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The battle for Moscow will shape Russia’s future

by Sergei Guriev

Today’s most important political battle in Russia is not for control of the Kremlin, but for power over its capital city. Indeed, the outcome of Moscow’s mayoral election campaign concerns every Russian — and everyone who is interested in Russia’s fate.

Just as presidential elections in the United States matter for the entire world, mayoral elections in Moscow matter for Russia’s national politics — and thus for its economy. So what happens in Moscow on Sept. 8 (and, possibly, in the run-off election two weeks later) will have profound implications for the country’s future.

The election is a watershed for several reasons. For starters, this is the first Moscow mayoral campaign since President Vladimir Putin canceled subnational elections in 2005. (Putin’s one-term successor, Dmitri Medvedev, now the prime minister, reinstated them in 2011.) Since the last mayoral election in 2004, Moscow has changed dramatically. It is now not only the largest and most important subnational entity in the Russian Federation; it also is a major European capital, a global business destination, and a large consumer market.

Per capita income in Moscow is similar to that of Spain or Italy. The size of Moscow’s city budget is close to that of New York City. Officially 12 million people live in Moscow (not counting commuters and irregular immigrants) — more than in an average European country. And yet, before this year, Moscow’s mayor was appointed by the federal government, not elected by Muscovites.

Second, the ongoing mayoral race is an unusually competitive election in Putin’s Russia. The most important indication of this is the participation of Alexei Navalny — by far the Kremlin’s most persistent political opponent. Navalny was registered as a candidate in the election and joined the campaign a day after being released from jail, following his conviction — and five-year prison sentence — in a completely fabricated case.

Why the government first imprisoned him and then released him less than 24 hours later remains a mystery. What is clear is that the authorities want the Moscow mayoral election to be substantially more competitive than anyone expected it to be.

Third, thanks to Navalny’s participation, the Moscow election has fostered — for the first time ever — genuine grass-roots politics in Russia. Denied access to TV, Navalny has launched a U.S.-style door-to-door campaign. He has enlisted an unprecedented 15,000 volunteers (mostly young) and has raised — again unprecedented for Russia — $1.5 million dollars from 8,000 Russian citizens to finance his campaign.

Navalny’s volunteers not only promote his message through social media; they also distribute his program and talk to voters in Moscow’s streets and Metro. Most impressive (and completely unheard of in Russia), Navalny himself organizes three street rallies every weekday and five rallies on Saturdays and Sundays. His goal is to hold a hundred such rallies by the end of the campaign.

Finally, Navalny’s background and support base give him a level of moral authority with voters that other politicians in Putin’s Russia cannot attain. Navalny’s campaign is crowd-funded by ordinary Russians, who understand that he is not on the payroll of an oligarch or the government.

Indeed, Navalny has been a persistent and effective critic of corruption in both the Russian government and state-owned companies. Moreover, even though his emails have been hacked and published, and the government has searched his home and confiscated his computers and phones, there are no convincing charges against him — except for the obviously politically motivated cases. As a result, voters can be confident that Navalny, who refused to bow to legal intimidation, is clean, and that he is running for the job not for his own material benefit or to do the bidding of any particular interest group, but because he believes in a greater good.

A campaign such as Navalny’s certainly bodes well for Russia’s future. Indeed, the absence of genuine political competition and the public’s lack of confidence in Russia’s politicians are the country’s main problems, for they undermine the rule of law, enable interest groups to “capture” state institutions, and encourage corruption, all of which have led to capital flight and a brain drain. Thus, Navalny’s growing support in Moscow is good news not only for Russian citizens, but also for those who invest in Russia.

To be sure, there are still many reasons to be worried. Navalny certainly is not perfect, and, though the Moscow election may be competitive by Russian standards, it is still outrageously unfair in terms of media access, financing, and voter intimidation. Putin and the ruling party did not win a majority in Moscow in the 2011 Duma election or the 2012 presidential election, but they seem confident of victory in the city this time. And Navalny’s five-year prison sentence remains in place, pending an appeal whose outcome is completely uncertain.

Even so, what we are witnessing in Moscow far exceeds anyone’s expectations. Win or lose, Navalny’s campaign will have a lasting impact.

Sergei Guriev, a visiting professor of economics at Sciences Po, is a professor of economics and a former rector at the New Economic School in Moscow. He has been advising Alexei Navalny’s mayoral campaign since going into exile in June. © Project Syndicate, 2013.