Moscow authorities have barred 57 candidates from running for city council, including several prominent critics of the Kremlin-backed mayor, despite days of opposition protests.
The Moscow electoral commission has registered 233 candidates for September's election of 45-seat council, it said on Wednesday, the vast majority of them members of parliamentary factions loyal to Vladimir Putin's administration.
One-fifth of prospective candidates were turned away, however, mainly due to alleged problems meeting a draconian requirement for supporting signatures. Candidates not from a parliamentary party must gather the signatures of 3 per cent of all voters in their district, or about 5,000 people, within a three-week period.
Those denied included former liberal MPs Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov, allies of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Ilya Yashin, an ally of murdered opposition activist Boris Nemtsov who has investigated corruption and malfeasance as head of a municipal district board.
Meanwhile, dozens of candidates from the ruling United Russia party, who are running as nominal independents as the faction's ratings continue to fall, had their signatures accepted and were registered. Less than one-third of the population now supports United Russia, according to a state poll last week.
Supporters of opposition candidates have been protesting every evening since Sunday, when hundreds gathered outside the electoral commission. Police forced the crowd away from the building, beating some with batons and detaining 38 people. A major protest is planned for Saturday.
Disqualified candidate Yulia Galyamina, a university lecturer who spent Sunday night in jail, told The Telegraph and other journalists the next evening that Muscovites were “now in the same kind of glass cell, except they feed us better, the beds aren't so short and there are fewer cockroaches”.
“Outside this cell, they're destroying our city, our environment, medicine, education and most importantly they're destroying our political rights,” she said.
Candidate Lyubov Sobol, who was also detained and later denied registration, has been staging a hunger strike since Sunday.
The controversy has drawn unprecedented attention to election of the rubber-stamp city council. While the council has limited powers to oversee Europe's second largest city, it does approve the annual budget and can, if it gathers the signatures of 25 per cent of voters, initiate a vote to recall the mayor.
In an episode reminiscent of Gogol's Dead Souls, electoral officials claimed that disqualified candidates had submitted signatures that were misspelled or were for ineligible or even dead voters.
But many living voters including well-known academics and journalists have complained that their signatures for opposition candidates were declared fake.
"Smile if you're against Putin." A few hundred at the latest protest against the disqualification of opposition candidates before Moscow city council election. Word is half dozen candidates will be registered but not the best-known ones. @IlyaYashin says he's already been barred pic.twitter.com/QO1GwQC4VI— Alec Luhn (@ASLuhn) July 15, 2019
“Dear friends, something very unpleasant has happened to me. The thing is, I don't exist,” sociologist Grigory Yudin wrote on Facebook after his signature was reportedly ruled a forgery. “My mom, hundreds of neighbours in my district and thousands of other Muscovites don't exist along with me. We are all ghosts.”
Mr Yashin said last week electoral officials had analysed the 15,000 signatures submitted by him and two other candidates in a mere seven hours and 20 minutes, which would suggest that they checked each signature in less than two seconds.
At yet another protest on Wednesday evening, people in the crowd took turns stepping onto a ledge to speak, calling on fellow residents to demand an end to “lawlessness”.
“You will give us honest elections!” and “Put Putin's gang on trial!” they chanted.
Ms Galyamina said she would appeal her disqualification, adding that Saturday's protest was vital to increase pressure on the authorities.
“If we have people's support, we will be able to do something,” she said. “If we don't, it will be impossible to do anything, because our courts are not just.”