On the eve of Moscow’s municipal elections Sunday, a prominent Russian journalist, Ilya Azar, had no hope of winning a seat in the city council—he took part just to make a point about participation in civil society.
The day after the election, when he saw he was leading the list of winners in his district, Azar told The Daily Beast that he felt “shocked and bewildered” by his overwhelming victory.
Nearly 50 percent of voters in Moscow’s central Khamovniki district elected 33-year-old Azar, an independent reporter from Russia’s legendary Novaya Gazeta, who had no experience as a politician. And how many seats did candidates from President Vladimir Putin’s Unite Russia party win in Khamovniki? Zero.
“United Russia was nowhere seen during the campaign, when we walked from door to door to speak with our electorate,” Azar suggested. “Maybe United Russia was too lazy, used to winning every election.
“Before election day, I thought that once I got into politics, I would have to be constantly competing with United Russia members,” said Azar. “Now, when I see that independent candidates got all 15 seats in our district, I realize that from now on it is going to be our full responsibility alone to help people in the district.”
While the electoral divide between urban and rural voters, and between provinces and the capital is wide and deepening around the world, from the United States to Spain to Iraq, rarely has it proved so conspicuous as in Russia on Sunday. While voters all across the country elected pro-Kremlin governors, Muscovites showed a huge demand for change, for reform, for new voices in politics. More than 250 independent and opposition candidates won seats around district councils in downtown Moscow.
No Kremlin-staged campaigns managed to spoil the reputation of opposition leaders. Indeed, residents of Moscow elected candidates who just a few months ago had been beaten by police or spent weeks in jail. They voted even for those who were condemned as “agents of the U.S. State Department.”
One of the election’s winners, prominent opposition leader Ilya Yashin spent 15 days in jail in June after taking part in an anti-government’s corruption rally on Moscow’s central Tverskaya Avenue. Last December Yashin received death threats for speaking as a witness at a court hearing about the murder of the late opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
“There is a new sheriff in town,” Yashin wrote on his Facebook page on Monday.
Yashin was joking, of course.
Russia has many sheriffs, some new and some not, some very serious, and several of them major figures in the Kremlin’s security services who are waging not-so-secret wars against each other. The results can sound like scripts for third-rate spy movies.
One of the scandals developed last week and illustrated the scale of the crumbling political system. It involved the CEO of Russia’s biggest oil company Igor Sechin of Rosneft, who is also known as “Putin’s Darth Vader.” Details in the scandal narrative included a suitcase with a $2 million bribe and a basket full of sausages.
The story emerged when state prosecutors at a Moscow court hearing into the activities of Alexey Ulyukayev, former Minister of Economic Development, presented a transcript of a taped phone conversation between Sechin and Ulyukayev.
“Here, take it. Put it inside and let’s go,” Sechin told Ulyukayev in the transcript, allegedly speaking of a $2 million bribe. Later Sechin was furious that the state prosecutors made the transcript public, claiming that his phone conversations included some details that he considered “state secrets.”
It’s hard to tell what those might have been. Among Sechin’s shadowy suggestions to Ulyukayev, he reminded him to pick up a present, a basket with sausages.
Half an hour after the meeting, the minister—who was being set up in sting operation—was detained at Rosneft’s office with a suitcase full of marked bills … and with sausages. The boss of Rosneft claimed that Ulyukayev had made an extortion attempt; Sechin reported Ulyukayev to the Federal Security Service, the FSB, which is the successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
Although Putin’s popularity still ranks very high in the opinion polls—up to 82 percent of Russians trust the president—even some pro-Kremlin observers now admit that the Putin era cannot be extended forever.
Last week a popular Moscow daily, Moskovsky Komsomolets or MK, ran the headline: “The Autumn of President Putin.” The story reminded readers that the president is going to turn 65 next month; and that once Putin himself stated that no manager should keep the same job for longer than five years. But in the same article MK pointed out that “as soon as Putin lets the rule go, the system will go into rags.” Majority of Russians shared the same idea.
One of Putin’s biggest critics, the late Boris Nemtsov, was a strong believer that the opposition should take part in the elections, in spite of all the pressure, the lack of access to mass media, in spite of persecution and humiliation. Even Nemtsov’s assassination did not scare the Russian opposition away from their struggle.
A few weeks ago an ambulance brought Yulia Galiamina, a well-respected Russian opposition leader, to the neurosurgical department of Botkin Hospital with a concussion, after she had been at an anti-Putin rally, where OMON, a special unit of Moscow’s security forces, smashed Galiamina’s face. But the injury did not break the 44-year-old university professor’s spirit——on Monday as a newly elected deputy she celebrated her victory in the Moscow municipal elections.
“Residents of Moscow gave Russia an example of a new attitude toward life; all independent candidates will now unite and introduce Russia to new practices of non-corrupt, transparent politics,” Galimian told The Daily Beast. “And it does not matter whether we live in Putin’s autumn or in the winter of Putin’s rule.”