When the regional assembly of Russia's north-western Pskov region convenes on 24 September, it promises to be well-attended. Dmitry Gudkov, one of the Duma's few opposition politicians, Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the Yabloko party, and a group of journalists from St Petersburg all plan to travel.
The reason? Item number five on the assembly's agenda: a motion to deprive Lev Shlosberg of his mandate, which would dismiss the Yabloko party politician from his position as deputy.
Rise to the fore
Shlosberg first became a politician on the national stage in December 2012, when he gave an impassioned speech against Russia's controversial ‘Dima Yakovlev law’ from the rostrum of the Pskov regional assembly. Though the assembly was about to approve the already ratified law, Shlosberg called on colleagues to ‘refrain from participating in this cruelty.’ ‘Anybody who votes for this law,’ Shlosberg continued, ‘is culpable in the possible death of a child who cannot be cured by the Russian healthcare system.’
The vote in favour of the law failed at the first attempt, and Shlosberg's speech was watched on YouTube thousands of times. The authorities realised that, in the right hands, a single deputy acting alone could become a potent weapon for the opposition.
October 2014: Lev Shlosberg speaks on a deputy's personal responsibility. CC YouTube.Until then, Shlosberg had enjoyed little political clout. As director of the not-for-profit Renaissance Center for Social Planning and publisher of the newspaper Pskovskaya Guberniya, Shlosberg’s influence was minimal. He had run in elections for many years, though without success. The Pskov branch of the Yabloko party won its first seat in the regional assembly only in December 2011.
Then, in summer 2014, Shlosberg strengthened his reputation when Pskovskaya Guberniya became the first newspaper in Russia to publish photographs from the funerals of paratroopers killed, it is believed, in eastern Ukraine. This was, at the time, the first reliable information confirming rumours of Russian military involvement in the conflict in the Donbas. Later that summer, Shlosberg was beaten unconscious by unknown assailants as he returned home. At the moment of the attack, Shlosberg was carrying a flash drive containing yet another revelation—a recording of a conversation with a wounded witness of the conflict in Ukraine.
When Lev Markovich was hospitalised, the acting governor of Pskov region Andrei Turchak, due to face the voters at the time, ordered that Shlosberg be protected and placed the investigation into the attack under personal control. Though kind-hearted and sincere, this gesture helped neither the investigation (the attackers were never found) nor the relationship between the two politicians, which, by this time, was completely ruined—and not only due to the Dima Yakovlev law.
The month before, Shlosberg was prevented from participating in gubernatorial elections (an obstacle that he believes was due to pressure put on deputies by the regional administration). In early 2014, Turchak called Shlosberg as a member of the ‘fifth column’ due to his position on Crimea. Describing Pskov’s Yabloko party, Turchak stated: ‘For them, only the interests of the US State Department exist, and they take these interests as instructions on concrete political steps. This is the so-called “fifth column”, which, unfortunately, has taken root and exists among us in our region.’
Shlosberg was the only Pskov politician to speak out openly against Russian actions in Crimea, and in a session of the regional assembly, and a column for Pskovskaya Guberniya, Shlosberg hit back at Turchak, calling Turchak and his administration ‘the real enemies of Pskov.’
Real existing opposition
A lone voice in the regional assembly can do little to interfere with the parliamentary majority, but Shlosberg uses his status as deputy to the full, sending hundreds of inquiries every year to the chief prosecutor's office and other federal agencies.
Shlosberg regularly describes himself as the ‘only real opponent of the governor’. (Leaders of other opposition groups, as it happens, co-ordinate with United Russia, but strongly dispute the accusation.) Understandably, Lev Markovich sees the motion against him, which was introduced by Sergey Belov, Pskov’s new regional prosecutor, as an instance of ‘targeted revenge’.
Pskov's Kremlin. CC Alexander Kozlov.What is the essence of the prosecutor's claims? In December 2014, the Ministry of Justice included Shlosberg’s Renaissance Center in the list of ‘foreign agents’, and the centre challenged the decision in court.
As founder and long-standing director of the centre, Shlosberg appeared in court to defend his organisation, considering himself its legal representative. In April 2015, he was recognised as such – but not for long. Examining an appeal on 16 July, the Judicial Board for Civil Cases of Pskov Region decided otherwise.
Shlosberg was reminded that, as a serving deputy working on a permanent basis, he had no right to represent the organisation in court, and was acting as an attorney for the centre rather than its legal representative. The regional prosecutor made sure to inform the regional assembly of this fact.
Shlosberg sees this case as yet another instance of political pressure. He’s sure that the move to deprive him of his mandate before his term runs out comes from the governor’s team, and has stated as much in open letters addressed to each of his colleagues from the regional assembly. ‘The initiator of this bill is located outside the Pskov regional assembly and will not carry legal responsibility for their actions.’
The regional administration denies this view of events. In a comment to me, deputy governor Maxim Zhavoronkov stated that ‘this is a question relating to the legislature’s competency, and they, in the legislature, will take their decision independently. No one has asked for our position on this matter, it isn’t required.’
Andrei Turchak as acting governor of Pskov region, 2009. (c) Sergei Vasiliev / VisualRIAN.The deputy chairman of the regional parliament Viktor Ostrenko confirms this statement: ‘This is a matter exclusively for the [regional] assembly itself.’ Ostrenko is head of the oversight commission on income and property that first saw the prosecutor’s motion. ‘Every deputy, by means of the secret ballot, has the opportunity to express their opinion. There’s no other way.’
Before taking deputy’s seat on behalf of United Russia, Ostrenko was vice-governor of the region. Prior to that, Ostrenko spent a decade working for Shlosberg at the Renaissance Center. He says that it is Lev Markovich’s actions that have turned an otherwise formal, internal problem of the regional assembly into a political one. Indeed, though Ostrenko states it is ‘very hard to judge’ hjust how serious the accusations are, he recommends that Shlosberg confess his guilt, whether it is was on purpose or not, in front of the other deputies. Shlosberg, it seems, should ‘demonstrate his open understanding of the problem, which he himself has made for the other deputies.’
While the legal side of this case will be examined separately, Shlosberg believes that the offence in question cannot entail a premature loss of mandate.
Best of times, worst of times
The journalist and politicians due to arrive on 24 September, however, will be concerned with something else. The Shlosberg case is another part of a wider political scandal involving governor Andrei Turchak, who, it was recently asserted, allegedly organised the horrendous attack on journalist Oleg Kashin in 2010. ‘They’re waiting to see what happens if you try and put a fire out with kerosene,’ says Shlosberg.
Indeed, it wasn’t the best moment to try and fire your political opponent. As if to spite the governor, business daily Kommersant published an interview with the wife of one of the men accused in the attack on Kashin the day after the regional assembly commission examined the prosecutor’s motion. This interview named the Pskov governor as the potential organiser of the attack.
‘Whether it was the right time or not,’ comments Ostrenko, ‘we received the motion on 15 September.’ According to the deputy, in launching the examination of the motion against Shlsoberg, the assembly acted strictly according to procedure. No politics whatsoever.
Meanwhile, at 23 Nekrasov street, the location of the regional administration and parliament, this story has taken on an increasingly political tone. On 19 September, the Yabloko party office wrote to Yury Chaika, Russia’s general prosecutor, concerning the ‘manipulation of the regional prosecutor to deprive regional assembly deputy Lev Shlosberg of his mandate.’ On the morning of 23 September, a Change.org petition in support of the politician has more than 3,000 signatures. Members of the St Petersburg city assembly have called on Pskov to abstain from ‘lawlessness’.
As Shlosberg put it in a recent column for Pskovskaya guberniya: ‘The political organiser of this move to take away my mandate is Andrei Turchak and his group. Those people are really fed up with me, my work in the [regional] assembly, my deputy’s requests, my fight against corruption, my control of budget expenditure, my interference in matters which they never wanted to make public.’
Item number five on tomorrow’s agenda will be subject to a secret ballot, and the voters won’t find out how their deputies will vote. The reputation of the Pskov’s parliament, however, will be plain to see.