MOSCOW (AP) — Once a local, low-key affair, the September vote for Moscow’s city council has shaken up Russia’s political scene as the Kremlin struggles with how to deal with strongly opposing views in its own sprawling capital.
At least eight Russian activists who have been barred from running for seats on the Moscow City Duma were summoned for questioning Thursday, as authorities ramped up the pressure on the opposition ahead of a major rally on Saturday.
In another perceived attempt to disrupt the upcoming protest, a Moscow court on Wednesday sent leading opposition leader Alexei Navalny to jail for 30 days for calling an unsanctioned protest.
The dissent broke out into the open earlier this month after election authorities refused to register a number of opposition candidates for the Moscow vote, citing alleged minor violations.
The candidates’ supporters then picketed the headquarters of the Moscow Election Commission and rallied on a central square for several days straight. After authorities claimed that some of the 5,500 signatures each candidate collected were forgeries, the candidates showed up at the local election commission to protest, some bringing the same people whose signatures were ruled to be forgeries.
At least 20,000 people, enraged with what has been perceived as foul play by election authorities, took to the streets in central Moscow last Saturday in the largest opposition rally in years.
Russia’s top investigative body, which deals with high-profile crimes, has launched an inquiry into alleged efforts to hamper the electoral process following the numerous protests. The activists are being treated as witnesses.
Late Wednesday, Russian police raided the homes of four opposition candidates including Dmitry Gudkov, a former Russian lawmaker.
Gudkov told reporters Thursday after questioning that his computer and phones have been seized and that he would have two more interrogations with investigators later in the day.
The other candidates include fierce Kremlin critics like Navalny’s close ally Lyubov Sobol as well as activists who have campaigned mostly on local city issues and have not been vocally critical of President Vladimir Putin’s national government.
Ella Pamfilova, chairwoman of the Central Election Commission, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station that she was not aware of the criminal case concerning the opposition candidates and had no idea if any of election officials petitioned investigators to launch the inquiry.
Yevgeny Roizman, a prominent opposition figure and former mayor of Yekaterinburg, said Thursday on Twitter that the clampdown shows how nervous Russian authorities are ahead of the upcoming rally.
“Judging by this frantic activity, authorities are really scared of Muscovites coming out on Tverskaya Street on Saturday,” he said. “It’s easy to ward off that rally: Just let all the independent candidates who have collected signatures run.”
The Moscow city council, which has 45 seats, is responsible for a variety of issues including the mammoth municipal budget in the Russian capital of 12.6 million people. It is now controlled by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, which was once closely linked to Putin. All 45 seats, which have a five-year-term, are up for election on Sept. 8.