Campaigning under the slogan, ’Change Russia: start with Moscow,’ Aleksei Navalny likely sees his mayoral bid as a stepping-stone towards a challenge for the leadership of all Russia. But how can he promote himself in the provinces? He may be the darling of those who follow politics on the Internet, but for most Russians, who get their news from government-owned TV channels, he is seen more as an opposition activist; and one now convicted of some crime or other. Nevertheless, this budding politician is developing a strategy to win over voters, not only in the capital but in the regions as well.
Russia’s big hole
‘Russia has two misfortunes: the fools and the roads;’ for good reason, this is perhaps the most popular Russian proverb. One gets used to dealing with the idiocy that characterises our bureaucracy, but you never come to terms with the poor quality of our roads. Potholes are a fact of daily life even in Moscow and St Petersburg, and once you head out for other cities, many roads look as though they have been recently attacked by cluster bombs. In some places, drivers are forced to reduce their speed to ten miles an hour to preserve life and limb, and their suspension.
It would be unfair to say that the government shows no interest in this problem. Sometimes, the worst roads do get repaired; and a few months before every parliamentary election the ruling party launches its ‘United Russia’s New Roads’ campaign. Needless to say, this is a piece of blatant party propaganda, paid for by taxpayers’ money. The whole country is then subjected to a quick burst of repairs, none of which last very long.
Since 2012, Russians living in the provinces have had some hope of seeing their roads repaired outside of an election season
However, since 2012, Russians living in the provinces have had some hope of seeing their roads repaired outside of an election season, thanks to the ‘RosYama’ (RusHole) scheme initiated by Aleksei Navalny. The idea is simple: the law states that a hole in a road surface may not be more than 15cm long, 60cm wide and 5cm deep. If any one of these dimensions is exceeded, the traffic police must either force the highway maintenance services to repair the defect immediately, or cordon the area off and install warning lights; and put up a sign to warn road users. The traffic cops try to cop out of this responsibility, but thanks to Navalny this is becoming more difficult.
Now every car owner who finds a pothole can take a photo, preferably with a ruler alongside, to show which parameter is being breached. The photo should also include some point of reference to fix the location of the hole (a road sign or house number, for example); and it should be sent to the RosYama website. The site then generates a letter to the traffic police, with a request that they get the hole repaired. Of course, drivers could write such letters themselves, but the one on the site is written in exact legal language (Navalny trained as a lawyer…). The driver downloads the letter and sends it to the police by recorded delivery. If the police respond within 37 days with a confirmation of repair, the driver takes another photo and sends it to RosYama. If not, they send a complaint to the local Prosecutor’s office.
RosYama website features a user-friendly interface and detailed instructions which make submitting an official letter of complaint and tracking its progress just a matter of minutes for discontented drivers. Photo: RosYama.ru
The whole complaints process is clearly laid out on the RosYama site, which has recorded over 48,000 potholes since it opened last year. Over 15,000 of them have been repaired. The site receives photos every day from all over Russia, and is often the most effective way to get repairs done.
Rats in the hallway? Complain to Navalny!
The walls and hallways of residential blocks in most Russian cities have something in common with the roads: many have not seen repairs for 20-30 years. Housing departments happily accept rent and service charges from tenants, but can leave repairs undone for years. Until two years ago, the majority of Russian residents had only two hopes of redress: hope that some local political candidate would take up their cause before an election, in the interests of harvesting a few more votes, or pray that central government might initiate and finance a housing repair programme at national level.
Since 2012, however, ordinary Russians have had an additional means of influencing local government services; and, once again, they have Navalny to thank for it. This project, RosZhKKh (RosHousing), is designed, like RosYama, to simplify the complaints procedure. The site has a form for people to fill in with their address, and a description of the problem; and then they are advised to send it to the appropriate housing department. It might be a question of an individual flat with a mouldy wall or hot water that is not hot enough; perhaps a hallway with rats, or a broken light bulb, a cracked window, a nasty smell emanating from the basement; or it could be a leaky roof or cracks in the foundations. Tenants complained about all these failings in the past, but their complaints often did not use legally correct terms, which gave the bureaucrats an excuse to ignore them. Now, however, they have at their disposal impeccable template letters, citing the relevant regulations, composed by Navalny’s legal team.
Officials were horrified when they began to receive thousands of these standardised complaints
Officials were horrified when they began to receive thousands of these standardised complaints, but they could not fault them on legal grounds, and by law they had to address them within strict time limits. St Petersburg’s housing committee, for example, initially called the several hundred letters they had received from RosZhKKh ‘an act of provocation designed to impede the functioning of local communal services’, but they did not have a legal leg to stand on, and have been forced to deal with these ‘Navalny complaints.’
RosYama and RosZhKKh are aimed firstly at Internet users, but, when a student tells his or her granny that, thanks to one Aleksei Navalny, she has hot water again, it surely makes a much greater political impression than any number of his anti-corruption activities and exposés.
Navalny’s primary political weapon is still his anti-corruption site RosPil, which has been running since 2010. Here, he does not need complaints from the provinces for it to be deadly effective. His team monitors the Internet for news of violations within the state procurement system, often involving expensive cars. If the cost of a car is immoderately high, RosPil not only complains to the official regulatory bodies, but prints a standard leaflet, ostensibly signed by the regional governor: ‘Dear residents of Astrakhan, the regional administration has recently been receiving complaints about the state of the roads, and communal utilities and services. May I inform you that we cannot allocate public funds to address these problems, as we have been obliged to acquire two luxury cars costing five and six million roubles respectively.’ Sometimes the leaflet is even more simply worded, informing local people that ‘we recently bought an official an expensive new car.’ RosPil then asks for volunteers to distribute the leaflets in that city’s main public spaces. Such is their popularity, there are never enough leaflets to go round, but they nevertheless serve as an additional reminder that Navalny is not just an opposition leader in faraway Moscow, but someone with the interests of all Russians at heart.
Navalny’s latest public project goes even further in promoting his political clout and ambition
Navalny’s latest public project goes even further in promoting his political clout and ambition. Over the last couple of months, people in ten Russian cities, including St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Tver and Vladimir, have been able to read not just his leaflets, but a newspaper, modestly titled For Navalny. Although in some other cities For Navalny has been seized by the authorities, this has not stopped it from getting out. The paper’s main aim is to publicise Navalny’s recent trial and its aftermath, as well as to shine a light on particularly flagrant instances of corruption. Perhaps the most interesting thing, however, about For Navalny is that it is an unregistered and open publication, without any central print run: it can be downloaded and printed off anywhere where there are volunteers who can pay the printing costs and find a distribution network. In some places, it is distributed by local civil rights organisations; and in others it is even handled by local postal services.
What has Navalny done? For Navalny newspaper clarifies: 'He has united the concerned citizens and created effective means of fighting corruption'. Photo: navalny.ru
Aleksei Navalny is currently awaiting the results of an appeal against his recent sentence for bribery and corruption, but, regardless of its outcome, or of his mayoral challenge, it is clear that he is steadily becoming an increasingly visible opposition politician with a successful strategy. Helping people in the provinces solve their continual everyday problems has been an effective game plan; could it be enough to get him to the Kremlin?