Central Asians back Moscow voters saying 'no' to ruling Kremlin party
ALMATY -- Citizens across Central Asia are applauding the humiliating electoral loss that Russian President Vladimir Putin's ruling party suffered in Moscow earlier this month, as the moment reflects the increasing rejection of his regime's influence at home and across the region.
Russia held local and regional elections across the country on September 8.
Demonstrations broke out in Moscow after top opposition figures were barred from standing in the city vote over the summer. The protests widened in scope after a harsh response from authorities.
Kremlin-backed candidates from the ruling United Russia party previously held 38 of the Moscow assembly's 45 seats, but after voting, that figure is down to 25.
Created by the Kremlin in 2003, United Russia currently suffers from rock-bottom approval ratings. Its own candidates in Moscow ran independently to avoid association with its name.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who called the first summer protests after his allies were kept off the ballot, put the pro-Kremlin losses down to his "smart voting" plan.
The campaign called on Muscovites to back the politician most likely to beat a pro-Kremlin candidate, whatever his or her affiliation, and included a website telling voters which politician that would be.
Moving away from authoritarianism
The election results for the Moscow City Duma reflect the protesting mood of the capital's progressive society toward Kremlin authoritarianism, said Bishkek-based lawyer Mirbek Kasymov.
"In the rest of the Russian regions, the administrative resource is still effective," he said, referring to the use of government clout to defeat opposition candidates. "Therefore, the ruling party won there, but in Moscow the technology of 'smart voting' was used, and it revealed the true level of support."
"The excessive brutality of Russian police and overly harsh punishment for participating in protests tilted those who were in doubt to the side of the opposition," said Asem Japisheva, an Almaty resident and one of the leaders of the Oyan, Qazaqstan youth opposition movement in Kazakhstan.
"Moscow voters were electrified with outrage. The opposition has led a stellar election campaign," she said.
The time for change has come in Russia, where power has stayed in the same hands for many years and where the principles of democracy are ignored, said Tolekan Ismailova of Bishkek, vice president of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
"Russia uses security forces to suppress peaceful rallies and strikes. We see the situation with human rights in post-election Moscow, and it's tragic and cruel," she said.
Kyrgyzstan's participation in integration projects co-ordinated by Russia, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), has caused its ratings in surveys of overall freedom to slip in recent years, Ismailova noted.
"Terrible laws fan out from Russia" and come to Kyrgyzstan, manifesting themselves in attempts by authorities to narrow the space for civil society, she added.
Moving away from oppression
The reaction to the Russian election reflects ongoing developments and sentiments leading to the increased sovereignty and independence of Central Asian states.
"Compared to Russia, the situation is improving in Uzbekistan, where political prisoners who served time behind bars are released, and civil society organisations are becoming partners with the authorities to solve socially significant problems," Ismailova said.
Neighbouring Kazakhstan has also softened its policy on civil activities.
In September, Almaty-based feminist movement KazFem received permission from the Almaty city administration to hold a rally.
"We were allowed a rally on September 28. The general topic is 'Women's Rights,"' Veronika Fonova, a KazFem activist from Almaty, wrote on Facebook.
Kyrgyzstan might face the problems with Russian influence that Ismailova noted. However, Bishkek in March saw a peaceful feminist and LGBT march, noted Kasymov.
The participants marched through downtown holding banners and posters with slogans about the rights of women and sexual minorities. It was the fourth march in the Kyrgyz capital in support of gender equality.
"According to the constitution, no one can be discriminated against on the basis of gender, race, language, ethnicity, religion, age, political and other beliefs, ethnic origin, property or other status, or other circumstances," Bishkek Mayor Aziz Surakmatov said after opponents of the LGBT community criticised the Bishkek administration for allowing the march.
Surakmatov also referred to the Law on Peaceful Assemblies, according to which "state bodies and local authorities are obliged to respect and ensure the right to freedom of peaceful assembly".
The march participants "noted a good organisation of the event and praised the city administration and police for ensuring security and public order", 24.kg reported.
"Can you imagine this kind of thing happening in Moscow? Of course not," Kasymov said, noting that Russian police usually use violence against LGBT activists.
The increased sense of independence and sovereignty also extends to regional security, as has been seen in a number of recent regional military exercises and the leadership shown by regional states in dealing with repatriating "Islamic State" (IS) militants and their family members from Syria and Iraq.