Muscovites this Sunday will vote for the first time in direct elections for their mayor. Acting mayor Serguei Sobyanin, appointed by the Kremlin in 2010, called the poll early and surveys give him a comfortable lead. His campaign has been highlighting the tens of millions of euros in investments he has directed into the Russian capital.
Refusing live debates with rivals, he has pointed to a modern look he’s ushered in, with walkways, better parking and bikes for hire. He said: “Moscow is living through a renaissance now, including the restoration of historic buildings.”
The Kremlin backs Sobyanin. Yet Moscow is also braced for expressions of anti-President Putin opposition. Foremost critic Alexei Navalny is among the six candidates running for mayor’s office. That’s in spite of a five-year prison sentence, suspended on appeal, hanging over the dissident-lawyer for what his supporters say is an embezzlement charge trumped up by the state.
He tells them: “We have managed to destroy the main Kremlin idea that no one ever can lead an election campaign and gather more than three percent (of votes) without the Kremlin’s money and the Kremlin’s television.”
The anti-corruption activist was a key organiser of the unprecedented protests against Putin last year and in 2011. This and his outspoken blogging have won growing support, though critics call him a populist, xenophobic nationalist.
Analyst Maria Lipman at the Moscow Carnegie Center stresses his strength: “The political system Putin built had to be risk- averse. It had to be virtually a political monopoly with no uncertainty, with no surprises. I think one of Alexei Navalny’s achievements is that he has managed to force authority to allow an element of uncertainty in Russian politics.”
Backed heavily by state media, Sobyanin, 55, is confident that Navalny, 37, has no chance of beating him. Yet many political observers say the Kremlin is playing with fire; letting Navalny run suggests that it is an open race. But even if Sobyanin is denied a first-round win and has to clinch the second, according to his main rival’s campaigners that should alarm the Kremlin.
With nearly 12 million people, Moscow is Russia’s biggest and wealthiest city, its main financial centre and the seat of most big Russian companies. The mayor controls an annual budget worth more than 40 billion euros. The Kremlin can’t very well ignore him.
Navalny is campaigning under the slogan: “Change Russia, Start with Moscow.”