MOSCOW—To the tune of accordion music from the Caucasus, four men sit on a Moscow park bench eating watermelon and throwing the rinds onto the ground. A blond, Slavic-looking woman strolls by, pushing a baby carriage through the trash.
Nearby, two men in suits shake their heads disapprovingly. One of them tells the men to pick up the rinds they’ve discarded; the other grabs one by the shoulder and asks menacingly: “Do you understand Russian?”
The advertisement, aired recently on Moscow television, ends with the logo for the nationalist Rodina (Motherland) party and the ominous slogan: “Let’s clear our city of garbage.”
Its none-too-subtle message was central to Rodina’s campaign to win seats in tomorrow’s election for Moscow city council. The party, a growing force in Russian politics since its inception two years ago, ran under the slogan “Moscow for the Muscovites” but insisted its campaign was not xenophobic.
But the accents and appearance of the men in the ad make it clear they are not ethnic Russians and opponents said the television spot played on Russians’ deep animosity to immigrants from the Caucasus regions and Central Asia.
Russia’s courts agreed and yesterday the Supreme Court upheld a ruling striking the party off the Moscow ballot for inciting ethnic hatred. News agencies quoted Rodina leader Dmitry Rogozin last night as saying “the authorities have again proved that they cannot stand the opposition in this country.
“We are not against anybody, we are for Muscovites,” said Yury Popov, who headed the party’s list in Moscow and appeared in the ad with Rogozin. “In fact, this is an ecological ad. All we were saying is that our city has to be clean and nice.”
Tomorrow’s civic election, the first under new rules that will see the 35-seat city council elect Moscow’s mayor, is widely seen as an important gauge of Russia’s political future ahead of parliamentary elections in 2007 and a presidential vote in 2008. Democratic reformers say the campaign has painted a grim picture of that future.
The Kremlin has thrown its considerable weight behind the United Russia party loyal to President Vladimir Putin—virtually guaranteeing that the party will win all but a handful of seats on city council.
Muscovites, long considered the most liberal voters in the country, appeared set to choose Rodina to take over from liberal parties and the Communists as the main opposition force at city hall before the party was barred.
A recent opinion poll by the Levada Centre predicted United Russia would win the election with 43 per cent of the vote, while Rodina would come second with 15 per cent, followed by Yabloko, which is representing various liberal parties in the election, with 14 per cent. The poll gave 10 per cent each to the Communists and ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.
“Russian democracy is increasingly under threat from dark authoritarian forces,” said Ivan Novitsky, the lead candidate for the liberal party coalition. “Democratic forces are being completely excluded from power. We’ve already had a repressive regime in Russia. Do we want to go back?”
For Putin, whom critics accuse of steadily cementing Kremlin control over public life in Russia, the Moscow elections represent a crucial step in extending his influence.
Mayor Yury Luzhkov, the capital’s powerful and popular boss for the past 13 years, has announced he will step down when his term ends in 2007. Luzhkov is one of the few prominent politicians in Russia with any independence from the Kremlin and observers say Putin’s team is now keen to install a loyalist as head of Europe’s most populous city.
With its more than 11 million people, $10 billion (U.S.) budget and an economy the size of New Zealand’s, Moscow could play a decisive role in choosing Putin’s successor in 2008 or extending the president’s rule beyond his two-term limit.
With so much at stake, United Russia, a Kremlin creation that already dominates Russia’s federal parliament, has pulled out all the stops for the Moscow campaign.
Luzhkov, who many Muscovites credit with fostering the city’s economic boom, is heading the United Russia ticket despite his pending retirement. Billboards and posters featuring United Russia candidates blanket city streets and public transport.
Media have reported that schools have held meetings to tell parents to vote for the local United Russia candidate and street cleaners have been ordered to glue posters of United Russia candidates on the walls of apartment buildings while removing those of any other party. In central Moscow, it’s nearly impossible to find posters for opposition candidates.
“The authorities have been using all their resources to ensure that United Russia wins this election,” Novitsky says.
Mikhail Moskvin-Tarkhanov, a United Russia candidate, sees no problem with state resources being used to his party’s benefit.
“It is the same in any country, for any party, if they are the party of the state,” he says.
MOSCOW—On the television screen, three dark-skinned men from the Caucasus sit sullenly munching watermelon in a Moscow courtyard, then brazenly toss the chewed rinds into the path of a young blond woman pushing a baby carriage.
Two ethnic Russians glare at the watermelon thugs. “Clean it up,” one of them says menacingly.
The words “Let’s clean our city of trash” flash across the screen.
When the political ad in the campaign for Sunday’s Moscow City Council elections aired, human rights groups went apoplectic. One of its “stars,” Dmitri Rogozin, the leader of the up-and-coming nationalist Rodina party, insisted with wide-eyed confusion that he had been misunderstood.
But just as the ad was making its debut, members of a largely Muslim immigrant community rioted in France. Now the watermelon ad is dubbed in French, and features a new slogan: “France, One Year Ago.”
“Look at what’s happening in France. Forget about talk of xenophobic policy—you have cars burning on highways!” Rogozin said. “I don’t want the same thing to happen in Russia.”
What Rogozin did not mention was that it already had—in reverse.
Nearly 50 Asians, blacks, Caucasians and other people of color died in racially motivated violence last year, mainly in savage street attacks by gangs of young Slavic hooligans. That’s more than double the number the previous year. At least 40 foreign students have been attacked this year in the city of Voronezh alone, NTV television reported last month.
Rodina, which means Homeland, has eschewed violence and insists that its current campaign is focused on regulating immigration, not forcing out people of color. The party was originally seen as a brainchild of the Kremlin, created on the eve of the 2003 parliamentary elections to draw votes away from the still-influential Communist Party.
The bloc had an unexpectedly large showing, winning 9% of the vote. Together with Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky’s ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, which won more than 11%, it siphoned a sizable portion of the vote from the Communists, enough to leave the once-powerful party a has-been in parliament.
Fast forward to 2007, when the next elections will help determine whether there can be a democratic transition of power at the end of President Vladimir V. Putin’s second term.
Rodina and the outspoken Rogozin now appear flush with cash, stridently in opposition to the pro-Putin United Russia and eager to commune with former opposition enemies, including the Communists and imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.