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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Opposition Battles Against the Odds

MTA tattered campaign poster informs drivers in the Moscow region about a Yabloko candidate in Sunday's election.
RAMENSKOYE, Moscow Region -- The odds of an upset in Sunday's Moscow Regional Duma election may be long, but for opposition parties it offers a chance to remind voters of their existence before the State Duma vote in December.

The Moscow regional government, like most across the country, is dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. Governor Boris Gromov is a member, as are 30 of the 48 deputies in the current Duma.

But this has not dissuaded eight parties -- including two veterans of the opposition, the Communist Party and Yabloko -- from contesting United Russia's hold on power in the region.

The influence of both the Communists and Yabloko has waned since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000. Success in municipal and regional elections is now essential to their political survival.

The importance of Sunday's vote was underscored this week when Communist Gennady Zyuganov and Yabloko's Grigory Yavlinsky -- the national leaders of their respective parties -- hit the campaign trail in the Moscow region.

Zyuganov was the headliner Monday evening at a rally in Ramenskoye, a city of 82,000 people located about 45 kilometers southeast of Moscow.

The Communists have always been adept at organizing public events, and the Ramenskoye rally was no exception.

The hall was awash with party paraphernalia. Hammer-and-sickle banners were draped from the stage and behind the speakers. A copy of the party's regional newspaper, Podmoskovnaya Pravda, was carefully hung on the back of each chair.

Dozens of young people from Ramenskoye and outlying areas had been bussed in for the evening. Dressed in red bibs, they chanted the slogans helpfully printed on leaflets that were handed out at the door.

"Number 7, that's success, the Communists are the best!" one young activist shouted, referring to the party's position on Sunday's ballot. His cry was met with applause from the crowd.

As if on cue, Zyuganov entered the hall as the noise of clapping hands reached its peak and launched into an attack on income disparity.

"Why did [Russia's richest man Roman] Abramovich steal your wealth?" he bellowed. "Why does [Unified Energy Systems CEO Anatoly] Chubais get paid $100,000 per month?"

By the end of his speech, however, Zyuganov had outlined no policy proposals and made no specific promises. In fact, his speech had very little to do with Ramenskoye or the Moscow region. He ended with a bland call for "elementary justice."

One party member in attendance, Semyon Pavlov, 79, was captured by Zyuganov's stump speech. "He speaks very well," Pavlov said. "He has all the figures in his head."

Vladimir, 52, who declined to give his last name, said Zyuganov's words had persuaded him to vote on Sunday.

"If we don't take part [in the election], we don't take part in the life of the country," Vladimir said.

Zyuganov was confident that his message had gotten through to his audience, made up primarily of pensioners.

The following evening in Pushchino, a town of some 20,000 people on the Oka River about 120 kilometers south of Moscow, the Yabloko party held an event that contrasted sharply in mood and style with the Communists' rally.

As the evening got underway, a Yabloko activist tapped the microphone and said uncertainly to the 250 people in attendance: "Um, we should probably start now."

The activist introduced the first speaker, Alexei Yablokov, a scientist who is running on the party's list this Sunday. Yablokov delivered a talk and slide show about the region's environmental problems.

He also outlined a program to address health problems in the region. "It's a shame that the Moscow region is one of the country's 10 least healthy regions," he said.

Yavlinsky entered about 15 minutes into Yablokov's presentation to a ripple of applause from the audience. When he stepped behind the microphone, the party leader delivered a speech no more focused on regional or local affairs than Zyuganov's.

"Our program is built on idealism," he said before launching into an hour-long analysis of how misguided economic reforms in the 1990s had produced the systemic corruption we have today.

Olga Shishkina, an elderly Pushchino resident and former United Russia voter, said she had been swayed by Yavlinsky and would vote for Yabloko come Sunday.

"He opened my eyes," she said after the rally.

On the whole, however, the event lacked the enthusiasm and excitement generated by the Communists the day before. It resembled a university lecture more than an attempt to get out the vote.

Yabloko and the Communists were both potent forces in parliamentary politics in the 1990s, especially the Communists, who dominated the State Duma under former President Boris Yeltsin.

As Monday's rally made clear, the Communist Party, although a shadow of its former self, still believes it has a future in politics. Yabloko, by contrast, looks more and more like a nongovernmental organization committed to social and environmental change.

Yavlinsky conceded as much after Tuesday's event. "You could say that our party is more like an NGO," he said. The former presidential candidate now views elections more as a forum for enlightening the public than the path to power.

Though their campaign styles are as different as their ideologies, the Communists and Yabloko -- and any party that positions itself in opposition to the Kremlin -- faces an uphill battle this Sunday and in the election cycle ahead.

The scale of their task was thrown into stark relief this week by Central Elections Commission head Alexander Veshnyakov, who revealed that while United Russia had $20.9 million in its war chest, Yabloko had raised just $1.3 million, and the Communists less than $1 million.

Election Facts and Figures at a Glance

Regional parliamentary elections are scheduled in 14 regions on Sunday. A total of 15 parties are participating, though only four were successfully registered in all regions. Among other functions, regional legislatures must approve gubernatorial nominations made by the president. Central Elections Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov among others has called this Sunday's contests a dress rehearsal for the State Duma elections in December.

Where: St. Petersburg, the republics of Komi and Dagestan, and the regions of Leningrad, Moscow, Murmansk, Omsk, Oryol, Pskov, Samara, Stavropol, Tomsk, Tyumen and Vologda.

Parties registered in all 14 regions:

1) United Russia

2) A Just Russia

3) Communist Party

4) Liberal Democratic Party

War Chest*:

1) United Russia: $21 million

2) A Just Russia: $15.2 million

3) Union of Right Forces: $7.6 million

4) Patriots of Russia: $3.4 million

5) Liberal Democratic Party: $3.1 million

6) Yabloko: $1.3 million

7) Communist Party: $877,000

Several new election rules are in place for the first time in Sunday's elections:

1. Voters will not have the option of voting "against all" candidates on the ballot.

2. Deputies in the Moscow and Leningrad regions, as well as in Dagestan, will be elected exclusively from party lists, meaning voters in those regions cannot vote for independent candidates. The State Duma elections in December will be conducted under the same rules.

3. Parties not represented in the State Duma must submit a deposit or thousands of signatures in order to get onto the ballot in a particular region.

4. Minimum voter turnout laws were abolished in December, meaning elections in all but four regions cannot be ruled invalid if many voters stay home. The minimum turnout laws remain in Dagestan and the republic of Komi (25 percent), and in the Moscow and Vologda regions (20 percent).

*Source: Central Elections Commission head Alexander Veshnyakov in Parlamentskaya Gazeta, March 6.