MOSCOW (Reuters) - More than 10 weeks after losing a local council election in western Moscow, Vladimir Putin’s party is clinging to power there - by fair means or foul.
The standoff over control of Filyovsky Park Council came to a head when opposition councillor Vadim Korovin tried to sit in the chairman’s seat at a meeting on Tuesday. A councillor from the Russian president’s United Russia cut his microphone cable and then body-checked him as he tried to reach the seat.
“This is a violent occupation and seizure of power!” Korovin protested to the United Russia representative, Dmitry Prokhorov, who pushed him from his way as a policeman stepped in to prevent a fight.
All four United Russia members on the council then walked out. Soon afterwards the electricity in the building, and all the lights, went off.
Using flashlights of mobile phones to see, the six opposition members of the 10-seat council continued the meeting. They elected Korovin as deputy chairman and, in effect, caretaker leader, but the United Russia members later refused to recognise the vote.
The battle to control the council, witnessed by a Reuters correspondent who attended Tuesday’s meeting, shows how difficult some of Putin’s allies find it to surrender power when confronted with the unfamiliar experience of an election defeat.
Moscow is not typical of Russia, as support for Putin and his allies across the country is high. Opinion polls suggest he will easily win next year’s presidential election if, as is widely expected, he runs.
But Putin, 65, is barred under the constitution from ruling for more than two consecutive terms so the question of who will succeed him, and how his allies will act when he leaves the political stage, will loom large in coming years.
United Russia representatives have refused to cede power in 10 districts of Moscow where they suffered defeats in local elections on Sept. 10, according to the organisers of the opposition campaign in the Russian capital.
Dmitry Gudkov, a former lawmaker who runs what is known as the United Democrats project, said the Moscow administration, which controls the building where Tuesday’s meeting was held, was in a position to play spoiling tactics.
“If they want to disrupt our work they will do it,” he said.
Alexander Semennikov, a United Russia deputy in the Moscow city parliament who heads a commission that deals with relations with local councils, said any decisions made by the six Kremlin opponents on the council would have “close to zero” legitimacy.
He described Tuesday’s events as part of a “stormy stage in the evolution of municipal institutions in Moscow,” and urged the two sides to reach an agreement to resolve the situation.
A spokesman at the Moscow mayor’s office referred questions to the city administration’s Western region, which includes Filyovsky Park. A spokesman for the Western region declined to comment.
United Russia defeated the opposition in a majority of the 125 Moscow districts where voting took place on Sept. 10 but Kremlin opponents increased their share of the vote.
Since the election, opposition councillors in some districts have been stymied by contradictory provisions in the legislation that governs how the councils are organised.
The law states that a council’s chair stays in the post until replaced after an election and must be elected by a two-thirds majority. It does not explain what happens if control of the council changes hands but, as in Filyovsky Park district, no party has a two-thirds majority.
In Filyovsky Park, a district with 90,000 inhabitants, Tigran Mkrtchyan, a United Russia member who was appointed interim chairman in August, was among officials who lost their seat on Sept. 10.
But because no side has the two-thirds majority required to elect a new chair, Mkrtchyan, who runs a shopping mall, has continued carrying out his duties.
Official documents issued by the council since the election bear his signature, and the Moscow prosecutor’s office supported Mkrtchyan’s stance in October.
A document seen by Reuters said former heads of municipal districts can keep running a council until a replacement is elected, even if they have lost their own place on the council. It cited a 2003 law in support of its argument.
Tuesday’s meeting, the council’s second since the election, had been intended by the opposition council member to break the impasse. But after leaving the meeting, Mkrtchyan told Reuters he would keep the position of temporary head of the council until a new leader is elected.
He and his associates still appeared to be in charge on Friday. When Reuters placed a call to the council, a member of Mkrtchyan’s team picked up the phone.
Editing by Timothy Heritage