The Central Election Commission said earlier this month that 13 opposition candidates failed to gather enough valid signatures to appear on the ballot next month. Many outraged Muscovites saw the candidates' disqualification as a sign of how determined the Kremlin was to prevent President Vladimir Putin's opponents from gaining even lowly positions of power.
The commission's chief, Ella Pamfilova, insisted in an interview with The Associated Press this week that there was nothing she could do to stop what blew up into a major political crisis. Pamfilova argued that domestic Russian politics are outside her competence.
"As an individual, as a citizen I really wanted to allow the widest competition possible so that everyone gets registered," Pamfilova, who was a veteran opposition politician herself when she took the post in 2016, said. "The law that is in place — we have to stick to it to the letter, unfortunately."
She also noted that several candidates were reinstated upon appeal and that competition for the City Duma — about five candidates per seat — is high.
The candidates excluded from the Sept. 8 election said they had presented the required number of signatures, but first Moscow election authorities and then Pamfilova's commission invalidated enough due to a variety of flaws to prevent their participation.
The violations included minor clerical mistakes or erroneous personal data that was entered by election officials. Pamfilova insisted that these mistakes were serious enough for disqualification.
Hundreds of voters including celebrities spoke out after their signatures were dismissed as suspected forgeries. The most vocal government opponents were not only barred from running but ended up in jail for weeks for calling for the unsanctioned protests.
A trained engineer, Pamfilova entered politics at the age of 36 when she won a seat at the Soviet Supreme Council in 1989 in what was regarded as the Soviet Union's first free election in decades. She served as social welfare minister in Russia's first-post Soviet government for three years, and was a vocal opponent of the federal government's brutal military campaign in Chechnya. She made multiple trips to the region, negotiating the release of Russian troops captured by Chechen separatists.
Pamfilova's appointment was expected to end brazen corruption in Russia's elections. Putin had vowed to clean up election commissions that for years had ignored or directly participated in vote-rigging to favor Kremlin candidates at all levels.
Although Russian election observers initially hailed Pamfilova's efforts to clamp down on the most blatant voter fraud, this summer's Moscow City Duma campaign brought about questions of whether she has the power to overhaul the entire system.
Pamfilova, 65, who is proud of her democratic credentials and a track record of defending Kremlin opponents, said the commission looked into the forgery claims and reversed course on hundreds of signatures but it didn't change the outcome for any candidates: they still had too few valid signatures.
Although standing firm on the decision to disqualify the candidates, Pamfilova said this summer's election campaign has highlighted the flaws in the federal and local election legislation.
"The good thing about what happened - it has showed that the system is outdated, that society is not going to forgive us for this," she said, adding that her commission will come up with amendments to streamline the signature collection for candidates and cut down the number of signatures required.
When asked if candidates like Lyubov Sobol, who was on hunger strike in protest for a month, would have been on the ballot under the new, simplified rules, Pamfilova was adamant that Sobol and other candidates had made too many mistakes in their filings. She recalled her own political career — Pamfilova ran as an independent candidate for Russian president in 2000 when Putin was first elected — and said the opposition should toughen up and comply with the laws the way they are.
Authorities initially refused to issue permits for opposition-led protest rallies that started in July after the commission's decision. Riot police were deployed to the protests and on July 27 beat up and brutally detained hundreds of people who offered no resistance. In an apparent attempt to ward off more protests, authorities arrested 14 people and charged them with rioting even though the July 27 rally did not see any property damage or major violence.
Three of the detained men had collected signatures for opposition candidates. Like the others they now face up to eight years in prison if convicted.
Pamfilova said she wasn't familiar with the circumstances of the case but said she wished the three arrested activists had spoken to her beforehand to find out what was wrong with signatures they collected instead of attending the unsanctioned protest.
Pamfilova accused several candidates, including Sobol, of manipulating their supporters but conceded that the anger and frustration expressed in Moscow in the past six weeks were genuine.
"People are asking for more," she said. "It's a young, well-off generation that grew up under Putin, and we have to be mindful of that, and we have to understand that this generation... they need find their place here, in Russia. They need social mobility."
Sobol rejected Pamfilova's claim in Tuesday's interview with the AP that she had spearheaded the July protests because she could not collect enough signatures, and dismissed the Central Election Commission chief as a "talking head" toeing the Kremlin line.
Pamfilova insisted that even putting the signatures aside there was a major flaw in Sobol's application: she did not fill in a form listing the candidate's foreign property.
Sobol told the AP that she left it blank because she has no foreign property and quoted a presidential decree to prove her point.
Sobol and her allies have called on Muscovites to come out for another protest rally on Saturday after authorities turned down the opposition's multiple requests for an authorized gathering.
"We did all we could to get the approval," Sobol said. "They are taking away from people the right to gather peacefully, unarmed, in a protest to defend their voting rights."