Russians continue to take to the streets to air their grievances against the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. But now, after Putin’s election this month to a six-year term as president, the crowds number only in the hundreds — not the tens of thousands that turned out before the vote.
In the words of writer Boris Akunin, a popular speaker at the earlier rallies: “The civic movement has entered a new phase. The first phase, romantic and euphoric, is over.”
Now is the time, Akunin says, for power to develop from the bottom up.
Indeed, some young Russians have decided to re-direct their energy into politics at the most local level. One of them is Maxim Motin, a fair-haired, well-groomed 28-year-old with a plan to transform his country, starting with apartment building entryways.
Motin has just been elected to a municipal council in Pechatniki, his working-class district in Moscow. He ran as an independent in this month’s municipal elections and won a seat, along with about 70 other candidates supported by an opposition organization called Our City. More than a dozen of the new council members are under the age of 30.
“Six months ago, four months ago, it would have been impossible for me to go into politics, because it was closed,” Motin says.
He assumed candidates from the ruling United Russia party would be shoo-ins. But he won, Motin says, because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev “made so many mistakes.”
Motin recalls his anger in September when Medvedev announced that he and Putin would trade places so Putin could stay in power for six more years.
“I hate when someone from the government thinks that we’re very stupid,” he says. “We’re not so stupid as they think.”
Then came the December parliamentary election, tainted by evidence of widespread, brazen fraud.
Motin was mobilized; he worked as an election observer in Pechatniki during March’s presidential vote, and he ran for the municipal council, which has a five-year term. When asked if he has a “five-year plan,” he has a ready answer: “I have an 18-year plan. I want to be president of Russia.”
But Motin is starting at the lowest rung of power, serving as one of the 1,500 unpaid municipal deputies.
Street Lights, Not Street Protests
On a recent day, the newly elected Motin strides up to a couple of older women standing in the courtyard of his building and introduces himself: “Hello, I’m Maxim Motin, your new deputy, do you have any requests?”
During the campaign, Motin visited more than 2,000 apartments. The women tell him they voted for him because he is “young, local and responsive.” And they have plenty of requests, starting with the fact that they work as building managers at the apartment block and haven’t been paid since they started the job in January. They all know Motin can’t solve this problem, but he calls the management company that employs them anyway and gets the number of the person in charge.
The city gives the district a budget of $2 million a year. On a tour of Pechatniki, Motin zeroes in on the problems he thinks he can fix, like the street lights.
“Most of them don’t work,” he says, “it’s very cheap … I can do it.”
Many residents have asked for a paved path from the road to the apartment complex, an inexpensive amenity. Motin wants to clean up apartment entryways — public areas Russians have traditionally left in a shocking state of neglect. He dreams of hiring a local mural artist to beautify Pechatniki’s apartment blocks, many dating back to the communist era.
“I want to change psychology. People will see how nice it is [and won’t litter],” he says.
The first priority for Motin — and the Pechatniki voters he wooed — is shutting down a sprawling cement factory. The plant has been fouling the air for years, but became a real nuisance when new high-rises went up just across the road. Motin says many children in the buildings suffer from asthma. A judge has already ordered it to close, so Motin is confident the community will prevail. The other blight he thinks he can get removed is an unlicensed kebab shop that attracts rats.
Motin has already met with the paid city manager responsible for Pechatniki, presenting a list of demands Motin heard over and over again when he was trolling for votes. He’s confident he can get things done.
“I’m young, I have energy and I have my business,” he says.
That business is a consulting firm called Football Market that advises big companies on how to sponsor soccer teams and organize tournaments. He also runs a soccer charity for needy children.
His private income, Motin says, will give him the independence needed to buck the powers-that-be. He says the Moscow municipal councils are packed with teachers and other public sector employees who depend on the government for their day jobs. He doesn’t, so he says he won’t be afraid to question cost overruns and apparent kickbacks.
“It’s very bad for people that I can ask,” he says. Motin says he’s not afraid of exposing corruption and not afraid of reprisals by the tax police.
“I pay my taxes. My business is clean,” he says.
Motin was one of the young stars showcased at a recent rally organized by Russian opposition’s “Fair Elections” movement. He spoke for just over a minute, telling the crowds lining Moscow’s Novy Arbat Street that he ran for office because he prefers action to slogans. For now, he certainly seems more focused on street lights than street demonstrations.