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Moscow court ruling won't end the growing protests in Putin's Russia, analysts say

Key Points
  • Protests have taken place in Moscow for at least 5 straight weeks and are changing in nature.
  • Original discontent arose from the inability of opposition politicians to contest a municipal election.
  • Violence at protests by some police have caused the numbers to swell and embolden anti-Putin voices.
Law enforcement officers detain a man after a rally to demand authorities allow opposition candidates to run in the upcoming local election in Moscow, Russia August 10, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Maxim Shemetov | Reuters

Protesters demanding that independent candidates can run in a Moscow city election appear to have won a notable concession from Russian authorities.

On Tuesday night, a Moscow city court canceled a decision by the election commission to bar a Russian opposition candidate, Sergei Mitrokhin from taking part in the vote. Mitrokhin had been originally denied registration after a district election commission claimed his support contained suspect signatures.

According to TASS news agency, registration to contest the Moscow City Duma on September 8 has been denied to 57 potential candidates, including 39 self-nominees.

Protests have taken place in Moscow every Saturday for at least 5 weeks in a row as crowds gathered to dispute the disqualifications of candidates. Violence and arrests marked the July 27 demonstration with an estimated 1,300 people taken into custody.

Footage from the march, broadcast across Russia, appeared to show excessive violence from police against at least one unarmed woman. The pictures horrified many Russians, leading to criticism and a swell in support for a subsequent event on August 3.

The White Counter, a non-governmental organization, reported that nearly 50,000 were participating in the latest rally, which was officially authorized. That figure was much higher than the police estimate of 20,000.

It is widely reported that around 800 people were arrested at this protest as police continued their crackdown. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that police action at the rallies had been justified and police were only fulfilling their duties.

Despite Mitrokhin now being allowing to contest the municipal vote, the Senior Vice President at Teneo Intelligence, Otilia Dhand, said more protests would continue right up until at least the September 8 vote.

Speaking to CNBC Tuesday, Dhand, said the dynamic of the protest was changing to an indictment of how United Russia, the party of President Vladimir Putin, and the Kremlin are conducting themselves in the in the office.

"They were calling for candidates to be to be allowed to take part in the elections three or four weeks ago, now they are calling for the release of protesters that were arrested in recent weeks," said Dhand via a telephone call.

In a follow up note Wednesday, the Russia watcher said she now expected a fightback from the Kremlin with authorities likely force protest movement activity into heavily-policed demonstrations.

She said the government will probably also focus on "neutralizing the activities of prominent opposition leaders."

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Red Square Victory Day Parade, on May 9, 2019 in Moscow, Russia.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Putin recently celebrated 20 years in charge of Russia with relatively little fanfare. The leader's popularity ratings have suffered in recent months dropping to levels not seen since 2014. His standing was particularly knocked in 2018 after the introduction of pension reform that increased the retirement age by five years.

Russians have experienced a decline in living standards as incomes have fallen for several years straight. Despite falling unemployment, the wider economy has been dragged down by a low oil price and potentially the impact of ongoing sanctions.

Dhand said a viable political opposition to Putin in Russia still seemed unlikely, despite "a rising sense of dissatisfaction with the government" which appeared to be stretching beyond cities and into rural areas.

Daragh McDowell, an analyst at research firm Verisk Maplecroft, said that Putin's command is somewhat reliant on acquiescence to leadership by Russians but in recent weeks there was evidence that the taboo of protesting in Russia was "melting away."

McDowell said by telephone Tuesday that there would be a serious divide among elite figures in Russia as to whether violence by security services should be used to disrupt protesters.

The analyst added that wider context and outcome of the protests could help to inform how the Russian elite might view the direction of the country after Putin steps down in 2024.