Julia Reed in Moscow -
A round of 73 regional and municipal elections that start on October 14 will be the first real test for Russia's nascent protest movement. The first protests were sparked by popular outrage to rigged Duma elections last December and were followed by large crowds protesting against Vladimir Putin on the eve of the presidential elections, despite the fact that pollsters and analysts say he would have won those elections fair and square (even if the Kremlin did massage the figures up by 5-10% in the event). However, the upcoming regional elections are the first real chance for the opposition to put some of their own into Russia's administrative machine.
However, be prepared for disappointment. An extensive internet search failed to find a list of the regions where the elections will be held, let alone anything about the candidates, parties or platforms involved. This information is nicely hidden and reserved for those who follow politics closely. Since winning support in the regions is the key factor that determines the outcome of national elections, it is important they should be run quietly; "administrative resources" work best with the ignorant.
But politics is becoming an increasingly fashionable pastime amongst the young, who have been joining civil action groups with an identifiable goal rather than political parties per se.
Unsurprisingly these groups make heavy use of social media, where their day jobs give way to time spent in a commitment to public duty. "Since December, I have been a monitor in the elections in Moscow, Yaroslavl, Yakhroma, Pereslavl, Suvorov, Efremov, Kasimov, Chagoda, Omsk and Krasnoyarsk. I also went to Krymsk to help the flood victims. The change of power will come not from the top, but from the bottom. Everywhere we go, we explain to people what their government does to them and how they can support opposition candidates in the elections. Gradually, opposition candidates will be filling more and more seats in the local elections," says Nickolai Levshits, a 34-year-old activist.
Levshits is one of the many activists heading to the small Moscow-outskirt town of Khimki where the high-profile opposition candidate Evgeniya Chirikova is running for mayor on October 14. Chirikova, a 35-year-old business woman, sprang to national prominence as the leader of the leader of the Khimki Forest environmental conservation movement that had some success preventing the government from driving a road through park land, temporarily at least. She has since become a figurehead of the emerging middle class that is increasingly demanding a say in how Russia is run.
Despite her national status, Chirikova is facing an uphill battle. The incumbent mayor, Oleg Shakhov, controls the local newspapers, TV, public halls and even the printing shops. With all the traditional channels shut off to them, opposition candidates are forced to use door drops and direct sales techniques to take their message to the voters.
Activists like Levshits are the shock troops. They arrive in small groups and talk to as many people as they can, giving out leaflets, explaining the candidate's platform and asking for support. Many of the passers-by are not even aware of the elections. When approached, they are more likely to vote since they are not used to such direct campaign techniques, and the protest voting in Khimki is expected to be high. "We were told that the communal services in Khimki were instructed to remove all campaign materials from all the candidates, except for one," says Nikolai Lyaskin, head of Chirikova's election campaign. "We had real difficulty finding a print shop in Khimki that would print our materials. They said: 'nothing personal, but we don't want to get into trouble'."
Russian law grants all candidates equal access to the mass media in a campaign. Yet so far Chirikova has had only three spots on a local channel of a few seconds a piece, one TV appearance and a three-quarter page advert in a local newspaper. By contrast, the local papers are full of stories about mayor Shakhov's activities. "This paper used to be published once a week and cost RUB10 (about 30 US cents). Now they made it free and publish it twice a week!" laughs Lyaskin.
Russia also has its own campaign-financing issues. The law limits donations to a candidate to RUB10,000 (about $333) from any individual for the duration of the campaign. Legal entities are allowed to give more, but they are hesitant to make an official payment to opposition leaders for fear of repercussions.
Faced with these odds, the chances of sweeping changes in the upcoming polls is low, leaving most seats in the hands of the ruling, Kremlin-backed United Russia. However, there will be some changes, expected in Tver, Yaroslavl, Barnaul, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski, Kursk and Vladivostok.
The trick will be for opposition groups to work together. In Yaroslavl, independent mayor Evgenii Urlashov won the election in April thanks to support from the opposition and there, at least, the municipality elections will be run without the use of administrative resource, giving a variety of candidates equal access to the mass media.
In the Saratov local duma elections, a coalition of several democratic parties has formed for the first time that include RPR-Parnas, Yabloko, Democraticheski Vybor and Democraticheskaya Platforma, which has a real chance to win seats. "We come together on some campaigns," says Vladimir Milov, head of Democraticheski Vybor. "We want to replicate what United Russia did - to create strong regional representations and win regional elections. Yet our party does not want to unite with other [democratic] parties since we have too many disagreements. Now we can agree inside our party, but then it will be a fight over who is going to be the head, and the like."
Fragmentation and big egos have been the bane of every opposition group in Emerging Europe since 1991 and this has not changed much as Russians go to the polls again this autumn. While their efforts to come to power from the municipal and regional level has already produced a few successes, the majority of opposition candidates and their ideas remain largely unknown to the voting population, who are still manipulated by the state channels as their primary source of information.
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