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Russia

Opinion: Look to Yekaterinburg, not Moscow

On the surface, Moscow's mayoral polls went just as expected. Putin's outspoken opponent Alexei Navalny had a respectable showing despite his loss. But another result is more significant, writes DW's Ingo Mannteufel.

Ingo Mannteufel
Photo: DW/Per Henriksen

Ingo Mannteufel

It was clear right from the start that Putin's friend and Kremlin-backed candidate Sergei Sobyanin would continue to serve as Moscow's mayor in the coming years. Ultimately, it was his formal resignation from office that prompted an early election, and he had more than just an incumbent's advantage going into the polls on Sunday (08.09.2013). Sobyanin enjoys not just Putin's support but also that of what Russians will recognize as the "administrative resources" of the city - its bureaucrats, police officers, justice system and TV media, all of whom portrayed him as a caring and capable father to the city.

As such, opposition candidate Alexei Navalny faced slim chances from the outset. His campaign focused on raising his profile in the hopes of forcing Sobyanin into a second round of voting. Navalny didn't rack up the votes needed to do so, thanks certainly to the fact that Putin's Russia does not allow for real political showdowns.

It's important, though, to distinguish here between the long-term manipulation of votes and concrete acts of fraud on election day itself. There's certainly a case to be made for the former in this instance, but the results of Moscow's mayoral race cannot be explained by that manipulation alone.

Evident dissatisfaction

The key number to emerge from the vote was the low amount of voter participation. Just around one third of all Muscovites turned out at the polls. Moscow is commonly seen as Russia's political epicenter where the fate of the country has always been decided in the decades gone by. Against that backdrop, voter turnout seems crushingly small.

That's all the more surprising in light of the fact that Putin introduced reforms that prevented Moscow from directly electing its mayor for the last 10 years. One would have expected them to welcome this chance at determining the course of their community with open arms.

The disinterest among voters gives expression to many Muscovites' frustration with a system of politics they see as being steered from above. The Kremlin-backed incumbent was unable to mobilize traditionally-minded voter blocs just as the opposition candidate could drum up only limited support from the communists or the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) populists.

Success or not for Navalny?

Coming in second, the outspoken Putin critic Alexei Navalny did score a respectable amount of votes, but he mobilized just part of the opposition-minded within Moscow's middle class. Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who campaigned on a liberal platform against Vladimir Putin in Russia's presidential election a year ago, managed at the time to get around 20 percent of Moscow's votes with a turnout that was twice as high. That outcome revealed that Moscow has the voter potential for a different and more liberal approach to politics, even if Navalny proved unable to tap into it.

While Navalny emerges from the race as the leading figure in the radical opposition to Putin, it's clear that he's not yet addressing the entire opposition-minded middle class in Russia.

Those looking for hope should look elsewhere, to Russia's fourth-biggest city, Yekaterinburg, in the Ural region. There, Yevgeny Roizman, an ally of the liberal billionaire Prokhorov, is leading against a candidate backed by the powerful United Russia party, which Putin founded. Under Yekaterinburg's differing voting system, he could win in the first round with a simple majority.

Roizman's victory would be a small sensation because it would show that the Kremlin can be undercut even in one of Russia's big and important cities. And, after all, before the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin ascended to the top in Moscow, he began his career in Sverdlovsk - known today as Yekaterinburg.

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