In Moscow, election season is over, with Vladimir Putin returning to the Kremlin as president. (His inauguration is scheduled for May 7.) But in Russia’s regions, politics may be just beginning—the country’s nascent opposition, which came to life late last year and then faded after Putin’s victory last month, is turning its attention to political races in the country’s regions and cities.
The opposition hopes that by supporting independent candidates as governors, mayors, and regional deputies, it can create a slowly growing constellation of outposts that are beyond the Kremlin’s political reach. In other words, having failed to keep Putin from reclaiming the country’s top post, the various factions united in their opposition to Putin now hope they can undermine his hold on power in his coming term by filling one small post after another, eventually leading to political change forced from the ground up.
The first major test—and victory—came in Yaroslavl in early April, when Yevgeny Urlashov, an opposition candidate who had earlier defected from the ruling United Russia party, was elected mayor. In the days before the vote, the city, which is about 165 miles from Moscow, was flooded by activists and volunteer election-monitors from the capital. The large-scale mobilization was aided by the remnant campaign staff of Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire oligarch who ran against Putin in March and has flirted on and off with opposition politics. Urlashov’s victory, along with the election of an independent mayor in the industrial city of Togliatti, was a sign that the interest in an alternative to the Putin system had taken root outside of cosmopolitan, relatively well-off Moscow.
And then, the regional battle took a dramatic turn. In Astrakhan, a city of 500,000 people on the Volga delta in southern Russia, Oleg Shein, who lost the city’s mayoral election in a race that he says was marred by wide-scale fraud, went on a hunger strike to protest the election committee’s refusal to consider his evidence of voting irregularities. Since March 16, Shein has lost more than 20 pounds, turning into a pale, willowy shell of his former self —and, in the process, a national cause célèbre. Protest leaders from Moscow have flown down to Astrakhan to rally support for Shein; earlier this month, several thousand people gathered in the center of the city in what was the largest demonstration outside of Moscow since Putin’s reelection.
The election committee and the courts have not issued a final ruling, though even if Shein loses this particular battle, he—and by extension, local politicians all over the country—have won a not insignificant victory, demonstrating that the political technologists in the Kremlin cannot wholly ignore the pressure on the federal center from the regions and will have to govern accordingly.
Although the revival of regional politics is still in its early stages, two important lessons are already apparent. The first is that—at least in the short-term—the most effective opposition force is likely to come from those political factions or individuals that are already part of the system or close to it. Compared to, say, the amorphous and at times proudly anti-political protest mass in Moscow, such forces have the resources, connections, and ready-made infrastructure to compete with the strongly entrenched pro-Kremlin powers.
Shein, for example, is a deputy from Just Russia, a party created by the Kremlin in 2006, that has, for the most part, remained loyal—but that has moved sharply away from Putin as Shein’s hunger strike has dragged on. If it picks up its rhetoric and takes on Moscow in a number of social and economic issues, Just Russia, which has a left-leaning, populist profile, could be poised to pick up a number of disaffected voters in the country’s regions.
Second, the Kremlin will have to recalibrate how it fills regional posts, and thus, how it administers power in Russia’s various far-flung provinces. In the past, the state apparatus chose a candidate for regional office based on one criteria: his or her demonstrated loyalty to Putin. A politically disengaged public and the effective use of so-called “administrative resources” meant that, for years, such candidates could sail to office with little difficulty. As the events in Yaroslavl and now Astrakhan are revealing, that calculus is becoming much less dependable, and Moscow will have to think of new—and perhaps less easily managed—ways of pushing its politicians onto voting publics in the regions.