Russian liberals are celebrating the relative success of the Communist Party and other Kremlin-friendly quasi-opposition parties in the elections to the Moscow city council on Sunday as an almost revolutionary breakthrough — but it takes some unpacking to explain why. Candidates from these parties gained around 20 out of 45 seats in the council; meanwhile the ruling United Russia party, which supports Russian President Vladimir Putin, only just retained a majority, losing about 13 seats in the city council (from the current 38 down to just 25).
But the Communists & co would be fooling themselves if they credited this victory to themselves. The real winner is Smart Voting — an electoral strategy promoted by the indisputable leader of the Russian liberal opposition, Alexei Navalny. Smart Voting essentially asked voters in the Moscow election to back anyone who might be able to defeat a United Russia candidate. The strategy was based on the fact that United Russia candidates tend to win elections with just 30-35% of the votes, while the majority of votes are scattered among candidates.
Smart Voting helped draw away from pro-government parties toward the Communist Party and others who don’t make up the traditional liberal opposition. (Such parties are still largely aligned with the government.) But the Smart Voting strategy wouldn’t have been necessary, had the candidates nominated by Team Navalny and its liberal allies been allowed to run against Kremlin candidates. Earlier this summer, these opposition figures overcame seemingly insurmountable hurdles designed to prevent anyone unapproved by the Kremlin from participating in the election. But electoral commissions managed to find just enough highly dubious technical “errors” (as simple as avenue abbreviated to Ave.) in the lists of voter signatures collected in their support to disqualify them at the last stage of registration. At least some of these candidates would have easily crushed Kremlin nominees, according to polls.
The Kremlin’s stubborn refusal to let its opponents run even in a local election sparked a major wave of protests in the Russian capital, which continued almost every weekend throughout July and August and resulted in b