Anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny didn’t win the Sept. 8 mayoral election in Moscow, but all the people who came out to monitor the vote succeeded in making it one of the more honest Russia has seen in a long time.

Consider a vignette from one Moscow polling station. A number of grim-faced, muscular men, accompanied by silent wives and subdued children, gave rise to suspicion when they lined up to vote. Given the low turnout for the election -- just over 32 percent -- a line of any kind suggested an effort to rig the vote. The reality proved surprising: The men, military intelligence operatives with protected identities, had been forced to use a public polling place because observers wouldn't allow them to vote in private at work. Vote counters checked them off on a separate, classified roster.

All eyes were on the Moscow mayoral race: About 10 percent of the Russian population lives in the capital, and the mayor of Moscow is arguably the second most important elected official in the land after the president. Before the election, sociologists predicted 60 percent support for Sergei Sobyanin, the incumbent backed by President Vladimir Putin, and 20 percent for Navalny, who has little political experience and meager financial resources. Given the fact that previous federal elections were less than free and fair, an honest win for Sobyanin could have positioned him as "the most legitimate politician in Moscow and the nation," wrote Ksenia Sobchak, Putin's God-daughter turned opposition activist.

After the polling stations closed and the results started trickling in, it initially appeared that Sobyanin might not get past the 50-percent threshold needed to avoid a run-off against Navalny. Thousands of city workers who had been bused in to celebrate Sobyanin's victory had to wait out in the autumn cold and listen to second-rate pop music. Only after midnight, when preliminary results suggested he had won a bit more than 51 percent of the vote, did Sobyanin make a brief appearance: "We have something to be proud of," he said. "We have organized the fairest, most open, most competitive election in the history of Moscow."

Be that as it may, Navalny and his supporters pointed to important irregularities. They focused on more than 100,000 Russians who were allowed to vote at home due to illness. One observer, Vladimir Prokhorov, wrote on Facebook that social workers bearing food parcels had visited thousands of senior citizens before the election and persuaded them to fill out absentee-voter applications. Those voters overwhelmingly backed Sobyanin, providing more than enough votes to push him over the 50-percent threshold, according to the non-profit organization Golos.

"They were stunned by the fact that they were not forgotten, that they got personal notes addressed to them by name and even gifts," Prokhorov wrote. "As a token of gratitude they were giving their votes for this good man."

Navalny demanded a recount and said he was willing to negotiate with Sobyanin to prevent unrest in Moscow. "We do not intend to give up a single one of our votes," he wrote on Facebook. Sobyanin had no comment, but the news agency Interfax reported that there would be no negotiations and Navalny was welcome to complain to the election commission or the courts.

All told, the election was probably much fairer than previous rigged ballots. Otherwise, Navalny would not have been allowed to win 27.24 percent of the vote, an impressive result for a candidate deprived of access to national television and forced to rely on small donations for campaign funding. Interestingly, Navalny appealed largely to Moscow's wealthier citizens: Sobyanin's results broken down by neighborhood had a negative 0.72 correlation with real estate prices, compared with Navalny's positive 0.74 correlation.

"Sobyanin's victory looks especially unconvincing when one considers that Moscow is used to incumbent mayors' landslide victories," liberal politician Vladimir Milov wrote on Gazeta.ru. On the other hand, Milov added, Navalny won only 600,000 votes in a city of 12 million. "The low turnout is a damning diagnosis not only for Sergei Sobyanin, but for Alexei Navalny," Milov wrote. "Most Muscovites did not see a suitable candidate in this election, so they did not come to the polls."

The picture was similar at elections held throughout Russia on Sept. 8. Turnouts were low, perhaps reflecting the voters' lack of faith in electoral democracy after 13 years of Putin rule, which subverted elections as an institution. At the same time, the anti-Putin opposition finally started scoring points against the Kremlin's United Russia party after years of crushing defeats.

Colorful Yevgeny Roizman, a self-styled anti-drug crusader with a murky past, was elected mayor of Yekaterinburg, the large and strategically important center of the Ural Mountain region. In the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk, center of the autonomous republic of Karelia, liberal publisher Galina Shishina won the mayoralty. And in the Siberian industrial city of Krasnoyarsk, Anatoly Bykov, a local businessman with mob connections, loaded the city council with his supporters.

The winners have little in common apart from the fact that they are not loyal to Putin. The Kremlin appears to have slackened the reins somewhat, hoping United Russia would maintain its dominance. Now, if Putin reverts to suppression tactics, he may succeed for a time -- until the protest sentiment brewing in many parts of Russia boils over. Relaxing his grip and maintaining electoral freedoms might be the better path: Putin and his allies are still popular enough with poorer, less educated Russians to stay in power for quite a while longer.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View.)