Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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The Battle for Moscow

PARIS – Today’s most important political battle in Russia is not for control of the Kremlin, but for power over its capital city. Indeed, the outcome of Moscow’s mayoral election campaign concerns every Russian – and everyone who is interested in Russia’s fate.

Just as presidential elections in the United States matter for the entire world, mayoral elections in Moscow matter for Russia’s national politics – and thus for its economy. So what happens in Moscow on September 8 (and, possibly, in the run-off election two weeks later) will have profound implications for the country’s future.

The election is a watershed for several reasons. For starters, this is the first Moscow mayoral campaign since President Vladimir Putin canceled subnational elections in 2005. (Putin’s one-term successor, Dmitri Medvedev, now the prime minister, reinstated them in 2011.) Since the last mayoral election in 2004, Moscow has changed dramatically. It is now not only the largest and most important subnational entity in the Russian Federation; it also is a major European capital, a global business destination, and a large consumer market.

Per capita income in Moscow is similar to that of Spain or Italy. The size of Moscow’s city budget is close to that of New York City. Officially 12 million people live in Moscow (not counting commuters and irregular immigrants) – more than in an average European country. And yet, before this year, Moscow’s mayor was appointed by the federal government, not elected by Muscovites.

Second, the ongoing mayoral race is an unusually competitive election in Putin’s Russia. The most important indication of this is the participation of Alexei Navalny – by far the Kremlin’s most persistent political opponent. Navalny was registered as a candidate in the election and joined the campaign a day after being released from jail, following his conviction – and five-year prison sentence – in a completely fabricated case.

Why the government first imprisoned him and then released him less than 24 hours later remains a mystery. What is clear is that the authorities want the Moscow mayoral election to be substantially more competitive than anyone expected it to be.

Third, thanks to Navalny’s participation, the Moscow election has fostered – for the first time ever – genuine grassroots politics in Russia. Denied access to TV, Navalny has launched a US-style door-to-door campaign. He has enlisted an unprecedented 15,000 volunteers (mostly young) and has raised – again unprecedented for Russia – $1.5 million dollars from 8,000 Russian citizens to finance his campaign.

Navalny’s volunteers not only promote his message through social media; they also distribute his program and talk to voters in Moscow’s streets and Metro. Most impressive (and completely unheard of in Russia), Navalny himself organizes three street rallies every weekday and five rallies on Saturdays and Sundays. His goal is to hold a hundred such rallies by the end of the campaign.

Finally, Navalny’s background and support base give him a level of moral authority with voters that other politicians in Putin’s Russia cannot attain. Navalny’s campaign is crowd-funded by ordinary Russians, who understand that he is not on the payroll of an oligarch or the government.

Indeed, Navalny has been a persistent and effective critic of corruption in both the Russian government and state-owned companies. Moreover, even though his emails have been hacked and published, and the government has searched his home and confiscated his computers and phones, there are no convincing charges against him – except for the obviously politically motivated cases. As a result, voters can be confident that Navalny, who refused to bow to legal intimidation, is clean, and that he is running for the job not for his own material benefit or to do the bidding of any particular interest group, but because he believes in a greater good.

A campaign such as Navalny’s certainly bodes well for Russia’s future. Indeed, the absence of genuine political competition and the public’s lack of confidence in Russia’s politicians are the country’s main problems, for they undermine the rule of law, enable interest groups to “capture” state institutions, and encourage corruption, all of which have led to capital flight and a brain drain. Thus, Navalny’s growing support in Moscow is good news not only for Russian citizens, but also for those who invest in Russia.

To be sure, there are still many reasons to be worried. Navalny certainly is not perfect, and, though the Moscow election may be competitive by Russian standards, it is still outrageously unfair in terms of media access, financing, and voter intimidation. Putin and the ruling party did not win a majority in Moscow in the 2011 Duma election or the 2012 presidential election, but they seem confident of victory in the city this time. And Navalny’s five-year prison sentence remains in place, pending an appeal whose outcome is completely uncertain.

Even so, what we are witnessing in Moscow far exceeds anyone’s expectations. Win or lose, Navalny’s campaign will have a lasting impact.

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  1. CommentedJoshua Ioji Konov

    Russia must know that if their consumption and income does not naturally come up in the environment of Globalization and rising Productivity, there is something very wrong with the system of Economics. In the Past, it always had been about politics and Global standing, but under these new conditions "it is just the Economy, s....." and China is a good example of it.

  2. CommentedKen Presting

    Prof. Guriev's article is an example of the best at Pro-Syn - even those of us who are familiar with his topic can gain perspective from his collected observations.

    To add to his point, let me remark that Boris Yeltsin first came to international attention as a figure in Moscow "local" politics. Now, even as a fragmented empire, Moscow looms over most of Asia.

    The 20th century was dominated by conflicts between Germany, Russia, and America. Not only in wars, but also in every art, culture and science. Other nations had isolated geniuses, but these were the countries with "critical mass" - pun intended.

    Russia now seems to be a puzzle for political science. Why is the tail wagging the dog?

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