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Electioneering games in Siberia

Ahead of local elections later this year, Russia’s newly united opposition is trying its hand in Siberia. But their latest travails in Novosibirsk show what they are up against.

Yaroslav Vlasov
27 July 2015

Ahead of State Duma elections in 2016, Democratic Coalition, an opposition alliance formed in April 2015, announced that it is targeting local elections in three regions, Kaluga, Kostroma and Novosibirsk, to drum up support and test its capabilities.

But after the Coalition’s partner, the opposition party RPR-PARNAS, has stalled at the registration stage in Novosibirsk, this alliance is likely to be left with minimal chances for participating in the elections to the regional legislature in September. Following a recommendation by a local election commission working group, the Siberian city’s election commission is currently deciding whether to register RPR-PARNAS due to false signatures on supporting statements.

Meanwhile, though the city and regional authorities do not see eye to eye, Novosibirsk’s local authorities have come together to openly accuse the opposition of buying votes and, in a reference to the events of 2004 in Ukraine, ‘planning an Orange Revolution’ in Siberia. 

Signatures

On 24 June, a special election commission working group met to investigate the 11,000 signatures collected to register RPR-PARNAS, an acronym used to designate the alliance of the Republican Party of Russia with another opposition group, the People’s Freedom Party, for the local elections.

But though this may have seemed a routine event at first, it later ended in scandal. The working group declared roughly 1,500 signatures unreliable, most of them on the basis of Federal Migration Service (FMS) documents. The working group thus made their recommendation to the election commission: refuse to register RPR-PARNAS.

Boris_Nemtsov's_March.jpg

The opposition has tried to galvanise itself after the murder of Boris Nemtsov. Dhārmikatva / WikiCommons. Some rights reserved.

RPR-PARNAS is practically the only party, which, in the past month, has actually gone out to collect signatures (a key part of the process) from people on the street and at their homes. Most other parliamentary parties submitted signatures, which, judging by the documents, were collected in a single day.

For the Democratic Coalition’s legal advisers, this is evidence of falsification. Leonid Volkov, the Coalition’s co-ordinator in Novosibirsk, says: ‘All these “inconsistencies” with the FMS database are based on either intentional forgery or technical issues – the low quality of the database’s information and mistakes made on input.’

Leonid Volkov at a 2013 concert in support of Alexei Navalny. putnik / WikiCommons. Some rights reserved.

Leonid Volkov at a 2013 concert in support of Alexei Navalny. putnik / WikiCommons. Some rights reserved.

Volkov stated that, at the final meeting of the commission, the Coalition’s lawyers are planning to request that every ‘inconsistent’ signature is checked.

The unseen hand

It’s unclear whether the election commission is acting under pressure from the authorities.

According to one source, Yury Petukhov, head of the election commission, received a call from the Central Election Commission immediately after the working commission’s decision. The request was simple: present the full reasoning behind this decision to Moscow tout suite.

That said, one can sense the hand of the local authorities here, with likely interference from the office of Anatoly Lokot, the city’s communist mayor, and Vladimir Gorodetsky, head of the regional government and a member of United Russia.

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Anatoly Lokot was elected mayor of Novosibirsk in April 2015 with 44% of the vote. (c) Aleksandr Kriazhev / VisualRIAN.

One can sense the hand of the local authorities here

In Novosibirsk, United Russia politicians have forged an alliance with the local authorities in a targeted campaign to discredit the Democratic Coalition.

Local media has published ‘exposé’ articles based on stories of people, who, having collected signatures, allegedly did not receive payment for their services. Official meetings held at the mayor’s office have been accompanied by references to a possible ‘Orange Revolution’, the ‘threat of a Maidan’ and a global conspiracy.

Speaking before a meeting of Novosibirsk’s civic council in July, Lokot hinted, on tape, at the threats faced by the city: ‘People say that an “Orange Revolution” situation in Novosibirsk is developing. I’ve been informed that the US Congress has assigned $20 million to register the electoral bloc [Democratic Coalition].

‘This means that if they register, a financial channel will open up, and this will shut down the capabilities not just for KPRF [Communist Party of the Russian Federation] and United Russia everyone together.’ Even the Communist Party’s regional committee was confused by Lokot’s statement—and he chairs it.

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Former mayor of Novosibirsk, Vladimir Gorodetsky was elected governor in September 2014. (c) Aleksandr Kriazhev / VisualRIAN.

In response, members of the Democratic Coalition and Alexei Navalny immediately filed for defamation. At the initial court hearing, however, Lokot’s representatives argued that his statement was not a reference to RPR-PARNAS and, despite the fact that dozens of people heard Lokot, requested a speech analysis of the recording.

While the mayor’s office has been racked with scandal and infighting, the regional government, relatively safe in United Russia hands, has preferred to avoid public statements.

And now, having placed Lokot in the firing line, the local branch of United Russia seems to have killed two birds with one stone: raising the Coalition’s negative profile and depriving the communists of the protest vote, on the back of which Lokot became mayor in 2014. In this respect, the Democratic Coalition is being used to attract increased interest from the press.

Novosibirsk politics

Novosibirsk is Russia’s third largest city, and one of the most likely to protest.

Novosibirsk is Russia’s third largest city, and one of the most likely to protest.

The communists are strong here, traditionally, and for five years United Russia has been suffering the cruellest defeats here. The governing party receives twice as less votes here than it does on average across Russia.

For United Russia’s federal leadership, defeat at Novosibirsk’s 2014 mayoral election came as yet another damaging blow, when the opposition, local business elites and influential ‘system’ politicians (including Viktor Tolokonsky, former governor of Novosibirsk region and Presidential Representative to Siberia) united under Lokot’s banner.

monstration 2012 anton unitsin flickr.jpg

May 2012: Novosibirsk's Monstration march. Anton Unitsin / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Following this defeat, United Russia changed the entire local party leadership, and put some of Moscow’s best ‘political technologists’ in charge of the campaigns for the regional and city councils. Sergei Neverov, head of United Russia’s General Council, is reportedly ‘curating’ the current campaign, and is being groomed as a replacement for the ageing Vladimir Gorodetsky.

With this in mind, the Kremlin should be most concerned by the confrontation with KPRF, rather than the ‘non-system’ opposition.

But Lokot prefers not to take any notice (of anybody), and at the KPRF’s final plenum of the candidate selection process, he again referred to the ‘Orange threat’ (another allusion to the ‘Colour Revolutions’) and US State Department funds. The young communists sitting in the room just raised their eyebrows, and shook their heads.

Whither independence?

Notwithstanding Lokot, thanks to Governor Gorodetsky, Novosibirsk has all but lost its financial and political independence.

In autumn 2014, the regional authorities, with the support of the city’s legislature (where United Russia have a majority), took for themselves an additional 10% slice of the city’s income tax revenues (citing the developing economic crisis as the reason). This led the mayor’s office to close several of its programmes, including road repair and kindergartens, which didn’t leave people happy. Now the regional authorities are returning this money to the city budget in subsidies, thus keeping Lokot on a short leash.

Politically speaking, then, the governor and United Russia have thus deftly managed to turn Lokot, leader of the communists and the 2014 protest movement, into a symbol of repression.

The governor and United Russia have managed to turn Lokot into a symbol of repression.

After all, though the orders came ‘from the top’, Lokot is seen to be responsible for banning Novosibirsk’s annual ‘Monstration’ and the persecution of its founder, Artem Loskutov, who is second in RPR-PARNAS’s candidate list.

At the same time, however, Lokot has become a symbol of mayoral weakness – as expressed in his total lack of political willpower when facing down the regional authorities over the city’s budget.

An unmanageable region

As one source in the regional government suggests, Moscow is worried by the region’s potential for protest, and considers it ‘unmanageable’.

Prior to this year’s Monstration, 5,000 people gathered in the centre of Novosibirsk to protest against the Orthodox Church’s interference in the staging of the opera Tannhäuser. This meeting was the largest since December 2011, when meetings in support of free and fair elections were held after suspicions of vote tampering in the parliamentary elections.

Following the efforts of United Russia, Governor Gorodetsky, and Lokot himself, protest voters will find themselves split ahead of the coming elections. Some people will vote for RPR-PARNAS (if they succeed in registering), others will support Yabloko, and the rest will just ignore the election.

Ilya Ponomarev, Duma deputy for Novosibirsk (and in exile since August 2014), believes that ‘without a doubt, United Russia will take first place, KPRF – second. That said, the communists have all the chances to come first in the city. Of course, the overall picture isn’t yet clear. I think United Russia will receive 40-50% of the vote, and the communists in the region of 30-35%.’

The Liberal Democratic Party, Just Russia, Yabloko and Rodina (who are also strong in Novosibirsk) are likely to scoop up the remaining votes. ‘In any case,’ says Ponomarev, ‘I think the regional government will retain control over the legislature, and the mayor’s office will increase its influence in the city council.’

Democratic Coalition

The likely defeat of RPR-PARNAS at the registration hearing will lead to another wave of protests in Novosibirisk, but they likely won’t be well attended—in June, no more than 500 people came to a demonstration led by Alexei Navalny.

Although Democratic Coalition will appeal against the election commission’s decision in court and through the Central Election Commission, these deliberations will last well beyond the elections due to take place on 13 September. On 27 July, the city’s election commission met again to discuss the fate of the registration signatures, deciding to postpone their decision further.

At the same time, according to Alexei Mazur, a political commentator, the federal centre, which really doesn’t want to see RPR-PARNAS in this race, still has its eyes fixed firmly on Novosibirsk.

‘On purpose, people were picked and sent to collect signatures on behalf of Democratic Coalition, in order to sabotage the campaign from inside. It seems there are concerns that RPR-PARNAS might shake up the structure of the local opposition. For example, they might be able to dislodge the “system” opposition.’

Democratic Coalition is testing the ground ahead of Duma elections in 2016, in which it can participate without collecting signatures (thanks to RPR-PARNAS’ representation in the Yaroslavl’s regional legislature). The more representation RPR-PARNAS gains in the regions, the less likely the Kremlin is to find a reason to refuse to register the party for next year’s Duma campaign.

Nevertheless, these events have laid down a marker in Novosibirsk for how the non-system opposition can build legitimacy.

This has become possible thanks to the protest moods in the city, and its emerging civil society. Residents are simply fed up: the building of new apartment blocks in green areas is out of control, the process of land allocation is corrupt, the local bureaucracy has ballooned, and the church has started interfering in people’s personal lives.

‘Many of the voters who can be called supporters of a “civil society” in Russia have simply no representatives in power in either Novosibirsk, or the State Duma,’ says Alexei Mazur.

‘If these elections can be seen as a chance for civil society, then RPR-PARNAS probably won’t be allowed to take part, but, sooner or later, those voters who aren’t indifferent to what is happening the city, and across the country, will, all the same, get their representatives in power, and particularly in Novosibirsk.’

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