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Moscow's police and Russia's pro-Kremlin media are floating some very suspicious numbers about Saturday's mass rally for free elections

Источник: Meduza
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

The story, according to the police and Russia’s pro-Kremlin media

The press office for Moscow’s Interior Ministry announced that 3,500 protesters attended the city’s unauthorized demonstration on July 27. Officials say 700 of these people were in fact journalists and bloggers. Police arrested 1,074 demonstrators, claiming that “more than 600 offenders are not Moscow residents.”

Pro-government media outlets jumped on these reports, using the claims to support the idea that Saturday’s mass protests were staged by outsiders, and locals are actually happy with the course of the City Duma elections.

Why this looks like propagandist baloney

For starters, people living outside Moscow aren’t prohibited from protesting in the city

People who aren’t registered to live in Moscow’s city limits aren’t permitted to vote in elections for the City Duma, but they have the right to express their political views in public.

Not just Russians from outside the city, but even foreign citizens retain the right to join Moscow’s peaceful assemblies, protests, demonstrations, marches, and pickets. There is no law in Russia that restricts participation in political demonstrations according to an individual’s place of residence.

Moreover, Moscow’s economy relies on out-of-towners roughly as much as it does the local population. Meduza editor Mikhail Zelensky calculated that upwards of 40 percent of the individuals who pay personal income taxes in the capital are technically registered to live outside the city (income taxes fuel 42 percent of City Hall’s entire budget). 

Second, according to polls, Muscovites know about local protests, and they say they’re ready to participate

According to a sociological survey by the “Petersburg Policy” Foundation, conducted between July 20 and 22, 2019:

  • 42 percent of Muscovites had heard about protests related to election officials’ refusal to register dozens of independent candidates for September’s City Duma races (and an additional 17.3 percent of locals had “heard something” about the demonstrations).
  • 10.9 percent of Muscovites said they supported the protests and were ready to join them (and another 20.3 percent said they supported the protests, but were not ready to participate).

Third, the protest in Moscow wasn’t only about Moscow

The protest movement underway in Moscow today has transformed into a general campaign for free elections. Independent candidates seeking local office in St. Petersburg, Irkutsk, Karachay-Cherkessia, and other areas across the country holding elections on September 8, 2019, have encountered the same problems with the authorities.

If Moscow’s opposition fails to force local election officials to treat all candidates equally and cease its efforts to obstruct independent challengers, oppositionists outside the capital will have even less chance to overcome Russia’s widespread electoral obstacles.

Finally, the Moscow police are not a reliable source of information when it comes to demonstration crowds

  • The bungled case against Meduza journalist Ivan Golunov shows how easily the police mix up important information.
  • The police often underestimate the number of protesters who turn out to demonstrate against the government, and the authorities have the incentive to exaggerate Saturday’s number of activists from out of town. Officials haven’t even gotten their story straight about the total number of protesters on July 27: For example, police spokespeople said the attendance was 3,500 people, but arrest paperwork for municipal deputy Ilya Azar states that 10,000 demonstrators turned out.

Text by Dmitry Dmitriev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock