Being a member of Russia’s democratic opposition has long meant coping with failure and irrelevance. In the carefully choreographed public life of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, political campaigns lacking the Kremlin’s blessing have usually failed.
But in early September, Russian democrats finally had something to celebrate: Almost 300 opposition candidates surprised everyone by winning majorities in 30 of Moscow’s 125 local district councils.
“I believe it’s a really important political statement and signal to the Russian government and mayor of Moscow that people are thirsty for change,” said Vitali Shkliarov, 41, one of the brains behind a little-noticed campaign to field 1,000 independent candidates to fill the city’s lowest elected offices.
Dmitry Gudkov, a former member of Parliament who opposed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, organized the campaign and hired Shkliarov to build a citywide base for his bid to run for Moscow mayor next year.
His website became the virtual campaign headquarters for hundreds of political novices challenging establishment candidates — part of an effort by Putin’s opposition to embrace grass-roots politics and the Internet in a political landscape where the ruling United Russia party can marshal vast financial resources and the national TV channels are all under government control.
Shkliarov’s job was to apply his experience working in U.S. political campaigns to turn around the fortunes of Moscow’s luckless democrats.
A native of Belarus, Shkliarov became hooked on politics when he heard then-candidate Barack Obama speak in Berlin in 2008.
“I became a political junkie,” said Shkliarov, who was studying in Germany at the time. “I fell in love with politics because I saw for the first time a different type of candidate — a different type of politician — someone who is young, energetic, not the typical political actor I knew from Communist and Soviet times.”
Shkliarov ended up moving to the United States with his American wife and volunteering for Obama’s re-election campaign. Then Shkliarov worked to get Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay U.S. senator, elected in Wisconsin. Last year, he was a campaign manager for Bernie Sanders at both the state and national levels.
In Moscow, Shkliarov trained candidates on how to approach voters.
“He was one of the people who was telling us: ‘Don’t try to talk to people on Facebook, do it personally, go from flat to flat, otherwise you will never be elected,'” said Anastasia Romashkevich, one of the successful first-time candidates.
A 44-year-old magazine editor and bicycle enthusiast, Romashkevich found that Gudkov’s website made campaigning as easy as a video game quest. Candidates could file legal documents, upload campaign photos and order flyers directly from their smartphones. The bundling of hundreds of campaigns reduced the cost per candidate to the equivalent of just a couple of dollars per day.
In Romashkevich’s central Moscow district, 10 of 15 seats went to the opposition. The United Russia party didn’t win a single seat in the district where Putin cast his vote in the Sept. 10 election.
“We won something,” said Romashkevich. “People see that something can be done: You can start from scratch and win. I think it’s a big thing and very inspirational for some people.”
Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who plans to run for president next year, has also relied on the Internet to raise funds, organize a national campaign and get out his message railing against Putin and the powers that be.
Four years ago, Navalny ran for the Moscow mayor’s office, coming in second against Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin, with 27 percent of the vote. Putin himself failed to win even half the vote in Moscow in the last presidential election in 2012.
That’s why the opposition is redoubling its efforts to wrest control of the capital from Putin.
But the size of the democrats’ September victory is a matter of debate.
Apathy is one of the opposition’s greatest hurdles. In the Moscow vote, turnout was about 15 percent, and on election night, Gudkov was tweeting that in some districts, opposition candidates had lost seats by only a handful of votes. After the final tally, United Russia still took three-quarters of the district council seats citywide.
“This is not the beginning of a democratic revolution, but it is an important indicator of movements within our society,” said political analyst Kirill Rogov. “There’s a huge demand among young people to go into politics, and there’s an understanding of how to do it.”
Rogov says the political newcomers are a motley crew compared to the Kremlin’s well-oiled political machine.
“They’re facing a powerful mafia that is very motivated, very rich and will do everything to divide, buy and intimidate them,” he said.
But those challenges don’t faze political operative Shkliarov.
He says the Moscow campaign shows that politics today can be run like a start-up to get many people involved, both as candidates and voters.
“The barrier to enter politics in Russia is unbelievably high. The only way to go over it is to create a system that is affordable and scalable,” said Shkliarov. “We have to create a political Uber.”
Shkliarov says that’s a model not only for elections in other Russian cities, but everywhere people feel their politicians are out of touch.