A demonstrator on Moscow's Pushkin Square, where over 800 people were reportedly arrested while protesting unpopular Kremlin reforms that raise Russia's pension age. President Putin argues the move is a fiscal necessity.  (VOA/C. Maynes)
A demonstrator on Moscow's Pushkin Square, where over 800 people were reportedly arrested while protesting unpopular Kremlin reforms that raise Russia's pension age. President Putin argues the move is a fiscal necessity. (VOA/C. Maynes)

MOSCOW - Thousands of Russians rallied against government-backed pension reforms and hundreds of them faced arrest Sunday, as Kremlin-backed candidates for the powerful mayor's post in Moscow as well as a majority of regional governorships appeared headed to easy victory in elections scattered across the country.

The split screen images of smiling voters on TV, and protesters facing down baton-wielding police on the internet, once again raised questions about Russia’s system of so-called “managed democracy” in which political freedoms are tolerated, but only to a degree.   

Indeed, while the day saw unexpected results in a handful of races, Sunday’s vote was far more reminiscent of Russia’s March presidential elections, which saw President Vladimir Putin dominate the field after Russia’s Elections Commission weeded potential rivals from the race well in advance of election day. 

FILE - Dmitry Gudkov poses in the State Duma, Russ
FILE - Dmitry Gudkov poses in the State Duma, Russian parliament lower chamber, in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 10, 2016.

"This is not an election.  We see this as a reappointment," said Dmitry Gudkov, the leader of the Party of Change, whose own candidacy to compete against Moscow's incumbent mayor Sergey Sobyanin was derailed by "municipal filters" aimed at keeping critical voices off the ballot.

With only Kremlin-approved challengers allowed into the race, even seasoned political observers admitted they found it hard to identify Sobyanin's competition.

"Honestly, I'm a political analyst and even I don't know who the other candidates are," said Anton Orekh, Echo of Moscow's resident political observer, in an interview with VOA.

"And the majority of residents feel exactly the same," he added. "It's always been clear who will win these elections.  It is not even necessary to falsify the results. "

Preliminary results showed Sobyanin receiving about 70 percent of the vote.

The new Moscow beckons

Mayor Sobyanin's reelection bid was buoyed by years of Kremlin-funded urbanization projects that have transformed Moscow's appearance, despite an economy weighed down by Western sanctions and persistent low world oil prices.

New parks and pedestrian walkways, glistening stadiums built for the World Cup 2018, and dozens of new metro stations have increasingly given the city, if not Western-style values, a more Western-style feel.

Sobyanin made a Moscow's renewal the centerpiece of an otherwise lackluster campaign that featured few appearances and a refusal to participate in debates. President Putin, in turn, has backed Sobyanin's urbanization projects and urged other regions to follow Moscow's lead in creating what the Russian leader says should be more "citizen friendly" environments.

Protests and Arrests

Even amid what appeared to be landslide victories for a majority of pro-Kremlin candidates, Russia’s growing economic problems were also on display Sunday.

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, currently serving a 30-day term for violating the country's stringent protest laws, called nationwide protests against a proposal to raise the pension age that is deeply unpopular with the public.

'We're Sick of You. Hope you Understand' reads a d
'We're Sick of You. Hope you Understand' reads a demonstrator's sign in Moscow's Pushkin Square. A proposed Kremlin reform to raise the pension age in Russia has sparked a wave of protests nationwide and sent President Vladimir Putin's approval ratings in a downward spiral. (VOA/C. Maynes)

The reform has sparked a wave of protests and sent Putin's polling numbers on a downward slide, despite a televised address by the Russian leader to explain the move as a longterm fiscal necessity. Independent polls find 90 percent of Russians are opposed to the changes.

In Moscow, several thousand protesters gathered in downtown Pushkin Square to chants of "Impeachment," "Putin is a Thief" and "It's not reform, it's robbery."  Similar rallies were held in dozens of other cities.  They followed nationwide protests organized by Russia's Communist Party last week.

"The government is robbing from my parents and from my generation as well," said Andrei Kiripko, 22, a marketing student protesting in Moscow. "All I can do is fight for my country and my children's future."

"Unfortunately, many of my generation didn't show up," said Sergey, 51, a private business owner who declined to give his last name.  "Everyone I know doesn't agree with the reform, but they're not here because they're scared of what will happen."

More than 800 arrests were reported in cities across Russia by OVD-INFO, a local rights monitoring group.  Police routinely rounded up Navalny regional supporters in Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Khabarovsk. In Yekaterinburg, former mayor Evegeny Roizman, a Navalny ally recently removed from his post, was detained by OMON troops for marching with demonstrators.

The authorities response was most aggressive in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, where demonstrators were beaten by baton-wielding OMON troops. The images immediately raised the specter of potential criminal charges and harsh prison sentences to follow.

The battle online

Political battles surrounding the day, meanwhile, extended far beyond the streets and onto social media.

In another sign the Kremlin was taking public discontent seriously, the government exerted pressure on opposition activities through Youtube, which Navalny has effectively harnessed to spread his political ideas, despite being largely banned from state media.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was recently detained over his participation in an anti-government protest in Jan. 2018, attends a court hearing in Moscow, Aug. 27, 2018.

At the request of Russia's internet governing body Rozkomnadzor, the U.S.-based video service blocked paid Navalny video advertisements in support of the protest, apparently agreeing the videos violated Russia's "day of silence" law 24 hours ahead of voting.

"We consider all justified appeals from state bodies.  We also require advertisers to act in accordance with the local law and our advertising policies," explained Google Russia, in an email published by Reuters.

"What Google did presents a clear case of political censorship," countered Navalny aide Leonid Volkov, who addressed Google's actions in a post to Facebook.  

Volkov was right, in part. Navalny's Youtube channel continued to operate throughout Sunday's events. But the blocked ads again raised questions about Western tech companies' ability to find a balance between their oft-stated support for free speech and pursuit of business interests in repressive political environments.