LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
There's an election today in Moscow - one that's been disputed for weeks. Opponents of President Vladimir Putin were barred from running for city council, setting off a summer of anti-government protests and mass arrests. But even without any candidates of their own, Putin's enemies are still trying to spoil the vote for the Kremlin.
We have NPR's Lucian Kim on the line from Moscow. Good morning.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How is it that a local election has become such a test for Vladimir Putin's regime?
KIM: Well, you have to remember that Russia is a super centralized country. In an American context, Moscow plays the role of New York, Washington and Los Angeles combined. And so what happens here really determines the way that the whole country goes. Of course, the Moscow City Council has practically no real power, but the Kremlin couldn't face the idea of outright critics of Putin winning elected office. It would've given them a bully pulpit to talk to the whole country. And more importantly, I think it would've given the opposition legitimacy and sort of set a precedent for other regions in Russia.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: With Putin's opponents barred from the election, though, aren't the results a foregone conclusion?
KIM: Well, I think it's interesting that despite the Kremlin's tight control over the political system here, elections do matter. In the past, there have been lots of documented instances of vote-rigging. But the government also understands that if there are mass violations in a city like Moscow, that could spark even more protests.
Putin, on the whole, is still very popular, but the ruling party, which is called United Russia, is absolutely not. In fact, Putin has abandoned the party. So has the Moscow mayor. And now all of the candidates for United Russia and Moscow are hiding their party affiliation and running as independents. What makes the Kremlin especially nervous is that you have opposition leader Alexei Navalny telling his supporters not to boycott the election, but instead to go out and use their ballots to vote against those pro-government candidates.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Looking ahead, once these elections are done, what is the opposition's strategy if they don't have an event to rally around?
KIM: Good question. First of all, the opposition has just shown how it can turn a supposedly meaningless city council election into a rallying cry for mass protests. There really is a lot of pent-up frustration right now, which mostly has to do with the stagnating economy. But many Russians are also unhappy and just plain scared to see people go to jail just for something they tweeted or for attending a protest.
The opposition to Putin is still relatively small, and it's divided internally. They're certainly encouraged by the protests this summer because nobody expected them. But on the other hand, if the Kremlin can get through these elections, there won't be a national election for another two years. And so it's still going to be a very long uphill battle for the opposition.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Lucian, thank you so much.
KIM: Thanks, Lulu.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.