Reality check

The usual summer recess of Russian politics, the so-called “cucumber season” has been hijacked by the ongoing electoral campaign in Moscow. In three weeks’ time, many say, momentous changes await Russian politics. Truth be told, the Moscow mayoral election is certainly the most hard-fought political battle and therefore the most interesting topic since the 2011 Duma election. Still, both people in the leading roles – acting mayor Sergei Sobyanin and anti-corruption blogger a.k.a. opposition heavyweight Alexei Navalny – seem to be somehow underperforming, despite the many tosses and turns of the campaign. Three weeks before the big day, and after the first phase of the pre-electoral period, it is perhaps time to ask where both Navalny and Sobyanin stand relative to what they are really trying to achieve.

According to the latest data from VTsIOM, Sobyanin will still confidently win in the first round, getting 67,4% of votes. Navalny’s 13% is an improvement, but would still only mean around 520 thousand votes considering the expected turnout, and 710 thousand if the turnout reaches 75%. This is impressive, but it is shy of the 1 million votes many consider as a psychological barrier, and, citing a more concrete benchmark, shy of the 868 thousand votes Mikhail Prokhorov gained in 2012, in the first round of the presidential election. If one takes the more optimistic forecast of Synovate Comcon, published last week, Navalny would just reach Prokhorov’s score (11,8% of all voters, that is, around 862 thousand votes).

As a reminder, in 2012, Vladimir Putin got 46,95% of votes in the capital, with Moscow being the only region in Russia where the president was only able to score a relative victory, and not an absolute majority. Had he been running for Moscow mayor, he would have been forced to go into second round. Yet, Sobyanin, according to all opinion polls, will win in the first round with flying colours. Even though his popularity suffered a major drop in the past couple of weeks, he is still confidently winning in the first round. This calls for two questions:

1.) How much has the situation changed?

2.) How much is Sobyanin different from Putin?

An uphill battle

Let us try to answer the first question! Arguably, Prokhorov in 2012 got a major part of the protest votes in the capital that had been the centre of anti-Putin protests. Despite his alleged and much-discussed links to the authorities, the businessman was still seen as the closest that voters could get to an opposition candidate. Still, exactly because he was not perceived by many as a genuine opposition politician, we can assume that many of disgruntled voters chose staying home rather than giving their votes for a „fake” candidate. Certainly, the turnout in Moscow was, even at 58,1%, among the lowest in Russia that seems to support the hypothesis that there are, or, more accurately, were, a lot more protest votes lying around than Prokhorov was able to capture.

If anyone, Alexei Navalny is a real opposition candidate, much more so than Mikhail Prokhorov. Why then, even after weeks of energetic campaigning and his much-publicised conviction, does his popularity stand only at the very level Prokhorov was able to reach in 2012? The answer lies only partly in Navalny’s divisive personality, and his less-than-crushing performance at the televised debates. It also has to do with the fact that the state of Russian society is different from the agitated nervousness and semi-revolutionary fervour of early 2012. In an earlier blog, I called this „the state of patience”: a consolidated dislike shown towards Vladimir Putin and his regime but coupled with a cautious approach stemming from the strong belief that the present one will be Putin’s last presidential term. To put it another way, in 2012, the silent majority in Moscow was on the side Navalny is representing now, but now the silent majority, at least to the extent that can be measured, seems to be on the other side. As a new report by Olga Kryshtanovskaya’s think tank showed, interest in the protest movement, started in 2011, has plummeted, even though this also means a more coherent and galvanised hard core. Navalny’s task is to turn this tide over again.

Commentators like Sergei Shelin on have already visioned a “perfect storm” gathering over the regime. I prefer being more cautious, nevertheless I agree with Shelin’s point that the outbreak of the storm will depend only partly on voters and will have to include an even more serious split in the elite than there is now. However, this split can greatly facilitated by Navalny’s crossing that psychological barrier, forcing the elite into a serious discussion about him and the opposition movement. He has already shown himself capable of doing this. He has already gained more support than most of the elite (regardless of their “liberal” or “conservative” views) would allow a non-systemic candidate to get. Many of the elite got nervous even with Prokhorov’s ascension in 2011. He cannot bring down the regime in a blow in September, but he can very well do his part.

But his only tool is getting more votes than anyone in the elite could imagine. And this will require more than he has shown. Televised debates last week surely showed Navalny being the most honest and radically opposition-minded candidate, but he was not standing out of the crowd as much as he should have, at this point. In short, to many, he still seems to be trying to appear as the most capable one amidst the motley crew of opposition candidates. Something he should have made obvious to everyone by now.


But then again, for both Sobyanin and Navalny, this election is not about the Moscow mayorship. For Navalny, it is the voucher for the undisputed leadership of the Russian opposition. For Sobyanin, it is about laying his claim for the succession of Vladimir Putin. But – and this takes us to the second question – is he really any different from Putin? Should he be, to begin with?

The aforementioned Shelin article makes the point that I also underlined a month ago: there is a visible split in the conservative wing of the elite over the ways the opposition should be handled. Sobyanin and his allies prefer going to elections while the chief of the Presidential Administration Sergei Ivanov and his heavy-handed siloviki prefer brute force (that is, the Khodorkovsky method). The rule of thumb of autocracies is that this latter almost always works.

But Russia is an autocracy undergoing serious changes. Many protesters, according to Khryshtanovskaya’s study, believe that the protest movement succeeded in liberalising the Russian political system. This is not true, obviously, but the public discourse did become more open and lively, in spite of the crackdown on fundamental rights. Previously untouchable things have become subject to discussion, questioned and openly challenged. The falling respect for elements of Putinism has created a split within the elite. A new wave of the economic crisis is looming over Russia. Would the “Khodorkovsky method” still work under these circumstances? Maybe. Or maybe it is not any more. And if not, Sobyanin might just get it right.

Nonetheless, no change is easy. Ironically, Sobyanin and his ally, Vyacheslav Volodin, the chief political strategist of the Kremlin would do well to take a page from the book of Volodin’s predecessor and rival, Vladislav Surkov. “Politics is nothing but text” was Surkov’s political credo. Three months ago, commenting on Surkov’s fall, former Kremlin pundit Gleb Pavlovsky called the lack of this “text”, that is, the inability of the Russian political elite to communicate, the biggest failure of Surkov. He was right. Sobyanin lacks the “text” too, but he will need it, if he wants to walk the road leading to the presidency in a post-Putin era.

So far, his strategy is quite similar to the system and its creator, Putin. Just as Putin refuses to utter Navalny’s name (which sooner or later will oddly make him seem to be afraid of him), Sobyanin refuses to participate in debates. No matter whether this is good tactics or not, it also means that, as the system itself, Sobyanin does not have anything to say. Like Sean Guillory wrote in a brilliant piece a couple of weeks ago, the regime seems to live on from scandal to scandal, for the want of redistributable material goods, and for the want of, well, “text”. This is nothing new, of course. As Pavlovsky also pointed out in the aforementioned interview, the system was mute and tongueless already in the past decade. But then it was stable and “hard-packed”. Now it is not.

Putin can afford, even now, to be bland, cynical and condescending enough to label the protest movement advocates of safe sex or to avoid uttering the name of Navalny, because he is a brand already, On the other hand, Sobyanin has yet to build his own brand. If he does not do it, what at best awaits him is the fate of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. With less hospitalisation, perhaps, but just as much agony in the political sense. Not to mention the fact that whoever follows Putin must not only build on Putin’s present, ailing majority, but has to go beyond it. He will have to have something to say for the whole of Russian society. Just like Putin did, once.

Presently it may seem that Sobyanin fails to understand this. Insisting on an electoral battle waged with Navalny seemed to be a bold and clever step. However, it becomes increasingly clear that Sobyanin carries another “illness” of the children of the Putin era: he thinks simplistically and exclusively in the terms of the elite. Winning an election, to him, is a token to be used in the elite, and not a way to gain legitimacy, which would be a much stronger token.

If the fate of the mayorship of Moscow seems to be decided, there is much more at stake here. Both Sobyanin and Navalny know it. But to get what they really want, they will have to try harder.

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