is clearly inaccurate if one recalls Democratic Choice’s principled stance against the first Chechen war and the strong anti-Putin wing in the Union of Rightist Forces, which was led by Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada. The second myth is that Yavlinsky’s repeated refusals to join the government in the 1990s were caused by his “fear of responsibility.” The truth of the matter is that one cannot serve in a government whose policies to a large extent contradict one’s ideals—no practical good will come of it, and the ideals will be discredited.

In Putin’s Russia, liberal parties have no moral right to compete with each other.

In fact, the two wings of modern Russian liberalism—one left-leaning, the other right-leaning—do have their differences and, in a developed democracy, might well be justified in existing and functioning separately. The People’s Freedom Party is ideologically close to Germany’s FDP, while Yabloko resembles Britain’s Liberal Democrats.

But in Putin’s Russia, where human rights groups are being labeled as “foreign agents” and a large group of political prisoners is awaiting a 1930s-style show trial, liberal parties have no moral right to compete with each other.

There was a moment in modern Russian history when the unification of pro-democracy forces could have significantly altered the subsequent course of events. In 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky tried to bring about a coalition between the Union of Rightist Forces and Yabloko in the parliamentary elections. At the time, electoral blocs were still permitted and the regime was still relatively mild. Even though elections were already far from honest, a unified democratic bloc (that was supposed to be led by Nemtsov, Yavlinsky, and Khakamada) would have undoubtedly cleared the minimum threshold for parliamentary representation and won dozens of seats in the State Duma. One cannot write an alternative history, but it is evident that Putin’s task of cementing his “power vertical”—with its censorship, political prisoners, and irremovable nature—would have been more difficult with a genuine opposition in Parliament.

In 2003, a coalition of the democrats did not come to pass, and who is to blame hardly matters now. The results are well known. What is important is to draw the lessons from that history. Both the People’s Freedom Party and Yabloko have indicated their readiness to hold primaries and open up their lists to representatives from other political forces. A formal negotiation process between potential coalition members is already underway. Too much depends on its outcome for Russian democrats to now indulge in recalling old grievances and discussing mutual disagreements.