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Russia votes, but will the Kremlin notice?

ON A brisk Monday evening early this month, Yulia Scherbakova watched her two young children walk to a park with their grandmother. Instead of joining them to play, she picked up a blue clipboard and set off to knock on doors in an unlikely campaign to become a Moscow district councillor. The canvassing can be dispiriting—of the 72 flats she approached in her first building that evening, only 16 opened their doors; many more told her to get lost. The unpaid post offers limited powers and a five-year commitment. But Ms Scherbakova sees such street-level politics as a rare chance to influence Russian civic life. “This is where you can change something in our country,” she says. “At the upper levels it’s not possible.”

She is not alone. Russians will take to the polls on September 10th to elect over a dozen governors and fill thousands of seats in regional and municipal parliaments. For the most part, the vote will be an exercise in stage-managed democracy, with favoured candidates from the ruling United Russia party ubiquitously sailing to victory. In Moscow, though, the races for 125 district councils have attracted a collection of fresh faces running on independent or opposition tickets, seeking to unseat incumbents from councils that are responsible for local spending and infrastructure.

The campaign is a reflection of increasingly vibrant neighbourhood activism in the Russian capital. “Trust in official institutions of power has eroded, and in response people are developing trust in local organisations that they create themselves,” says a recent report on localised civil society by Andrei Kolesnikov, of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a think-tank, and Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the Levada Centre, an independent pollster. Contentious urban-planning policies have fuelled the process in the past year. A project backed by Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, to demolish thousands of ageing low-rise apartment blocks and resettle their residents, brought thousands to the streets in protest this summer. An ambitious roadwork programme has also generated fury by turning the capital into a maze of upturned pavements and green-and-white-striped fencing. While the issues remain local for now, “this fight for backyard sovereignty has the capacity to expand into a fight for a city district, an entire city, or perhaps even the whole country,” Mr Kolesnikov and Mr Volkov argue.

In total, more than 7,500 candidates have registered to run for some 1,500 district council seats, a record for post-Soviet Moscow. Many are young people new to politics: the number of candidates aged 21 or under doubled compared with 2012; the number of those younger than 35 went up one-and-a-half times. While they hardly represent a threat to President Vladimir Putin’s regime, their willingness to engage actively stands them in stark contrast to Russia’s typically apolitical masses.

A large proportion of the new candidates answered a call from Dmitry Gudkov, a former federal Duma deputy and opposition leader, who hopes to gather enough independent seats to back his run for Moscow mayor (district-council deputies control the nomination process). Mr Gudkov expected between 150 and 200 applications; he received over 3,000, and registered some 1,000 people to run, ranging in age from 18 to 82. To help political neophytes navigate the complex bureaucracy involved, Mr Gudkov’s team developed an online service that he dubs a “political Uber”. While the chances of overwhelming victory are low, Mr Gudkov hopes the campaign will create a lasting political network. He might even win majorities in a few districts. That would get the mayor’s attention.

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