Astrakhan, Volga city famous for its black caviar, has just undergone a dramatic mayoral election. There were two main actors: Sergei Bozhenov, the incumbent city mayor and 36 year-old Oleg Shein, the deputy who represents the Fair Russia Party in parliament. Once, they were friends and political allies. But some years ago their ways parted and they became sworn enemies.
As part of the political establishment in Putin's Russia, Shein felt strong enough to run against Bozhenov. He believed he had enough popular support to win. He underestimated the power of his rival. Bozhenov, backed by the ruling United Russia party used all the means available to him - militia, media and election commissions - and stole the victory from Shein.
As they used to say in the Stalin's Russia, what matters is not how people vote, but who counts the votes. For weeks after the election Astrakhan was a stage for events which recalled Ukraine's Orange Revolution. Shein's supporters took to the streets and blocked access to the mayor's office. They called his victory a gangland triumph and served dry bread to the people in his office, as if they were criminals in prison. They flooded the Russian blogosphere with statements, appeals and open letters. Only now, three weeks after election day, does the situation in Astrakhan seems to have calmed down.
The Astrakhan drama was of course just part of the Russia-wide local election scandal of October 11. Unable to handle the radical dissent movement headed by people like former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, Kremlin has created a loyal puppet opposition. It is represented in the Russian parliament by three parties. There is the speaker of the Senate Sergei Mironov's Fair Russia Party; Gennady Zyuganov's Communist Party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party.
The deal is that, in exchange for Kremlin favours, they will play by its rules. Their criticism of the government has to be constructive; there are some issues too sensitive to raise and the power of Putin and Medvedev can not ever be called into question. The role of loyal opposition in the Russian political theatre also has its rewards: a certain number of parliamentary seats, the right to appear on television, material privileges, and last, but not least, the right to occupy some posts in the Russian local administration.
However, October's election showed how fragile the deal was with that loyal opposition and how great the appetite for power is of the ruling United Russia party. Feeling totally cheated, the three parties cried foul when the election results were announced. All over the country the Kremlin and United Russia had falsified the results to give the opposition as few seats as possible in local legislatures or city mayors.
Even the most loyal opposition found it hard to swallow. Its leaders boycotted parliament for some days. They asked for a meeting with President Medvedev. In a parliament speech Vladimir Zhirinovsky declared that he wished death on the Central Election Commission president Vladimir Churov, or at least paralysis, a stroke or a heart attack.
Three weeks later everything seems to be back to normal. The opposition has gone back to the Duma, having reined in its anti-Kremlin rhetoric again. But October's lesson will not be forgotten. The election blow was too strong, at least in Astrakhan. Here, the young and ambitious politician Oleg Shein felt that his loyalty to the Kremlin gave him the right to challenge the equally loyal incumbent mayor. He felt that at the game between the two of them should at least be honest.
Do not be taken in by Shein's radical rhetoric. Now that he has lost he is not likely to join forces with the radical democratic anti- Kremlin forces. When he runs in the next election he will just look for better allies and stronger support from influential people who will be able to secure his success. That is how domestic Russian politics work now.
But perhaps we are wrong. Too much has happened. Too much has been said. The weight of memory is too strong. Maybe it will be strong enough for politicians like Shein to bear in mind that while democracy may be bad, no one's come up with anything better.
Here are selected entries and comments on the Astrakhan election from the Russian blogosphere:
Bochkarev shot at, Oleg Shein, oleg_shein's journal, June 19th, 2009.
This evening my close friend and colleague Mikhail Alexandrovich Bochkarev was shot in the hand. Mikhail is exclusively involved in politics and heads the office of the Astrakhan branch of Fair Russia. He's a certified State Duma assistant. At 11.30, when Mikhail Alexandrovich was returning home, a citizen aged 35-40 approached him, a Russian around 180 cm, and said: "Stop, Shein's a goon, we'll wipe you all out if you f.... and Shein don't stop saying all sorts of crap about Sergei <Bozhenov>". The citizen was carrying a pistol. Mikhail Alexandrovich grabbed the assailant's arm and kicked him in the groin, evidently quite hard. There was a shot. The bullet passed through MA's hand, without hitting the bone. The assailant fled, staggering a little, according to MA. As the police established, the pistol was not a stun gun or an air pistol. It was a real combat pistol.
For the benefit of non-Astrakhan residents: we are having mayoral elections in the city in 110 days.
Deputy or mayor? http://www.kasparov.ru/, Yevgeny Sazonov
Rumours that 36-year-old Shein might stand for the post of mayor first started doing the rounds after the victory of the Fair Russia candidate at the mayoral elections in the town of Narimanov in Astrakhan province in June 2008. Oleg Shein confirmed his intentions at a meeting with journalists on 16th of July. He said he was "tired of what was happening in the city. People complain that the authorities don't listen to them, and that to get a reception with the mayor they need to put their names down a year or more in advance".
Shein is sure he will win, and thinks that the popularity of his team is growing. He believes that he'll be able to beat United Russia's mayor Sergei Bozhenov, and that his electoral campaign will only fail if he is not allowed to stand.
We should note that at the previous mayoral elections, Shein supported Bozhenov, though somewhat cautiously. Bozhenov got 40% of the votes and won. Relations between Bozhenov and Shein quickly soured. The deputy became increasingly critical of the mayor, until at the elections to the Oblast Duma in 2006, the conflict became a real stand-off. Bozhenov swapped party allegiances, from the Party of Life to United Russia, while Oleg Shein headed the regional office of Rodina, which is part of Fair Russia. At the election of State Duma deputies in December 2007, Fair Russia received 20.1% of votes in the Astrakhan Oblast. This was the best regional result in the country.
Bozhenov will win the elections, Nikolai Sandakov, sandakov's journal, July 16th, 12:38
I've been watching everything that's happening, and here's what I think. The electoral situation in the city is changing drastically in Sergei Bozhenov's favor. In the past, constant attacks by the (so-called) opposition, and the excessive modesty of the mayor's team (in my opinion there hasn't been enough coverage of the changes in the city - in the administration and infrastructure), the voters were unhappy and opposed the authorities in general, and the city ones in particular. But situation's changed drastically since the mayor started holding regular meetings with the city residents, and pursuing an active policy of public information.
I predict that Bozhenov and Shein will be neck and neck by late July-early August, and that from August on Bozhenov will pull ahead and win the elections pretty easily.
Candidate, Oleg Shein, oleg_shein's journal, August 2nd, 2009
At its regional conference, the Fair Russia Party has put forward my candidacy for the position of mayor of my native city.
So full speed ahead!
Bozhenov can stay, Nyusha, Astrakhan Forum, Аug 07, 2009
Bozhenov's eaten his fill at the trough- so leave him there. And Shein's changed his political refuges too often (Ed: he means allegiances). Besides, Shein's too thin - he won't get in. We don't elect thin people here. No use grumbling. If it's straight, you can't make it crooked. And what you don't have you can't count.
Sergei Mironov in Astrakhan, Oleg Shein, oleg_shein's journal, September 27th, 2009.
Sergei Mironov spent an entire day in our southern city, and told journalists straight out that he'd come to support us in the elections. The morning began with a walk with S.M., governor Zhilkin and me along the embankment. As we walked, young people asked for our autographs several times. Then S.M. and I went into the Kosa district. About 70 residents told the chairman of the Federation Council that Bozhenov's officials were threatening arson, demanding that they sell their apartments for 500,000 rubles. The next meeting was with residents from the hostel on Savukshin that collapsed. Bozhenov ran away from them last week. He's still hiding from them. Mironov said that he would tell the President personally that money needed to be allocated from the federal budget for their resettlement. The residents of the hostel replied that as long as they had a thief for a mayor the federal money wouldn't reach them, and asked me how they could get to their district to vote (they've been transferred from the Leninsky district to the Sovietsky and Privolzhsky - put up in a hospital and a pioneer camp).
Then there was a meeting with representatives of small business. We did not discuss business matters, but how to remove criminals from power. There were 200 people in the hall. Shuttle bus workers talked about how their tyres were slashed and their number-plates broken. Stall holders from the market talked about how people tried to drive them away with bulldozers, and how they chased away Bozhenov's officials with sticks. People were in a fighting spirit and optimistic.
I wish everyone success! Nikolai Sandakov, sandakov's journal, October 4th, 14:37
Local government elections will be held on the 11th of October 2009 in the Astrakhan Oblast. 1,906 deputies of district and city, town and village councils, 133 heads of regions, towns, villages + 1 deputy of the regional State Duma will be elected on the 11th of October 2009.
United Russia is the only party which has put forward candidates in practically all electoral districts, and we hope for the support of the majority of residents of the region.
The task we face is to find people who will stand for election locally who are patriotic professionals - and believe me, this is not easy in present conditions. In the villages, the main problem is understaffing In many villages, we've found it hard to get enough people to stand because those who are worthy of representing the interests of the people are either apolitical, or lack the necessary education and experience. Sometimes there are no such people at all. But still, after a great deal of consultation, we've picked candidates who, if they win, will provide a proper balance of regulators and legislators, to represent the interests of people at the municipal level, for the good of our region.
I wish everyone success! I'm sure we'll win!
Physical threats, Oleg Shein, oleg_shein's journal, 11 October 2009
In the morning, many polling booths opened at 9 a.m., not at 8 a.m. This was most widespread in the Leninsky district. The excuse was work with absentee ballots (polling booths 454,455 and others). Obstacles were put in the way of the right to vote at home. A questionnaire was conducted beforehand, and voters who declared their sympathies for Oleg Shein were not sent portable urns. Throughout the day, criminals roamed the polling booths, threatening journalists and members of our party. Deputy Shabanov (United Russia), an assistant of Bozhenov, headed of one of these groups, and attacked journalist Oleg Teplishchev, while Vyacheslav Yashchenko, correspondent for Kavkazsky Uzel agency, also suffered injury. There were threats of physical violence made at polling booths 401, 521, 480 and others.
The governor, Rosbalt agency, 11 October 2009
Governor Alexander Zhiklin was one of the first to come to his polling booth. "My grandma taught me to vote in the morning," he said, by way of explanation for his early visit. As the press service of the Astrakhan governor reported, Alexander Zhilkin said that for the province of Astrakhan these were like federal elections in that virtually all areas were voting. "The people themselves will be deciding who they're going t work with in future. It is very important that they name the most worthy candidate. Personally, it was easy for me to make the choice," the governor said.
I didn't notice any violations, Maxim Korotchenko, maxik2k, 11 Oct, 2009
I just went to the polling station. We really didn't receive any information about voting this year. So I had to work out for myself where to go (district №585), the place where I voted for the president a few years ago. I didn't notice any of the violations described by alexandr_alymov. Everything was peaceful and quiet. As usually, the collective farm music of Kadysheva or Babkina was playing. I don't remember for certain, but when I heard it I immediately wanted to turn around and head for home. There's just one thing I didn't understand. Two names of candidates on the voting form who'd withdrawn their candidacy were crossed out with ballpoint pen. And at the top of this document, it says that the form is invalid if there is a mark in more than one of the boxes. Does that mean that my form was already invalid to begin with?
A coup, Oleg Shein, oleg_shein's journal, 12.10.2009
There was practically a coup in Astrakhan yesterday.
It wasn't just the stuffing of the ballot boxes or the forced absentee voting. We'd have won even then. But after 7 pm, the members of our team were strictly cut off from monitoring the election count. At a number of districts, they were brazenly removed from commissions under false pretences. At others, they were not admitted to the vote-counting. The voting slips were simply moved from our pile to Bozhenov's. Our comrades were not even allowed in for over an hour. Reports were not issued and they were rewritten several times. The "elections" were simply written on paper. This is a coup. We will not put up with this. We're not asking for a recount - that's pointless. The bags of voting forms are being guarded not by the police, but by criminal gangs. We demand new, democratic elections. Tomorrow, we're going to ask all our supporters to gather by the Caspian fisheries building by 5 p.m. It is our duty to protect the city from the criminal abuse before it spreads all over Russia.
WE NEED HONEST ELECTIONS ! alexandr_alymov, 12.10.09
Today there was a coup in Astrakhan. And however reluctant we are to face up to it, we've got to. The mafioso-style city government led by Bozhenov, supported of the police (though not all of them) simply made a nonsense of the whole concept of elections. You may have seen in my blog throughout the day what happened in our city. These elections don't deserve to be called elections. Here's just a brief summary:
-Deputy Shabanov and his team beat up journalists wanting to cover the elections independently. One federal journalist was injured.
-The district electoral commissions opened when they felt like it, and when they started working they got rid of representatives of candidate Oleg Shein without much trouble.
-Throughout the day, there were dozens of incidents of ballot box stuffing. People stuffed large number of forms voting for Bozhenov into urns (one person was detained).
But the most interesting thing happened after 8 p.m., when Bozhenov's criminals blocked off the entrances and exits to all the regional electoral commissions. These criminals were protected from the people by the police (I'm not exaggerating).
All in all, the people of Astrakhan have decided that enough is enough. For the past 5 years they've been putting up with
-arson, murder, ruin
Then we had the most blatant electoral campaign
- beatings, threats attack
And now we've had fascist rule for an entire day.
This was why at 11 p.m., after the preliminary results of voting were announced, Astrakhan residents came out to stand up for themselves! They walked down the central streets to the FSB building (probably the only organization in Astrakhan that did not take part in the outrageous proceedings).
It is hard to describe what happened, but the police cordons and weapons did not help. People marched and chanted "Bozhenov, get out of town!", "Shein's our mayor!", "We want honest elections!"
After some time, the police backed down, and the protestors joined arms and warned that if the cops tried to stop them, then half the city would take to the streets next day.
Of course, the police, who couldn't handle Bozhenov's bandits, also didn't dare stand go against the people. The police and prosecutor's office of the Astrakhan Oblast seen to be helpless, and were completely discredited. They only know how to fight against their own people. Which is why one of the banners of Astrakhan residents that night read "Officers! Honesty! and Conscience!"
Tomorrow, from 5 p.m on, an unprecedented protest by Astrakhan residents will begin. The only demand is that the elections should be annulled and new, honest and fair ones organised. The campaign will go on round the clock, and there will be hunger strikes.
If the federal centre stays silent and does not intervene on behalf of the absolute majority of free Astrakhan residents, I do not think that anything good will come of it.
Several thousand people plan to take to the streets, those who know about the abuses at first hand. Of course,the number of people taking part will grow every day.
WE NEED HONEST ELECTIONS
Democracy is the power of the establishment, AB797, Comment, oleg_shein's journal
Undemocratic elections, undemocratic elections, everyone shouts. But this is what democracy is - the power of the establishment. You are worth what you earn. Elections are decided by the select few. The government gives us a false sense of freedom and responsibility.
The protest continues, alexandr_alymov, 18.10.2009
Today, the 18th of October, the protest against "criminal elections" continues in Astrakhan. At first the people - supporters of Oleg Shein, activists of public movements and simply freedom-loving citizens - gathered by the Caspian fisheries building, by the opposition headquarters. And then they marched to the Kremlin. People were joining the protest all the time as it proceeded. In the end there were more than 2,000 people, and the line of people stretched over a kilometer .
"The atmosphere was very peaceful and soulful, people sang songs, and cheered each other up. We're certain that sooner or later we will win, we'll show them who really won these elections," said Valentina Voronina, the head of the Union of residents of Astrakhan. It is interesting that there were people of all ages and social groups there. Some held icons, others Fair Russia flags or portraits of Medvedev. For many people, President Dmitry Medvedev is the last hope for annulling the elections and conducting new ones, free and fair. The police behaved decently this time - they just accompanied the march. There were no acts of provocation or attempts at arrest. At the square of the Astrakhan Kremlin, people lit candles and fell silent. "It was a very impressive moment, very emotional, when all the people gathered together as one and fell silent for their city," said Vasily Vorokh, an activist on Oleg Shein's team.
Who's sponsoring you? pasha_forest, Comment, 18.10.2009
Who gave you all this money to sponsor these protests?? Who do you want as mayor?
Dry bread for Bozhenov, alexandr_alymov, 27.10.09
Today the people have begun to prepare Mayor Bozhenov (as he still is) for a new life. They've started bringing him dry bread.
The police say this is a provocation. We told them to read what's written on the pack. At least they didn't call them weapons of mass destruction.
The mayor's men showed their face once more. One of his Bozhenov's intimates had the nerve to yell at me in prison slang, in front of everyone, telling me to come closer. He said something like: "Hey you, come here". His intentions were clearly not friendly. You ask me why I call them criminals. I call them criminals because they are.
Speech at a United Russia conference (I didn't manage to say everything),Nikolai Sandakov, sandakov's journal, October 28th, 18:05
...We shouldn't forget that there's another side to politics - our political opponents still haven't learned to conduct the political battle by civilized means. Their dirty and deceitful methods discredit us and everything that we do for the good of state and society. Our competitors, or more precisely our enemies, you can't call them anything else now, are waging an unprincipled battle. Deceiving young people, they attract them to their shady electoral goings-on, and when it's over they abandon them to the whim of fate. We must go all out oppose the activity of political populists, and protect the young from their pernicious influence...