“Moscow’s People Want Neither Revolution nor Reaction”

September 8, 2013
(Photo: Reuters / Sergei Karpukhin) Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny

Moscow’s mayoral election is today, and opposition candidate Alexei Navalny is behind in the polls. Digging through some of the latest polling, it appears that Navalny, while he has growing support, also has very high unfavorability ratings among many who think he’s too radical.

This assessment is a translation of an article by a political scientist writing for Izvestia, a newspaper that typically carried a pro-Kremlin slant. According to Eurozine, “Boris Mezhuev (b. 1970) is an historian of philosophy and political scientist. He is a senior lecturer at Moscow State University, deputy editor-in-chief of Kosmopolis, and expert for the Novaya Politika (New Politics) Centre.” – Ed.

This week, all sociological services, for the last time before the elections, published their data on electoral preferences of Moscovites. Despite the predictable increase in ratings of Alexei Navalny over the last week of August, primarily due to the end of the summer holidays, all agreed that the main opposition candidate is teetering between the 2nd and 3rd places, and is unlikely to reach the second round. The most favorable rating was submitted by the Public Opinion Fund (FOM): according to their survey, in the last week of August 60% of the voters favored the acting Mayor [Sergei Sobyanin – Ed.], and his main rival would get 20%. Of course, Navalny’s headquarters had denied all these data ahead of time, once again proclaiming the inevitability of the second round, but numbers speak for themselves. And they are what they are.

Can they change in the last week before the vote? Nothing can be ruled out, but the grounds for such assumptions are too few. It’s not just about Sobyanin, because people understand that they vote not just for the mayor, they vote for the current government, ultimately for Putin, who openly supported his old comrade in the last television interview. And Putin is in a very good shape now, his appearances in public are quite successful. The head of state always finds it easier to act when faced with some serious challenges, and in this case one of such challenges is clearly here – a hard diplomatic clash with a major superpower. And against the background of this clash the leadership must score some points. And along with the leadership some points must be scored by the acting mayor.

So, let’s start from the most favorable number for Navalny – 20%. What does this mean for his future political career? Leave aside the criminal-legal side of the matter: let’s assume the best outcome, that is the process ends in a review of the sentence and probation. What is the 20%? Yes, just about all the same votes that Sergei Kiriyenko got in 1999 (about 11%), and Alexander Lebedev received in 2003 (about 12%). And this was despite the fact that Lebedev (who back then did not have such a significant media resource as “Novaya Gazeta”) had to face the entire administrative machinery of Moscow. And the Mayor’s Office wasn’t too enthusiastic about the appointment of Kiriyenko. Despite the popularity of Yuri Luzhkov, the alternative candidates were not really allowed to run any large-scale campaigns.

In other words, Navalny, perhaps, will prevail over his current competitors in the opposition camp, but it’s not likely that he will do better than his predecessors who tried to compete for the Mayor’s Office. And it also means that so far he does not represent any significant political project, that could counter Putin’s project.

In essence, the suspense of this election boils down to whether Navalny could compete for the votes of moderate voters, notionally speaking, for those who did not participate in the “white ribbon movement” were not sympathetic to it, but nevertheless want some “changes” in the country and are clearly unhappy with the status quo. For example, for my vote and my friends’ votes. Alas, I do not know if anyone of my friends who first did not want to vote for Navalny will suddenly change his mind and decide to support him. In the memorable year of 1989, when the future President Boris Yeltsin triumphantly won the elections in Moscow, there were quite a few of those who “changed their mind” at the last moment: I am ashamed to admit that I was one of them. Yes, we said to ourselves, Yeltsin is not a very pleasant person, but the country needs change, the reactionary forces are extremely dangerous and therefore not to support Yeltsin today is to ensure the victory of the conservatives tomorrow. So we voted and got what we voted for.

Today, such debates are going on within the protest electorate, splitting it from the inside, without inflicting any harm upon the majority of loyalists. These veterans of “Bolotnaya days” argue among themselves about how much they hate the authorities to give voice to this leader who is too-leaning-towards-liberalism, or, on the contrary, towards nationalism — not really pleasant in all respects. The loyalists camp just knows one thing for sure: Navalny means danger. This is a turmoil, a hand of the West, it is Lzhedmitry (impostor), Kerensky and Vojislav Kostunica in one. And Navalny has done nothing to prove the opposite to them that is to all of us – that he is not a danger, but a chance to revamp the government and to prevent its collapse into the abyss, with all the consequences that we can think about.

In our political culture of recent times, perhaps in part because of a too protracted electoral stagnation during 2004-2011, we cultivated some kind of a esthetic-bohemian contempt for moderation and moderate voters. All those Nemtsov’s “penguins,” along with those endless references to Hasek and his “party of moderate progress within the rule of law,” that everybody got tired of it – because of all that normal politicians lost their ability to fight for the votes of a normal law-abiding and patriotic citizen. That is something that every ambitious politician has to do in any Western country. Everybody is trying to get entrenched in their niche: it seems like Navalny claimed something else, but it appears that he quite frankly did not understand how this “something else” feels to the touch.

This is what separated him and the moderates so clearly. And he could not, did not want to or didn’t dare to overcome this divide. That, by the way, was mentioned by Grigory Yavlinsky in his recent interview. And the moderate voters, that is, all of us who want neither revolution nor reaction, followed Sobyanin, who got all these votes so easily, without much of an effort, just by a flashy gesture – giving some of his votes to Navalny. So if this elections result in what the polls predict, they should not be called a defeat, but rather a triumph of the middle class, whose sympathies our ambitious aspirants to the people’s saviors will have to win from now on.