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Playing With Fire in Moscow

Once again, I happened to be in the right place at the wrong time – this time exactly two weeks too early. It was the 4th of July, and I was meeting with a colleague on Manezh Square in Moscow. We sat on a bench overlooking Tverskaya street, watching the setting sun and the unusually relaxed city traffic. It was a warm and lazy evening, with tired tourists walking to and from Red Square, children playing in fountains, and young people sipping beers in the shade of the trees in Alexander garden. Everything was calm and slightly sleepy; one could not feel a trace of the passions that had filled the streets of Moscow during the political season of the last two years.

Earlier that day, I met with a young university professor who came to pick me up in a car adorned with a white ribbon – the symbol of previous protests - and a sticker that announced the United Russia party to be “a party of crooks and thieves.” This label, given to the ruling party by the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, has firmly stuck, forcing President Vladimir Putin to distance himself from the party and compelling the current mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, to run for re-election as an independent, rather than as a party-supported candidate.

“Kadri, I must say that Moscow has got so much nicer recently,” my friend said in a tone that mixed guilt with a bit of pity. “There are new pedestrian areas, bicycle share services, public parks with free wifi, open-air concerts, and lectures that can last into the wee hours of the night.”

“People are enjoying themselves,” he said. “But the political agenda has dissolved.” Clearly, Moscow had returned to its hedonistic lifestyle, and politics was not fashionable any more.

And yet, exactly two weeks later, on the afternoon of July 18th, our bench on Manezh square would be occupied by riot police in full gear, mobilized to deal with the biggest unsanctioned protest that Moscow had seen in some time. A crowd estimated to number between 10 and 15 thousand people gathered to demand freedom for Alexei Navalny, sentenced by a Kirov court to five years in a penal colony – officially for embezzlement. That is the official line, but no one in Russia – or elsewhere – doubts that the actual cause of his trouble was his political activity.

If the jail sentence and subsequent protest were predictable, what followed was surprising and highly unusual. Within hours, the same prosecutor who had demanded that Navalny be arrested in the courtroom, suddenly changed his mind and demanded that he be released until the sentence enters into force - which, considering appeals, can take months. The next morning Navalny walked out of jail to hug his wife and thank supporters.

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Navalny has implied that he will now consider continuing his campaign to become the mayor of Moscow, which will be decided in a special election in early September. Had Navalny been jailed immediately, he almost certainly would have called for his supporters to boycott the elections, leaving the Kremlin-supported - albeit formally independent - incumbent Sergei Sobyanin without any credible challengers.

So what happened? Why is the jailed man walking free again? It hardly has anything to do with the letter of the law, as implied by the prosecutor. Most likely it does not have very much to do with street protests either, even if these were more numerous and energetic than expected. And it certainly has nothing at all to do with expressions of “grave concern,” issued by most foreign ministries in the Western world.

The real explanation lies in the logic of mayoral election in Moscow and, more generally, the current competition of two different political models manifested in the campaign – the competition between proper authoritarianism and so-called “managed democracy.” The latter was coined by Putin’s spin doctors to characterize the political system of his first two terms, when the population was ready to trade political freedoms for economic well-being; when election-results could be manipulated with the consent of the voters; when modest dissent was even welcomed to give the system a more modern look but never went too far.

Moscow elections matter because Moscow is still largely where Russian politics are done and decided. After the last electoral cycle, the political opposition set its eyes on the Moscow elections, reasonably calculating that if it could come to power in the city, the result would give the it an edge in the next presidential election. Holding office in Moscow means being able to oversee vote-counting in the capital, being in the position to allow or forbid demonstrations, and more – very important things during elections in Russia.

The powers-that-be understood the same thing and decided to take preventive action – to bring the elections forward. The incumbent mayor Sergei Sobyanin resigned in late spring, thereby denying the opposition the time to consolidate and polish its messages.

However, it seems that this is where the Kremlin’s common strategy ended and differences kicked in. Part of the current ruling elite seems to hope to conduct the Moscow elections in the fashion of the old “managed” system – not necessarily for any noble considerations; possibly they just feel that otherwise the elite cohesion and the political system as a whole will be under too much stress in the years to come. They want Navalny to take part in the elections to lend them legitimacy – the way billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov lent legitimacy to the most recent presidential elections, or liberal politician Irina Khakamada to Putin’s first re-election in 2004.

They hope that Muscovites are still ready to trade political freedoms for earthly pleasures; that bicycle shares and free wifi outweigh Navalny’s anti-corruption message. This approach may bring a big additional bonus – if Navalny runs and loses in an honest election, this may well be the end of his political career. Such hopes seem well-grounded – a recent poll by the independent Levada Center indicates a huge popularity gap between the two. In July, 34% of Muscovites said they would vote for Sobyanin and just 4% for Navalny. And should something go wrong, there will certainly be ways to disqualify Navalny at any point and jail him again.

In contrast, another faction of the elite seems to think that it would be safer to crush all dissent as it emerges and jail Navalny for decades. These people probably realise that the atmosphere in the country has changed, that the quiet acquiescence of the population that was present in the last decade is gone. They probably also remember the experience of the Soviet Union – how allowing limited political competition quickly galvanised passions and destroyed the system; or how Boris Yeltsin’s political career took off exactly when he rose to the top of the CPSU’s Moscow branch in 1985, becoming what effectively passed for mayor of Moscow in the Soviet system.

These two views seem to be clashing behind the scenes at the highest levels of power. That probably explains Navalny’s changing luck while trying to register as a mayoral candidate – after having difficulties gaining support of municipal deputies (part of the cumbersome election procedure - designed to apply the so-called “municipal filter” to eliminate undesirable candidates), he was suddenly supported by none other than the deputies from “the party of crooks and thieves.”

By allowing Navalny to run, the Kremlin is playing with fire – fire that can burn Navalny, or the Kremlin. True, Muscovites have returned to their apathetic and hedonistic lifestyles, but as recent experience shows, they are ready to come out in numbers for a cause. Navalny has given them exactly such cause. What is more, by running in the Moscow elections he is also giving them a semblance of a real political process.

His poll numbers may be incomparable to Sobyanin’s, but the gap was even bigger in June, and recent events are likely to cut the gap further yet. His name recognition is bound to go up not just in Moscow, but countrywide. And once he has run for mayor as the main challenger, the Kremlin can never again credibly call him “a marginal blogger.” They will probably still jail him in the end, but that will then carry an even bigger political meaning than would have been the case anyway.

It seems that at the moment things can only get better for Navalny, whereas the Kremlin is playing a risky game. In any case, the fight with “crooks and thieves” is likely to be a long one – what we are seeing now are just the opening cadres.