Anti-Putin Protests Have Ended, But Grassroots Democracy Movement Growing in Russia

Russia is a month removed from the restoration of Vladimir Putin to the presidency, and while the mass protests that drew Russians to the streets by the tens and hundreds of thousands seem to be a thing of the past, a spirit of political engagement persists among the Russian citizens who seem unwilling to meekly enter into a new Era of Putin.

In the wake of the March 4 presidential elections, the New York Times ran a profile piece on a new generation of young Russian political activists who had managed to get themselves elected to district councils around Moscow. While it is a positive step in the development of a body politic within Russia, the district councils themselves are largely symbolic bodies with little actual governmental power. Serving as mayor of a major city, however, is a different matter entirely, and it's here that in the past month, Putin's once monolithic United Russia party has suffered a pair of embarrassing setbacks.

On March 18, Sergei Andreyev soundly defeated his United Russia-backed opponent in the mayoral election in Tolyatti, a city of more than 100,000 people. Tolyatti is Russia's answer to Detroit, the city is largely built around the sprawling AutoVAZ automobile plant, which employs the majority of Tolyatti's citizens. In recent years, AutoVAZ has received billions of dollars in subsidies as the government has tried to prop up Russia's ailing domestic automobile industry. Yet, despite being on the receiving end of government aid, Tolyatti's citizens turned against the Kremlin-backed candidate, Alexander Shakhov, and instead supported Andreyev, who ran on a platform of reviving the local economy by fighting the waste and corruption of the sitting administration. His campaign slogan “against thieves, lies and violence,” seemed a direct nod to anti-Kremlin blogger Alexei Navalny's rebranding of United Russia as the “party of crooks and theives.”

Two weeks later, on April 1, United Russia suffered an even more stinging defeat when opposition candidate Yevgeny Urlashov scored a landslide victory in the mayoral race in Yaroslavl, a city of 500,000; winning almost 70% of the vote in a runoff against Kremlin-backed oligarch Yakob Yakushev. As in Tolyatti, Urlashov ran on an anti-corruption platform, but there are a couple of factors that make the Yarolslavl race especially noteworthy. First is the fact that Russia's typically fractious opposition parties were able to rally 'round Urlashov's candidacy: the Communists, the liberal Yabloko party and centrist A Just Russia all supported Urlashov. Second, it is reported that as many as 1,000 Russians from cities as far away as Moscow and St. Petersburg traveled to Yarolslavl to serve as election monitors to prevent the type of mass vote rigging that United Russia has been accused of in the past.

Finally there is the presence of oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who supported the winning candidates in both Tolyatti and Yaroslavl. Prokhorov is continuing his bid to become a leader of the political opposition after finishing with just over 7% of the vote in last month's presidential elections. Prokhorov is officially registering an opposition political party in Russia, a process he said he is deliberately taking slow to avoid making “mistakes.” Prokhorov then tellingly adds: “I definitely don't want to create an inefficient 'one-man' structure,” a clear dig at Vladimir Putin who is known for having recreated, during his first term as president, the old Soviet “power vertical” model of governance that ensured all major decisions come from Moscow.

Prokhorov is still regarded with suspicion by some in Russia's opposition movement due to his role last year in the Kremlin's attempt to create another pseudo-opposition party, Right Cause. Prokhorov was tapped to be party chairman. But he seems to have taken the job too seriously, crafting a pro-business/anti-corruption platform for Right Cause, he was ousted as party chair after just a few months on the post. He was not shy in his critique of the ruling party following his ouster, all factors that seem to argue against him serving as a Kremlin strawman, especially for the notoriously risk-adverse Vladimir Putin during some very uncertain political times in Russia.