Suzanna Duba is a guest contributor studying Information & International Studies at the University of Michigan. She recently returned from working at Ernst & Young in Moscow this summer.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Moscow, having seen its sixth week of protests Saturday, is teeming with people calling for free and fair elections in Moscow’s City Council race. The decision weeks ago to block those candidates critical of the Kremlin and its United Russia party from participating in the elections has since escalated from a call for inclusion in the local elections to larger national unrest resulting in demonstrations in St. Petersburg, and beyond.
The first protest on July 14th, with around 2,000 demonstrators, came as a direct result of the election officials barring opposition candidates from participating in the elections, disqualifying their ballots because of irregularities in the signatures required to qualify as a candidate. However, all those disqualified are outspoken critics of the Kremlin’s politics. The protesters gathered outside election headquarters demanding a meeting with Moscow’s election commissioner. But rather than a meeting, protesters and barred candidates were met with arrests, as the protest had not been authorized.
The demonstrations continued July 20th, with a reported 20,000 protesters congregating permissibly in Moscow, calling again for the inclusion of oppositional candidates on the city council ballot. July 27th marked a turning point in the protests, with a noted increase in police violence towards protesters, as the protest was determined to be illegal. Nearly 1,300 people were reportedly arrested, with accounts of police indiscriminately beating peaceful protesters and simple passerbys. Another unsanctioned protest on August 3rd saw several hundreds detained.
On August 10th, protest turnout peaked with around 50,000 taking to the streets. This protest was authorized, with protesters obtaining protest permits, but several hundred were still detained as the demonstration moved away from authorized places in the city.
This weekend, protesters used a different strategy to attempt to avoid police violence. Single protesters stood at least 50 meters apart holding signs along Moscow’s Boulevard Ring, as group protests were not sanctioned. In addition, a group of about 4,000 Communist protesters gathered to march also demanding open City Council elections, making this the sixth week of election-related protests.
The surge in protest turnout, from 2,000 in early July to nearly 50,000 only a month later, and continuing over several weeks, suggests the Kremlin’s response escalated demands from simple candidate inclusion to a much wider concern over Russia’s broader political scene. While these protests do not seem to be a legitimate threat to President Vladimir Putin’s regime - similar movements in 2011, 2012, and 2013 did not result in any serious change - it does raise concern over the Kremlin’s potential response.
Speculation remains about the Kremlin’s intentions with such a defiant and violent reaction to opposition candidates pre-vote. It is interesting the response has been so bold, rather than the suspected number-fudging of election results after the voting. Similarly, the government has permitted the protests on numerous occasions, rather than denying protesters permission to gather and providing a reason to begin detaining people.
The Moscow City Council elections remain slated for September 8th, and opposition candidates remain unable to run, giving reason for continued protests, and a continued eye on events in Russia’s capital city over the coming month.