The mayoral election in Moscow turned out to be a mind-boggling event. It was preceded by such analytic coverage that when it actually happened the outcome was almost disappointing. No large-scale falsifications took place – even the independent election watchdog Golos called the vote “unusually fair” – and despite Sergei Sobyanin’s finishing suspiciously close to the 50% mark, there were no riots, let alone a revolution. On the contrary, Alexei Navalny called on his supporters rallying at Bolotnaya Square to go home in peace. The sheer fact that there was a substantial debate on who actually won the election underlines that the election was not exactly the thunderstorm many had hoped it to be. The most sober analysis was provided by Sean Guillory who opined that the election had benefited both Navalny and the Kremlin. Without one clear winner, or rather, one clear loser, the question is: what comes next?
Let’s start with the turnout! The good news for the opposition is that the pro-Putin majority is clearly over in Moscow. This is hardly news, though. Already in 2012, Putin had the weakest showing in the capital where he failed to cross the 50% threshold. As I mentioned earlier, had Putin taken part in a mayoral election back then, he would have been forced to face a second round. Sobyanin – according to official results, at least – did have the support of the majority of those who voted, but with the strikingly low turnout this meant a mere 1,19 million votes – that is, 800 thousand less than for Putin in 2012. This is certainly a strong warning to the authorities, showing that even the abuse of administrative resources cannot do miracles in the capital any more.
But then, there is another side to the story. There is no pro-Putin majority any more, certainly, but there is no pro-Navalny majority either. Many were enthusiastic about the showing of Navalny being considerably better than any pollster had anticipated, and in terms of percentage, it is true. In terms of actual votes, however, Navalny did below expectations. Not only was his tally of 632 thousand votes inferior to the “psychological barrier” of 1 million votes many had thought attainable, or to the 868 thousand votes Mikhail Prokhorov gained in 2012, but also to the forecast of Synovate Comcon three weeks before the election which attributed 11,8% of all Moscow voters to Navalny (that is, 862 thousand votes). Further bad news is that apparently, Navalny scored best in the affluent neighbourhoods of Moscow while Sobyanin managed to maintain a handsome advantage in many of the poorer districts. This means that, supposedly, Navalny’s core base still consists of educated, considerably well-to-do voters preoccupied with issues such as democratic rights and corruption, instead of disgruntled poorer voters that suffer from the consequences of economic downturn and humiliation by local leaders. Unfortunately, these voters still make up the majority in Russia, and any regime change, revolutionary or evolutionary, is impossible without getting to them. As I have blogged several times before, without opposition-minded “Russia A” offering a clear alternative to disgruntled voters in “Russia B” (or, in this case, “Moscow B”), the authorities will always have trump cards to play. Take for example the latest proposal of Dmitry Medvedev to put a limit on utility fees. Navalny did not hammer out – or has not yet hammered out – this link between the democratic-minded and the socially deprived. And without this link, the silent majority of those who did not vote will remain silent. Or, as I called it, in the “state of patience”.
Certainly, Navalny did manage to increase his initial vote share in the campaign to an impressive extent. And who knows what could have happened, had the campaign lasted for a couple of more weeks? Nevertheless, however enthusiastic many are showing themselves today, the fact is that Navalny’s result (and what followed) considerably fell short of the expectations of their initial expectations.
With this, of course, I am not trying to say that Navalny should be written off. Apart from the impressive and innovative campaigning that his team did, we should underline one important fact here. Prokhorov’s votes in 2012 were cast on the newcomer: the person who, among all the presidential candidates, stood the closest to any real change. In contrast, Navalny’s 2013 votes are Navalny’s. He can now claim to have a base to build upon. In its present state, it is not a particularly strong base, but it is a start. And more importantly, it is a stronger base than anyone else in the non-systemic opposition can claim to have.
Strategies for the second half
There are, at least, two reasons why Navalny’s game, from now on, will be especially difficult. First of all, many signs pointed at the fact that this is the furthest that the authorities were willing to go. The new rules of the game, set out by the deputy head of the Presidential Administration, Vyacheslav Volodin, allow political competition at the municipal level, but not at higher levels. And this only if the representatives of the new opposition play along, e.g. if they show (relative) loyalty by participating at the meeting of the Valdai Club, as it happened last week. Volodin’s chitchat with Kremlin-friendly pundits before the Moscow election, where he alluded that Navalny might be cleared of corruption charges if he accepts to be part of the loyal opposition, is yet another proof of the authorities trying to put the new opposition into the equation.
The idea is not completely unrealistic: if the authorities manage to “let off the steam” at the municipal level, throwing chunks of local power to cooperative forces, they might create enough division to keep the support of leaders like Navalny where it is. What is more, some power groups counting on the downfall of United Russia (and the ascension of the People’s Front) will benefit from the expansion of local elites to the detriment of those that have a strong regional basis right now. Just cracking down on the opposition as a whole would not have this positive side effect. Not when the elite is as divided as presently, at least.
If this strategy does not work with some elements of the opposition – such as Navalny – they can always be incarcerated. There is no magic mantra to rule out this possibility and 632 thousand voters are surely not enough to prevent it from happening, if the authorities deem it fit. The laws of politics are none less rigid than the laws of physics. Under extraordinary circumstances they can be changed temporarily, perhaps, but at the end leaders will always go for the solution that entails lower potential costs. Surely, putting Navalny in jail will be politically costly. But as long as the Russian political elite believes that the costs of his running free are higher, they will ultimately opt for this solution. After all, the only reason why Navalny escaped prison now was the intervention of Sobyanin himself. And why would Sobyanin need him any more?
What the authorities miss, however, is that expanding the nominal “selectorate” by letting new, elected leaders into office may lead to a momentous, self-induced change. Practically, the authorities are forced to build a factor of instability into the system. For this opportunity to become reality, however, the opposition, and Navalny in particular will have to do more.
First of all, he will have to continue collecting funds and build a business Hinterland. His team has already excelled in this, collecting more than 3 million dollars worth of financial support. By doing so they have crossed important barriers inasmuch as a certain business sphere, notably many of Russia’s emerging IT companies showed willingness to support the opposition. This is promising but there are more barriers to be crushed. As I have blogged before, right now the politically connected business elite collectively gets cold shivers from the thought of having a president like Navalny. This obstacle will be quite difficult to overcome, considering that when it comes to come down on unruly business, it is Vladimir Putin himself that pulls the levers. As a matter of fact, did anyone notice that, under the cloak of the elections, Putin named Tatiana Golikova to head the Audit Chamber? That is yet another technocratic Putin ally at an important position of financial oversight besides Elvira Nabiullina (Central Bank) and Yevgeny Shkolov (foreign assets repatriation and property declarations).
Navalny has already shown that he is able to create divisions in the elite. Now he has to go further to deepen those divisions. And do this while keeping and broadening his support base and avoiding prison.
Does this sound like mission impossible? Perhaps. But Navalny needs not to be alone. As Vladislav Inozemtsev set it out in an insightful piece in Vedomosti last week, the opposition should embrace the strategy of „Disunited Russia”. The change needs to be about different people in different cities: Navalnys, Roizmans, Prokhorovs, Udaltsovs. There will be no new election focusing on individuals in the near future: the next steps will have to be about ideas, solutions, practices, different in each region and tailored to each city.
Less personalisation at the central level now will allow someone – perhaps Navalny – to claim leadership when the time is right.