October 18. 2021. 5:26

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Unlikely allies gather in Pushkin’s shadow to challenge Kremlin ‘repression’

Valery Rashkin, first secretary of the Russian Communist Party in Moscow, speaks to supporters at a rally in the city’s Pushkin Square on Monday night. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

Cold autumn rain gleamed on the shoulders of Alexander Pushkin as a crowd gathered around the poet’s statue on the Moscow square that bears his name.

Unveiled in 1880 to speeches by Dostoyevsky and Turgenev, the bronze monument to Russia’s national poet has been a meeting place for generations of protesters, and where dissidents once braved the wrath of the Soviet police, on Monday night communist politicians decried “repression” by today’s Kremlin.

The Communist Party had come a distant second in Sunday’s parliamentary election to United Russia – close allies of Vladimir Putin, the country’s ruler of 21 years – and claimed to have been robbed of victory in several Moscow districts by an opaque online voting system and electoral officials that the authorities control.

The liberal Yabloko party says it fell victim to the same, sometimes bizarre, vote-stealing schemes, and its supporters joined the communists on Pushkin Square in an apparently unlikely alliance against Putin’s political machine.

Yet the Communist Party is changing, and while many older supporters remain nostalgic for the Soviet era, younger members increasingly focus on social justice issues in a vastly unequal country that is home to about 100 billionaires and also to almost 18 million people who live below the poverty line.

Mikhail Lobanov, a communist-backed candidate who controversially lost in his Moscow district to a pro-Putin television presenter, told a crowd of more than 200 people that opposition politicians and voters of different stripes must now unite around shared priorities.

“The first point should be the battle with inequality – economic and political inequality. All Muscovites and Russians want to claim back the right to shape their lives from the hands of bureaucrats and oligarchs,” said Lobanov (37), who describes himself as a democratic socialist and is not a Communist Party member.

“Secondly, we are all against this wave of repression, this repressive machine that is getting stronger every year and grinding people up... Friends, the future is for everyone, not only for the elite!” the maths professor concluded to loud cheers.

Like several other strong opposition contenders, Lobanov saw his healthy lead in the paper ballot count crushed by a torrent of electronic votes that ensured that pro-Kremlin candidates triumphed in every district of the capital.

‘Most transparent in the world’

Officials did not explain why online voting results were delayed for many hours, or why they differed wildly in some areas from how people voted in person, and instead simply urged Russians to trust in a system that central election commission chief Ella Pamfilova said might be “the most transparent in the world.”

For many Russians however, recent events have done nothing to inspire trust.

After opposition leader Alexei Navalny was jailed in January, his anti-corruption group was banned and its members were barred from running for office, and many were harassed, arrested and prosecuted.

Violetta Grudina, the former head of Navalny’s team in the Arctic city of Murmansk, says her office window was shot out and then she was forcibly hospitalised for unnecessary Covid-19 treatment and charged with breaking pandemic rules to stop her running in local elections that were also held on Sunday.

In Saint Petersburg, popular Yabloko candidate Boris Vishnevsky found himself facing two rivals who apparently changed their names and appearances to match his on the ballot paper, in an alleged attempt to dupe unwary voters.

During the election itself, numerous videos of ballot boxes being surreptitiously stuffed with voting papers emerged, some candidates and monitors reported being threatened and manhandled, and footage from at least one polling station seemed to show that pens provided for voters were filled with erasable ink.

United Russia still has a stranglehold on the country’s politics and will not fear the crowd on Pushkin Square.

But it was a small sign that opposition parties and voters may be ready to find new ways to challenge Putin in the enforced absence of Navalny, and perhaps, at least for a while, overcome their inclination towards fractiousness and in-fighting.

On the square, communists echoed Navalny by denouncing United Russia officials as “crooks and thieves”, and the crowd demanded freedom for a man who previously clashed bitterly with communist and Yabloko leaders.

Considering the political task ahead, Yabloko member Sergei Filipov (38) said: “We can’t skip the hard work – you must raise the cow before you can have milk.”

“We need to go around the areas where we live, talking to everyone we know, winning their votes. With tiny steps ... we’ll create the grassroots of democracy and it will grow,” he explained. “And then we’ll live in a decent, normal country.”