Local elections in Russia: a fight against despair

This weekend in Russia local elections take place. There are no expectations. Since the crackdown on Navalny's movement and the war in Ukraine political life in Russia almost has come to a standstill. However, there are pockets of resistance. Remaining activists view the elections as a vote on the war in Ukraine – and a chance to prove a desire for democracy, says Veronika Ptitsyna for OpenDemocracy.

straatprotest tegen poetin in petersburgStreetprotest against the war in Petersburg, by artist Misha Marker. Missing in the 2 words is - mir, the taboo word for peace in Russia, and part of Putin's name and patronymic: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. (picture twitter)

by Veronika Ptitsyna

This weekend, Russia is going to the polls for its local elections. While unprecedented repression has put an end to the country’s anti-war protests, these votes are the most important space left for democratic politics. They are a chance to expose the conflict between Vladimir Putin's dictatorship and Russia’s social movements.

'[Local politics] is not an island of democracy,' one of the activists involved in the Moscow local elections told me. 'This is the frontline, where vanguard battles are taking place.'

One political campaign, YouNominate (VyDvyzhenie, which in Russian also means ‘You are the movement’), has brought together independent, protest-minded candidates for municipal deputies in Moscow on a single platform.

The team, set up this summer by young left-wing politicians, has nominated more than 100 candidates for lists at hundreds of polling stations throughout the Russian capital. And in other regions of Russia, independent candidates from the liberal Zemsky Congress movement and Yabloko political party, in alliance with YouNominate, are fighting for local council seats.

Though local politicians face significant risk of repression, local politics is again colliding with national politics in Russia. As the YouNominate platform does not hide its opposition to the war in Ukraine, voting for its candidates is a legal way to speak out against the Kremlin’s actions. The protest vote, in other words, at these municipal elections could become an anti-war vote.

'It has politicised people who attend these elections, and they think about the war and choose candidates according to their position on it,' one of the YouNominate activists told me.

'The Moscow mayor's office – I know this for sure – sees these elections as, among other things, about supporting or not supporting the war,' they continue. 'Therefore, the [Moscow city authorities] cannot lose. It would be unacceptable for the regime to have an anti-war coalition win.'

One of the campaigners behind the platform, Mikhail Lobanov, believes the future of the war could be influenced by people showing that they are against it at the ballot box. He argues that the Russian authorities’ determination to push ahead with mobilisation – calling up reservists and veterans to the war – and strengthen its military propaganda is dependent on public opinion.

Rise of grassroots politics

On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, researchers from Laboratory of Public Sociology, an independent initiative, argued that the pro-democracy movements in the country were facing a paradox.

'The greatest rise and even flowering of grassroots democratic politics is happening now, at the moment of its simultaneous decline due to political repression,' they said.

One of the most striking political campaigns of the pre-war period came during the September 2021 elections to the Russian parliament, the State Duma. Russia’s democratic Left finally arrived on the political scene – led by Lobanov, who became a prominent figure while running for Parliament. As Lobanov faced off against a top propaganda journalist, his team relied on a cocktail of ‘real issues’ and opposition politics, which had proved popular in local activism.

Lobanov’s grassroots campaign failed to achieve victory, possibly due to a new online voting system, which was able to be hacked and manipulated by the authorities. But the ideas and people that powered his campaign, along with many other local campaigns and initiatives, are now forming the backbone of the campaign for local elections.

Today, the Kremlin’s war has exacerbated Moscow’s pre-existing economic problems and weakened the authorities’ ability to deal with them. This, combined with public opposition to the Moscow administration’s style of management creates fertile ground for political struggle – in which the YouNominate team can grow its Left-democratic political agenda. What’s more, the Russian Communist Party, which is the traditional vote sink for left-wing or protest voters, has dropped in the polls since last year and is 'obviously not going to win' this time, according to one of the platform’s leaders.

Bold act by local deputees: impeachment of Putin

5 local deputees of the Smolny precinct of Petersburg asked the Duma to start a legal impeachment procedure against president Putin for treason, arguing that the war in Ukraine costs the lives of Russians and seriously damages Russia's reputation in the world. 

impeachment poetin

The Special Military Operation took the lives of able citizens and destroys military battallions that are ready to fight, says the appeal to the Duma-members. It damages the Russian economy and stimulates enlargement of NATO (with Sweden and Finland). One of the goals of the Operation was the demilitarization of Ukraine, but caused the opposite effect: the Ukrainian army obtained enormous amounts of weapons from abroad.

'We think that president Putin's decision to start the Special Military Operation harms the security of Russia and its citizens. Therefore we ask you as member of the Duma to start an investigation into his impeachment from his function.' 

The deputees were summoned for interrogation to a police station in Petersburg for 'acts discrediting the authorities'. 

A mass movement against both Russia’s war on Ukraine and the Putin administration can grow only from the understanding firstly that the war affects the interests of the inhabitants of the Russian Federation, and secondly that it completely blocks the public’s ability to defend these interests.

Economic oppression

Though it may appear paradoxical, local politics in Russia is often more connected to ‘class’ than national politics. At the local level, activists can more easily see (and expose) the connection between economic oppression and political domination – they see how public officials protect property developers or how local deputies from the ruling party issue illegal permits to use greenfield sites for commercial facilities.

activists mikhail lobanov picture opendemocracyLecturer Mikhail Lobanov of the political platform Vydvizheniye (picture OpenDemocracy)

YouNominate and other pro-democracy movements are banking on there being an electorate for these messages. As one activist told me, they see their target voters as educated people who 'do not accept the military-patriotic agenda', but 'feel the absence of social change in liberal rhetoric'.

'This is a very important social group,' another environmental activist told me. 'They are politically active both on the internet, and in public life, and in elections. Traditionally, they have supported [liberal political party] Yabloko, however, times have changed and a new, young social democratic force has appeared in place of the outdated political cadres.'

In this sense, YouNominate is trying to 'occupy the niche of [Russia’s] liberal opposition and give [people] what was so lacking in it – socio-economic agenda,' the activist continued.

'They have turned the left idea into real politics, with programs, candidates and incumbents joining them.'

Ethics and politics

The war has raised the question of the ethics of political struggle. Some believe that it is unacceptable to participate in local politics – the problems of ‘shops and parks’ – while Russian bombs fall on Ukraine. This group believes doing so legitimises the existing political system in Russia – and thinks the focus should instead be on the war.

But others believe that with anti-war activists and local deputies facing police repression, independent local politicians should not mention the war, so as not to put what has been gained – some local representation by opposition politicians – at risk. In their argument, it is better to concentrate exclusively on the ‘shops’.

The Moscow mayor's office sees these elections as about supporting or not supporting the war

For others – myself included – the ethics of planned collective action like that seen in Russia’s municipal politics is an antidote to the destructive emotions of despair, self-censorship and frustration that have come about as a result of the Kremlin’s invasion. These feelings can only lead to impotence and apathy. The war has made the political situation in Russia not only more unbearable, but also more simple: either you fight, doing what you can, or you no longer exist as a political subject.

It is no coincidence that one of the leaders of the YouNominate platform, Alexander Zamyatin, likes to repeat that his political strategy is aimed at overcoming depoliticisation. He argues that one’s sense of a lack of political power begins, for example, when residents of an apartment block meet in their yard to discuss local issues and then make a group chat to follow up afterwards. This is the route to taking an interest in politics and readiness for joint action.

Niccolo Machiavelli once wrote that political crises and declines can lead to the formation of a new political subject and a new political order. For this, you cannot rely on luck, but on perseverance in valour and virtue – a kind of politics of the impossible that ultimately leads to the birth of something new. If you persist in doing what is impossible, you can win when luck and virtue coincide.

As leftist theorist Boris Kagarlitsky argues, it is less the official results that matter this weekend (electoral commissions will try at all costs to prevent the election of opposition candidates), but society’s fight against the Russian authorities. 'It will be others who are remembered: those who fought, those who bang their heads against the wall and sometimes broke through it.'

Today, Russian military personnel are ‘banging their heads against the wall’ in Ukraine, trying to find luck on the battlefield where they fight for the forces of evil. But Russian municipal activists and politicians are fighting to maintain the possibility of democracy in our country – as well as for the common good. Let luck smile on the latter group.

This article was first published on OpenDemocracy.

Read more on Russia's elections in this article on Riddle Russia.

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