On Sunday, after the largest protests that the capital has seen since 2011-12, Muscovites will finally go to the polls. But the fallout from the contested vote is likely to be just as bitter as the run-up. Friends of Konstantin Kotov, a political activist, chanted and wept in a courthouse last Thursday as he was jailed for four years. His crime was merely having attended five unsanctioned rallies, a violation that used to merit an administrative charge at most.
Nobody was supposed to care about Moscow’s city council elections, a municipal affair that seemed unlikely to make much of an impact on potential protesters. And they didn’t, much, until the opposition was barred from taking part. That move, by the central election commission, sparked a movement which saw thousands turn out in the Russian capital in weeks of demonstrations last month.
Kotov was the fourth person given time in prison as Russian investigators speedily wrapped up an investigation into rioting dubbed the “Moscow case”. Thousands have been detained in weeks of protests. Riot police wore balaclavas because of facial recognition software. Russia’s elections head, Ella Pamfilova, was reportedly attacked at home with an electric shock gun days before the polls.
If this is what a city council election looks like, it could portend trouble in 2021, when the embattled ruling party, United Russia, tries to hang on to its overwhelming majority in nationwide parliamentary elections. As Sergei Medvedev, a professor of political science at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow put it, the government and opposition are “on a collision course”.
“The levels of repression and civil resistance are going to rise, and I think that’s the likely scenario in the coming political seasons,” said Medvedev. “I don’t see any radical changes… I see both sides continually raising the stakes.”
The story behind the recent Moscow demonstrations is not just one of opposition initiative, but also of government fragility. Citing sources close to the Kremlin and city hall, the Russian media startup Proekt reported that a decision had been made to eliminate independent candidates because they were slated to win nine of 45 Moscow districts and that successes in the capital would help position the opposition going into 2021. Not one of the pro-government candidates ran in affiliation with United Russia, the ruling party allied with President Vladimir Putin, which has seen its ratings fall to a historically low 32% this summer.
Putin has largely avoided talking about the demonstrations, but has accused opposition candidates of falsifying signatures and said that protests by the gilet jaunes in France were larger. Dmitry Peskov, his spokesman, has said that the Russian protests were not a “political crisis”.
But to activists the arrests and criminal cases have indicated the level of official concern over the latest round of protests.
“The government has shown it does not know how to react,” said Lyubov Sobol, a protest leader, when asked about the future potential for demonstrations. “Nobody knows for certain what will happen in 2021, what the country will look like. But if the troubles with the economy continue, then we would see greater discontent, and that would mean a broader cross-section of the population taking part.”
A campaign banner of a candidate in the Moscow city elections. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA
At the Sakharov Centre, a museum and discussion space named for the Soviet-era dissident, a mix of student activists, human rights campaigners, leftists, liberals and journalists met last week to try to make sense of Moscow’s manic and restive summer that came seemingly out of nowhere.
“These protests were about more than just elections,” said Stanislav Andreychuk, a board member of the Golos voters’ right organisation, who spoke about rising “politicisation” among university students chafing against government intervention in their institutions.
During a roundtable discussion, Medvedev said he could envisage a largely leaderless protest flaring up in 2021, or 2024 when Putin’s second consecutive term in office will end and he will theoretically be bound by the constitution to step aside.
“The authorities have shown themselves to be rather weak,” he said. “They have regularly been two or three steps behind.”
The most novel aspect of this summer’s protests has been a strong contingent of student activists. Maria Menshikova, an activist and editor of the student media outlet Doxa, said that after the elections efforts will focus on helping students who have been arrested or fined during the demonstrations. “We still have political prisoners,” she said.
Student organisers are also focused on asserting political independence at universities such as the Higher School of Economics, considered one of Russia’s most liberal elite universities.
For many students, this has been their first experience of collective protest. Fewer have thought forward to the elections in 2021, said Menshikova. “For someone who’s 18 years old, thinking about 2021 is like thinking 100 years forward in time,” she said.
And despite having earned a reputation for aggressive action, students are also worried about what the backlash could mean for their safety and their academic careers.
“We’re called fearless, but I want to make very clear that we do feel fear about what could happen to us,” said Nikita, a Higher School of Economics student, who did not give a surname.
Nobody is predicting a revolution and in a city of 10 million the numbers at the recent protests are moderate. But Lev Gudkov, head of the independent pollster Levada Centre, predicted that pro-government lawmakers would face increasing pressure in the run-up to 2021 and may seek to distance themselves from a failing United Russia party.
“The protests are not going anywhere, they will reignite from time to time,” he said, noting increasing concerns about the economy.
There’s been a recent hike in the pension age by five years for all Russians and incomes have remained static over the past few years, meaning that even as the economy improves many Russians have still not felt the benefits.
The way to counter United Russia’s broad lack of popularity would require a creative “use of administrative resource”, Gudkov said, referring to the term usually used for boosting turnout from pro-government voters, including those working in government jobs.
Rigged results in the coming elections could elicit more demonstrations in 2021, he said, “but the government will put it down. There were 60,000 people at the protest, but there’s been no change. And Putin has pretended that he saw nothing.”