A year ago, Russia’s opposition thought the elections taking place Sunday could be a game changer. After opposition candidate Alexey Navalny’s strong second-place finish in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race, Sunday’s city council elections seemed to present a rare opportunity to grasp a place in Russia’s political firmament. Winning a few seats could legitimatize the opposition as a real alternative to President Vladimir Putin and his allies. But that was before Navalny was put under house arrest on embezzlement charges, before Russia locked horns with the West over Ukraine, before new election laws took effect, and before the opposition fully fathomed the challenges of running local campaigns, in which anti-Putin messages hardly mattered.
The opposition’s failure to stage a serious showing in the Moscow city council elections — largely expected to rubber-stamp pro-Kremlin United Russia’s grip on power — carries potentially heavy consequences. In a Russia where power is being concentrated and the noose on political dissent is being tightened, such an opportunity may not present itself again.
“I’m not sure I’m going to have a chance in the next years to run for anything,” said Maria Gaidar, an opposition activist who despite deep political roots — her father was former president Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister — had her city council candidacy thrown out by the Moscow courts. “I think that this was one of the last chances for anyone, given the system.”