Moscow mayoral battle: Clash of political cultures

Aerial View of Moscow From Beyond Stadium, file photo

(Russia Beyond the Headlines – – Yulia Ponomareva, RBTH – August 26, 2013)

Kremlin ally faces convicted opposition leader Navalny after a date change rules out Prokhorov.

A political contest for control of Europe’s largest city has become a fight between Kremlin-backed Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and opposition activist Alexei Navalny. The Sept. 8 election for mayor of Moscow will be the first to be held in 10 years: Elections were scrapped in 2004, in favor of presidential appointment.

The vote was restored last year, as a concession to the tens of thousands of anti-government protesters who took to the streets of Moscow and other cities to demand fair elections. Protests had followed complaints of vote-rigging in the parliamentary elections of 2011.

Sobyanin was appointed mayor in 2010, in place of his long-serving predecessor, Yuri Luzhkov, who was sacked by former President Dmitry Medvedev. Sobyanin replaced most of Luzhkov’s old guard in the City Hall with a team set on modernizing Moscow through revamped transport infrastructure and improved public spaces ­ something he has actively sought to do during his term in office.

Navalny, 37, represents another generation of political campaigner: He has risen to prominence largely through Internet activism and his leading role in the anti-government street protests.

The next mayoral contest for of the city of 15 million people had been scheduled for 2015, at the end of the incumbent’s five-year term. However, Sobyanin, who is the former governor of Tyumen (Russia’s richest oil-producing province) and former chief of staff to President Putin, surprised many by announcing in June that he would seek early re-election, to “boost [his] legitimacy among Muscovites.” This was a reversal of his view in February, when Sobyanin, 55, declared: “Our polls show that 70-80 percent of Muscovites don’t want early elections.”

The early poll meant that his strongest potential rival, the billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov who came second to Putin in Moscow in the 2012 presidential election, could not stand. A law took effect in June that banned elected officials from holding accounts and business assets abroad.

Prokhorov had planned to return his foreign assets to Russia by 2014, in order to run for the city council as a launch pad for the mayor’s office, but he could not do so in time to qualify for the election.

“The government could have had only one solid reason to call a snap election: Both the Kremlin and Sobyanin feel a bit too wary about the future,” said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“The government can’t rule out facing growing discontent among Muscovites in the near future, as Russia is entering a period of recession, making a rise in protest sentiment inevitable.”

Exposing corruption

The most recent survey by pollsters Synovate Comcon found that, of the 58 percent of respondents who intended to vote, more than 63 percent would back Sobyanin, who represents the ruling United Russia party; Navalny followed with 20 percent. Support for the other four candidates was in the single digits. A second round between the top two candidates will be held if neither receives more than 50 percent of the vote.

Navalny became famous as an Internet blogger, exposing corruption in Russia’s biggest state-owned companies. In 2010, financed through crowd-funding, he built a network of lawyers to search for shady contracts in the government procurement system and blow the whistle on corrupt officials.

He claims that his foundation’s investigations have resulted in the cancellation of government contracts worth 59 billion rubles ($1.7 billion). However, in the past 18 months, Navalny himself has been the target of five criminal investigations, which have been viewed as politically motivated by some observers.

In July, he was found guilty of embezzling 16 million rubles ($485,000) from a state-owned logging company in Kirov, where he had acted as adviser to the regional governor in 2009; he was sentenced to five years in prison. His conviction in the highly controversial trial prompted thousands of supporters to take to the streets near the Moscow Kremlin to protest.

To widespread surprise, just 24 hours after pressing for his imprisonment, prosecutors returned to court to argue that Navalny should be freed while he appealed against his conviction. His release made it possible for him to run in the mayoral election.

Gaining recognition

“It was Sobyanin who plucked Navalny from jail,” said Igor Bunin, president of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. “Sobyanin needs to show that these elections are transparent and competitive, to legitimize his win. To this end, he let a top Russian blogger run.”

Usually a persona non grata on state television (the main source of news for 87 percent of Russians), Navalny is using every opportunity to spread his message ­ that putting an end to corruption will save the budget hundreds of millions of rubles, which could be used for the benefit of Muscovites. At televised candidate debates in which Sobyanin has refused to take part, Navalny spoke of pervasive government corruption.

“Sobyanin’s campaign is traditional for the government that is in control of all resources: It’s unimaginative and uses administrative pressure,” said Shevtsova. “Navalny offers a great number of engaging campaign methods ­ both online and offline ­ no matter how limited his resources are.”

Navalny has raised a total of 49 million rubles ($1.4 million) in donations for his campaign and has 14,000 volunteers who distribute leaflets and newspapers around Moscow. Every day, Navalny holds up to five open-air meetings with voters, near metro stations in different districts of the city.

What began as a campaign to legitimize Sobyanin as mayor has gradually legitimized Navalny as the incumbent’s main opponent. One key question is whether Navalny will be jailed after the election, which might have the effect of turning him into a political prisoner in many people’s eyes.


Olga Kryshtanovskaya, Sociologist and former Kremlin adviser:

“The mayor of a city ­ even if it’s the capital of a country ­ is the one to address infrastructural issues in the first place. It’s not enough to be a good speaker to make a good mayor. Sobyanin personifies stability, but he’s no demagogue: He’s working to have infrastructures repaired and new roads built. He’s staying above the fray, showing people that he’s working for them, and they see the results of his work ­ the city is in a fairly good condition.”

“At the same time, society is split in two, and, in the final count, it all boils down to a choice between Putin and his opposition. Navalny represents those on the other side of the barricades, those who don’t necessarily dislike Sobyanin but primarily want a new government. They want to dismantle this system and build a new democratic one. Those who hate the system vote for Navalny. The rest of the candidates have very low chances of winning; they’re just failing to engage voters.”

“This the first time in years that the opposition has openly taken on the government. Navalny’s campaign is very unusual. He’s using social networks and a wide network of volunteers; his team carries out their own surveys, campaigns on the streets, and he personally meets with people in their neighborhoods. This way, ordinary people are getting to know the candidate Navalny. A second place would be a great success for him.”