Yesterday’s street protests in Moscow were large-scale, spectacular and non-violent on the protesters’ part, yet the police response was at times brutal. It’s remarkable (as I’ve said before) that protesters rallying in Moscow – whether with or without permission from the city authorities – are generally peaceful, and violent incidents are only provoked by the police or by infiltrators in the government’s pay. This is a stark contrast to the Yellow Vests and the assorted anarchist rallies in Europe, to say nothing of the Ferguson protests in the US.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the Moscow protests was a large group of mostly young people, apparently numbering a few thousands, marching uninhibited past the CheKa/KGB building in Lubyanka Square chanting “down with the power of the Chekists” – or, to translate it differently, “down with the Chekist government.”
And yet – this symbolic episode aside – these Moscow protests are essentially local in their genesis. What motivates the people this time is not simply the Kremlin’s ugly policies and not merely the city’s wasteful squandering of its enormous revenues. It’s specifically the Moscow city authorities’ refusal to allow independent candidates to run for the city council, aka the Moscow City Duma, despite clear and convincing evidence that these candidates have collected more than enough voter signatures to qualify for the race.
The 2014 election law had set a near-impossible requirement for independent candidates, but when about 30 of them managed to meet it in 2019 – against all odds – the city authorities refused to acknowledge this fact. A total of 150,000 signatures, on my estimate, were thrown into the waste bin as a result. In the eyes of the protesters, it is the city government that is breaking the law while they are its true upholders.
Some of the Muscovites whose signatures were declared inadmissible showed up before the election commissions to confirm their authenticity but those assurances were often rejected as irrelevant. Even Victor Sheinis, one of the drafters of the present Constitution, failed in his bid to have his signature in support of a candidate accepted. As I’ve said (here, here, and here), it came like a spit in the face to a lot of people, or even an attempt by the authorities to negate their very existence.
To add insult to injury, mayor Sergei Sobyanin and some of his key lieutenants have a rather limited experience of actually living in Moscow so they are often perceived as outsiders imposing their will upon the city’s bona fide residents. Sobyanin actually grew in a tiny Siberian settlement and went to college in Kostroma, a regional center with less than 300,000 residents. Although he worked in Chelyabinsk – a proper city of about a million people – in 1980-4, he spent the next 17 years in relatively small West Siberian towns and didn’t settle in a city worth the name until he was in his 40s. He may have done OK as the Tyumen governor in but Muscovites don’t quite appreciate his notions of urban development. Some believe that he’s simply hellbent on destroying Moscow by building it over with the help of affiliated developers, whose rapacity has far exceed the appetites of the previous generation active under mayor Yuri Luzhkov (1992-2010).