Moscow duel: How the battle to become the city’s next mayor has given Putin’s biggest critic an unexpected taste of freedom


Mayoral Candidate A raises questions about Candidate B’s campaign literature. The police, who report to the incumbent, Candidate C, respond by raiding the print shop where the literature is produced. Candidate D raises a stink, because he was using the same printing firm.

That’s hardball. And that was  just Thursday.

Meanwhile, Candidate E portrays himself as the “Batman” who will save Moscow, and Candidate F lets himself be photographed in nothing more than a bath towel and an odd hat to demonstrate his Russian masculinity.

And the police, when they are not closing print shops, are rounding up hundreds of Vietnamese who are in Moscow looking for work, in a developing election-season operation that seems designed to pander to Muscovites’ worst instincts when it comes to immigrants – but it just might be a genuine attempt to blot out the huge and unspoken problem of forced labour.

Of the six men running for Moscow’s top job in the 8 September election, only two really count: the acting mayor, Sergei Sobyanin (Candidate C), and his fiercest challenger, Alexei Navalny (Candidate B). The polls show  Mr Sobyanin, the establishment candidate, with a large lead. Mr Navalny’s team wants his rival to win less than 50 per cent and force a runoff.

On Sunday, following a rally,  Mr Navalny was detained by police. After what they described as a “conversation”, he was released. But by the time the election results come in next month, Mr Navalny will probably be heading to prison.

In a trial that he and his supporters denounced as a farce, he was convicted in July of embezzlement in the city of Kirov and sentenced to six years. But the day after the conviction, prosecutors abruptly changed course and insisted that he be released on appeal, no doubt heeding instructions  from Moscow.

His chances of winning the appeal are exceedingly slim, but it has kept him out of prison all summer. By most accounts, the Kremlin was eager to have Mr Navalny take part in Moscow’s first mayoral election in a decade, because this would lend Mr Sobyanin’s inevitable victory some legitimacy.

That never meant Mr Navalny was going to get a fair chance. His campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, complains that he cannot get outlets to take Mr Navalny’s advertisements and that the campaign has been denied access to all but the most obscure  TV channels.

Mr Navalny tried unsuccessfully to get Mr Sobyanin struck off from the ballot. Then Moscow elections officials said they would consider removing Mr Navalny instead because of alleged campaign violations, though they later let him off with a warning.

Mr Sobyanin’s campaign accuses  Mr Navalny of receiving money from abroad and of being involved in a murky business deal in Montenegro.  Mr Navalny denies it. His campaign asks how Mr Sobyanin’s two daughters, ages 16 and 25, could afford to buy three multimillion-dollar apartments in Moscow and St Petersburg. Mr Sobyanin says it is all above board.

Mr Navalny rose to prominence as an energetic campaigner against corruption, but he has also been sharply critical of the employment of migrant labourers in Moscow, a position that attracts a great deal of support here.

When, at the end of July, the police began raiding work sites and rounding up migrants, some saw it as a ham-handed attempt to pre-empt one of  Mr Navalny’s most potent issues.

“People got the impression this is all disingenuous and the government’s only pretending to do something,” said Danila Medvedev, an advocate against the exploitation of migrant labour.

They were placed in a camp on the outskirts of Moscow, and every day the press portrayed the campaign as an effort to rid the city of undesirable migrants. Prominent human rights activists quickly denounced the roundups as abuses by the police.

Referring to the “concentration camp” where the Vietnamese were held, the activists warned in a public letter to the authorities of a “brown cloud” of fascism settling over the country.

The camp closed last Tuesday, and most of those detained have been sent home, according to the police.

Their departure was voluntary,  Mr Medvedev said – and completely understandable. Living and working conditions for the workers were an outrage, he said. A large number, said Mr Medvedev and another advocate, Vladimir Osechkin, had been reduced to what the US State Department calls “forced labour”.

Mr Medvedev and Mr Osechkin have another word for it: “slavery”.

But standing up for migrant workers is not a good campaign strategy.  Mr Navalny has called for a visa requirement for people from Central Asia and has promised to cut the number of migrants in the capital, although he does not say how he would do so.

Mr Sobyanin told the Vedosmosti newspaper that the city’s markets, where many migrants work, are hotbeds of crime and promised to continue shutting them down. He has said he favours “Slavic” migrants. Last Thursday, he said the city needs 200,000 guest workers to function, but no more.

© Washington Post

Chasing votes: the candidates

Sergei Sobyanin

The 55-year-old Kremlin-backed incumbent is currently leading the polls with more than 50 per cent

Alexei Navalny

Polls show the  anti-corruption campaigner’s support at 10 per cent, though that figure is growing

Mikhail Degtyaryov

Polling less than 1 per cent, he is the clear outsider. His comments include the suggestion of paid time off for menstruating women.

Nikolai Levichev

A social democrat, he has been the leader of the “A Just Russia” party for two years.

Ivan Melnikov

A deputy in the State Duma and vice-chairman of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

Sergei Mitrokhin

Leader of the Yabloko liberal opposition party. According to polls, he would hold around 5 per cent of the vote.