A grassroots coalition has made gains in Moscow’s municipal election, signaling opportunities for Russian progressives at the local level, says Russian-American independent journalist Alyona Minkovski
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Russian President Vladimir Putin has a tight grip on Russia’s national politics. He controls parliament, has an approval rating above 80%, and is widely expected to win a fourth term if he runs next year. But progressives in Russia see an opening for them at the local level. On Sunday, a loose grassroots coalition claimed rare gains in Moscow’s municipal election, picking up about 200 seats. My next guest profiles some of Moscow’s progressive politicians in a new piece for The Nation. Alyona Minkovski is an independent journalist, former host of HuffPost Live and The Alyona Show on RT. Her article is called “Meet the Activists Running for Office in Moscow.” Alyona, welcome. ALYONA MINKOVSKI: Thanks for having me. AARON MATE: Thanks for joining us. It’s interesting to talk about an election in Russia and not talk about the U.S. election for once. I’m thrilled to do it as an avid media consumer. We just had these local elections in Moscow. You profiled some of the candidates for The Nation, as I mentioned. Talk about what you looked at. ALYONA MINKOVSKI: Sure. These elections are municipal elections, so essentially, they’re really low-level, local political positions that normally people wouldn’t want to pay a ton of attention to, but because the opposition has completely been blocked out of mainstream politics, that’s where they’re being forced to start in Russia. And the reason that this is significant is of course that Moscow is the capital of the political and economic powerhouse in Russia, and just like here in the United States, urban centers in Moscow tend to be more liberal and more democratic in terms of public opinion than maybe the rest of Russia or rural part of the country. What I was looking at here were these elections because this is the last elections that will happen across Russia before March of 2018 when the next presidential election is happening. Vladimir Putin hasn’t said yet whether or not he’s going to run. It’s kind of assumed that he probably will be going for a fourth term. What was really significant here is that you had this kind of grouping. They were calling themselves United Democrats, but the main man who I profiled, Dmitry Gudkov, he’s a former parliamentarian, and he now is considering running for mayor, but he’s the one who put together this whole team where they got a number of opposition parties, as well as people who decided to run as independents but all who are kind of democratically-minded and fit a litmus test for what they want to see and what type of reform they want to see in Russia. So they were able to register over 1,000 of these democratic candidates, and as you mentioned, over 200 of them won, which for them is still, it’s significant. I can go into all the technical reasons why. AARON MATE: Well, why? ALYONA MINKOVSKI: Okay, sure. For starters, we have to point out, too, that only 15% of people actually came out to vote. Notoriously, in Russia voter participation is incredibly low. This was particularly bad. So that is a downside. And there were over 600 complaints about unfair elections, some type of voter disruption, and that is completely widespread and very typical in Russia, too. But the thing here is that when it comes to Dmitry Gudkov, who wants to be able to run for mayor in the election in 2018, he needs 110 municipal deputies and one from each district in Moscow to sign for him in order to even allow for him to participate in the mayoral elections. So that’s what he was really going for here is to have 110 of these independent opposition deputies there because then they can kind of take control in Moscow into who gets on the ballot. And of course, Moscow again, like I said, being the capital city, having the biggest budget in the entire country, has a huge influence on the rest of the country. The problem is that they didn’t win a seat in every single district. There’s 125 districts in just Moscow alone. But Gudkov has still, since Sundays’ election, announced that he is planning on running for mayor. They’re going to hope to put some pressure on Sobyanin, who is the current mayor, to maybe change the rules and say that just if you have 110 people that that’s enough. But the other big thing that we should be looking at here is that there were so many young people who were running as candidates this time around. We’ve seen a really big uptick in political engagement, especially by youth in Russia, and that’s pretty significant for Russia in general because people are very politically apathetic there. So now you have this newer, younger generation who very much get a lot of their media consumption happens online, which is basically the only information that you can get that is away from state-controlled media. So that’s where a lot of this alternative opposition political thought is really finding room to grow. That’s where people are exchanging, organizing tools. That’s where they’re discussing issues that go beyond just kind of anti-corruption but now are getting into social issues, systematic reform. Again, that is a significant thing for Russia because democracy hasn’t really truly existed there since the fall of the Soviet Union. There was a very brief interlude with it, and we see what direction it went in by looking at the current political structure there. AARON MATE: Right. And you mentioned in your piece that the democracy that Russia saw in the ’90s has still lead to a lot of resentment because of the impact that it had on the country. ALYONA MINKOVSKI: That’s right, and that was what one of my guests … I interviewed Dmitry Gudkov. I interviewed also Ilya Azar. He’s somebody who mentions that he is a famous journalist in the country. He’s done a lot of conflict reporting, and he was elected to a municipal deputy position, as well as Lucya Shtein, who is the other woman who I profiled for this piece. In talking about whether or not there’s going to be a revolution in Russia and people are going to push back against Putin because the economic crisis and other political factors are going to get Russians to the point they just can’t take enough, something that Ilya pointed out was that as long as things aren’t as bad as they were in the ’90s when there was complete chaos, when there was no kind of economic stability, then he doesn’t see that happening because that’s in part where Vladimir Putin’s popularity comes from is that he is seen as somebody who brought stability to the country after the very tumultuous ’90s. Then since then, despite things like an economic crisis that’s due to falling oil prices, as well as economic sanctions, he’s been able to use other and employ other political tactics like playing on nationalism and of playing this victim card internationally of saying that Russia is being attacked by the Western community in the form of sanctions, so it’s a time for Russians to be proud, to band together, to endure all of it. He uses terrorism very much as a threat to pass a lot of very constricting and restricting national security legislation, and that in turn often applies to issues of free speech and then freedom of the press, too. A lot of these things are used as excuses for national security in the country. AARON MATE: Right. Look, on that front, how are Russians, at least the ones you spoke to, looking at all of this hoopla we’re seeing in the U.S. where so many problems are being blamed on Russia, from the outcome of the election to … Even after Charlottesville, I saw commentators saying that this is an opening for Vladimir Putin to support far right hate groups in the U.S. How do Russians see this Russia obsession right now going on in the U.S.? ALYONA MINKOVSKI: I was just there in July, at the end of July, and that was when I spoke to all of these people that I profiled. So I spoke to these opposition figures. I spoke to friends of mine, former colleagues of mine. I spoke to just random people in a park. I went and filmed a video there just trying to gauge political opinions. So I feel like even though it was just Moscow, I did get a kind of a pulse on what Russians are thinking, and for the most part, I’d say that Russian people feel like they have no idea whether the Russian government played any kind of role in interfering the U.S. election. A lot of people feel doubtful about it, and they feel like that’s too sophisticated to try to give the Russian government that much kind of importance and power. But then someone like Dmitry Gudkov, who is going to be running for the mayor of Moscow in 2018, he also feels like all of that is in essence just a political tool that’s being used by the left and by Democrats here in the United States to go after Donald Trump. So he feels like in certain respects, like Russians, for the most part, they want to see a bettering of relations. That’s why Russian people were favorable towards Donald Trump being president because he certainly was the only one on the campaign trail between he and Hillary Clinton who was promising a better relationship with Russia. And they’re very much being hurt by economic sanctions internationally. They very much want to have better relations and more prominence on the world stage. So I think that right now you’re seeing some disillusionment with Donald Trump and what people thought he might’ve been able to achieve. You’re seeing also some realization of the way that the checks and balances and the political system here works in the United States, that he just can’t single-handedly, unilaterally change policy and make it more Russia-friendly in the country. And you very much see, I think, the press kind of turning on Donald Trump but also Russian people definitely being united by this feeling that they’re completely being attacked by everyone in the West. And also a lot of people kind of joking about it, too. It runs the gamut, let me put it that way. AARON MATE: So, in terms of the issues that unite this loose progressive coalition, what are the ones that people in this coalition are most focused on? I mean, part of the problem when we talk about opposition figures overseas is that sometimes, people who are described as democrats, is just a euphemism for those who we support, who the West supports, and who oppose the leaders, in this case Putin, who the West doesn’t like. So what makes these candidates progressive as opposed to, say, the neo-liberals who the U.S. has favored in Russia previously? ALYONA MINKOVSKI: Right. Being a democrat, of course, means different things to different people, and that’s part of the problem that the opposition in general is having in Russia is this kind of lack of unity, or really a lack of a platform and an agenda. But if you look at this coalition, and somebody like Dmitry Gudkov, right? This is his team that he’s put together, he’s the one that’s going to be running for mayor in 2018. On his website, he’ll list things that really seem kind of basic to us in the United States, but it’s free and fair elections. They want an independent judiciary, and they want their budgets to be focused more on investing in health care, in education, in veterans’ affairs, instead of military affairs. You know, we’ve seen a huge build of military spending in Russia. They’re gonna be hosting the largest military exercises, or biggest drills since the Cold War right now, and so there’s been a lot of focus on that. While that can be kind of looked at as national, politics, it does trickle down into what’s happening in Moscow just because so many people who are residents of Moscow have been frustrated with how much construction is going on. When I was there this summer, it’s impossible to drive, to walk, every single where, every place that you go, there’s some type of construction in your way. On one hand, it’s all improving the city for the better, and I think that a large part of the push now to do it is because A, there’s not as much time to build there because the winter is so long, but also because next year is the World Cup, and so they’re expecting a lot of international visitors. So, a lot of these candidates that I spoke to are frustrated with a focus on appearances to the outside world. And not, of course, to forget, too, that corruption is something that runs very deep there, and so they feel like a lot of the money that goes into even just the Moscow budget, being the capital, it’s the largest budget that exists in the country for a municipality, for a city. They feel like there are a lot of people who are just lining their pockets with new, fancy developments. One thing that Lucya Shtein, she’s one of the candidates who I profiled, one of the things that she very strongly is against is this kind of re-modernization program where they’re taking Khrushchev-era buildings in Moscow, they’re demolishing them, and are still resettling the residents. And it’s really divided the city. It’s brought a lot of people out to protest because they are concerned as to whether or not all these buildings really need to be torn down. Sure, some of them are really old and decrepit, but are some just being torn down to make room for more expensive developments? People are concerned about the quality of the homes that they’re gonna be put in afterwards. That’s where you can see this kind of national idea of refocusing budget priorities mix with even just the local, municipal stuff that’s happening in Moscow itself. AARON MATE: One figure who I was reading about, who has an American connection, is Vitali Shkliarov, who is working with this politician that you mentioned, Gudkov. Vitali Shkliarov, he actually worked as an advisor on the Bernie Sanders campaign and says he wants to bring that same type of agenda and outlook to Russia. ALYONA MINKOVSKI: You know, I’m not too familiar with Shkliarov. He’s not somebody that I spoke to while I was there, but I’ve definitely done some reading about him and am familiar with his work. He also is on this team with somebody called Max Katz, who a lot of people look at as a young political genius in Russia. A lot of what they were able to do, and what Shkliarov was able to do earlier, was be able to find a way to mobilize people just through online means. Because there is no way to get through to the population that they are trying to reach, kind of more liberal-minded, opposition-minded people in Moscow in the mainstream state-controlled press, they have to use the internet. They really became very savvy with this campaign of growing a movement by reaching out to people online, by soliciting donations and funding online, and by being able to really give people information and train candidates and help them weed through the bureaucracy of just even being able to sign up, because it’s so miserable there. It’s just so bureaucratic and so complicated, and they make it as difficult as possible for anyone to take part in the democratic process. AARON MATE: In terms of the challenges that progressives face under these circumstances, one thing I found striking in what Gudkov told you is that he said, “In Russia, there are a lot of progressive people who want a change, but they’re just scared.” ALYONA MINKOVSKI: Yeah, and he was referring to the Levada Center, an independent polling place, and every time they come out with Putin’s popularity, the most recent show that he has 83% popularity in the country. And Gudkov is saying that’s not the case. Don’t look at Russians as this kind of mass of zombies who are all Putin-fied and love the president. There are progressive people who want a change. But they’re, I think, A, a lot of people don’t really believe that the political system can change. Like I said, apathy is something that is a very big challenge, a considerable one, as well as kind of skepticism. I’m not sure if people know or think that the system can work any other way because corruption in Russia is not about just Vladimir Putin being in charge. It goes down to the very lowest levels of society to every interaction that you might have with a police officer to any kind of business deal or construction project or anything that’s approved. And of course, there is an environment of fear because you have laws that have been passed that have very much been clamping down on the freedom of speech and the freedom of protest to the extent that they even exist really in Russia. And you have of course opposition figures who have been murdered. You have opposition figures who have been poisoned, and attempts have been made to murder them. You have journalists who have been murdered, and whether or not there are any clear answers as to who is responsible for that, all of that kind of plays into this environment of fear. And you have a lot of opposition figures who are now living in exile and funding these democratic politicians and democratic NGOs from abroad. AARON MATE: Right. Speaking of opposition figures, the most famous one inside Russia right now is probably Alexei Navalny. One thing I found interesting about your piece is that these progressives who you interviewed did not appear to be filled with praise of him, as I think many people in the West are. Can you talk about what criticisms there are of him inside the progressive movement inside Russia? ALYONA MINKOVSKI: Sure. Some of the most widespread criticisms that you’ll see mentioned in Western press, too, are that Alexei Navalny has very much tapped into nationalist sentiment. He has appeared at skinhead marches. There’s a video on YouTube of him where he is seemingly referring to people from the Caucus regions as cockroaches. So understandably, that has a lot of people feeling very disconcerted with what he’s willing to do to kind of gain this big popularity and what his true beliefs might be. But at the same time, I also heard from a lot of these people that I interviewed, and not only the people in this piece but just those who are involved in the opposition and journalists, people who monitor this very closely, is that Navalny is somebody who doesn’t like to have any competition. Even in his immediate circle and those who are around him, he very much is centered on himself and doesn’t like to have anyone there who might be a threat. So he on one hand is kind of this last man standing, and it really is an incredible feat in a way that he’s been able to mobilize young people and engage people in the way that he has by his use of social media, posting videos on YouTube, doing these investigations into the financial holdings of Dmitry Medvedev, of Vladimir Putin, of other high-ranking political figures in the country. But people feel very much like he might have kind of autocratic or authoritarian tendencies in and of himself. So on one hand, he’s the only one left, and so those who would oppose free and fair elections in a more democratic system in Russia would say, “Of course, sure, let him run. He should be allowed to run.” But a lot of people within the opposition do have personal beef, personal squabbles, issues with the stances that he takes and feel like just putting a Navalny in place of a Putin isn’t going to solve any of Russia’s problems, and that’s something that Gudkov mentions, too, is that he’s not out to change the Kremlin cabinet, he’s out to reform the Russian system from the bottom up because, at the moment, the way the laws and the system were set up for executive power and execute overreach, anybody, a good person could get into that role and easily be corrupted and really kind of go crazy. So one thing that is often mentioned about the opposition and especially kind of democratic, progressive movement in Russia is that there is a lot of infighting, and they’re not very united. And that was something that was significant about these municipal elections, is that you did have Gudkov bring his team and a number of other opposition parties like Yabloko together and make this kind of united democrats movement cooperative, whatever you want to call it, which is significant at the moment and rare. AARON MATE: Alyona Minkovski, independent journalist, former host of HuffPost Live and the Alyona Show. Her article for The Nation is called “Meet the Activists Running for Office in Moscow.” Alyona, thanks very much. ALYONA MINKOVSKI: Thanks for having me AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.