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Russian regional elections: Oryol's two-horse race

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In Western Russia's Red Belt effectively only the Communist Party and 'United Russia' are fielding candidates, often carpetbaggers parachuted in from elsewhere. This enrages local voters who feel themselves disenfranchised, says Elena Godlevskaya

Elena Godlevskaya
5 October 2011

Communists vs 'United Russia'

The Oryol Region has always been regarded as part of Russia's so-called Red Belt. Initially this was due to the local population's vocal nostalgia for the Soviet regime and the guarantees it had provided to everyone regardless of income. However, electoral support in the region for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) has gradually turned from a mere demonstration of loyalty to the idea of socialism into a protest against the ruling party and the candidates it promotes.

Strictly speaking, this has been the only form of protest available to the citizens of Oryol, broken and impoverished by years of reforms: the ballot papers no longer include the box 'none of the above' and the local branches of every party other than CPRF are invisible and inaudible. Local party leaders, who are as a rule appointed by the national party executive, seem to be intent on doing everything to prevent their party from gaining any weight or influence, that is to say, they do nothing at all. One can therefore say that a high proportion of those voting for the CPRF – in the latest municipal elections in March this year, 37% of those who turned out to vote in the region's largest population centres, Oryol and Livny, cast their vote for the Communists – represent a protest vote, suggesting that society in Oryol Region is basically split down the middle. This is what has been the greatest surprise of the spring elections. 

"Against the background of serious economic and social problems plaguing the region – which include the breakdown of industrial production, dysfunctional agriculture and the mass defections of young people to neighbouring regions because of the lack of jobs and low wages – United Russia has been losing influence."

In two months' time the voters in Oryol Region will be electing not just deputies for the Russian Federation State Duma but a new regional legislative assembly, the Oryol Regional Council of People's Deputies. Against the background of serious economic and social problems plaguing the region – which include the breakdown of industrial production, dysfunctional agriculture and the mass defections of young people to neighbouring regions because of the lack of jobs and low wages – United Russia has been losing influence.

According to unofficial information, the latest polls suggest that no more than 18% of the Oryol Region inhabitants are prepared to cast their vote for 'United Russia' (UR), while the Communists enjoy ratings twice as high; the ruling party has a higher level of support in the region's districts, although even here the voting preferences are rather worrying for 'United Russia'. The ratings of the party in general, and Governor Aleksandr Kozlov in particular, are also very low. It is no coincidence that, as opposed to 30 other governors representing 'United Russia', the party leadership did not recommend that Kozlov be featured at the top of the party ballot in Oryol, as announced in early August by Sergei Neverov, the acting secretary of the UR general council's presidium. 

Oryo_communist_demo

Communist party supporters are mostly elderly. The party's anti-Putin rhetoric belies the fact that in reality it plays by Kremlin rules.

Nor is it a coincidence that there has been talk among Oryol Communists of aiming to gain half the seats on the Regional Council and to send at least one deputy to the State Duma. 

In light of the slipping trust on the part of local the population the struggle for the top three candidate places for the Duma has also intensified within 'United Russia' itself. 

Candidates and voting procedures

The conduct of the primaries organized by the local 'United Russia' branch under the banner of the United National Front has puzzled outside observers as well as voters. The ballot papers and the vote count were virtually unchecked, and for some reason the name of UR member Viktor Safyanov – who was registered as candidate for the office of Oryol Mayor and who had long irked the regional authorities with his rather tough stand on safeguarding municipal property – was missing from the electoral roll. On the other hand, the list included State Duma Deputy for Nizhny Novgorod Roman Antonov, who has no links with the region whatsoever.

"It should be noted that Oryol Region, being one of the smallest in the Russian Federation, has only a little over 700,000 inhabitants. In order to elect a single State Duma deputy the party needs to collect around 140,000 votes in the region. To gain two seats it would thus require some 300,000 votes, i.e. nearly half of the region's qualified voters would have to vote for 'United Russia'. This result is difficult to achieve, not just because of the ruling party's low ratings but also because of the population's reluctance to participate in an election whose outcome it doesn't trust."

The voting procedure itself was also strange. On the first day of the Oryol primaries only three candidates were given the opportunity to address voters: they included Governor Aleksandr Kozlov, Roman Antonov and State Duma Deputy for Oryol Region, Nikolai Kovalyov. The governor talked about the dire prospects for the grain harvest, Kovalyov about his plans for new legislative bills, while Antonov launched into a diatribe against local authorities, accusing them of 'bronzing up' (i. e. raising statues to themselves) and of having lost touch with the people.

Following their speeches the participants were invited to vote. Nobody seemed to mind that the remaining two dozen candidates were left to address an almost empty hall. The 'winners' included the Governor and the visiting 'Vodka King', as Roman Antonov is called, since he used to be general director of ROOM, the largest alcohol producing company in the Nizhny Novgorod region. Several days later the Acting Secretary of 'United Russia's' general council Sergei Neverov received 30 complaints from Oryol voters, claiming the results of the ballot had been rigged. There was an uproar but after some of the voters 'repented' and withdrew their complaints the results remained in force. 

The final result of the primaries is unlikely to inspire much confidence either, given that the unpopular Governor has somehow managed to garner 88% of the vote; the Nizhny Novgorod State Duma deputy, who is unknown in the Oryol Region, received 75%; and the former head of Russia's FSB Nikolai Kovalyov, who hails from Moscow and is also largely unknown in Oryol, gained around 40%. Local candidates from Oryol have ended up at most in the middle or at the end of the list.

However, according to a source that wishes to remain anonymous, Moscow envisages a different list, headed by Nikolai Kovalyov, followed by the farmer Tatyana Yerokhina who represents the National Front and received some 35% of the primary vote, with Roman Antonov trailing in third place. This suggests that the regime's effort to push the 'Vodka King' has failed miserably, since even in 2007, a successful year for 'United Russia', the ruling party managed to get only two of its candidates from Oryol Region into the highest legislative body.

Oryol_map

Oryol Region is one of Russia's smallest. Traditionally it is agricultural, but many of the jobs today are in the food industry. 

It should be noted that Oryol Region, being one of the smallest in the Russian Federation, has only a little over 700,000 inhabitants. In order to elect a single State Duma deputy the party needs to collect around 140,000 votes in the region. To gain two seats it would thus require some 300,000 votes, i.e. nearly half of the region's qualified voters would have to vote for 'United Russia'. This result is difficult to achieve, not just because of the ruling party's low ratings but also because of the population's reluctance to participate in an election whose outcome it doesn't trust. For instance, in March this year voter turnout in Oryol was a mere 36%, while in the region as a whole it was around 70%.

Carpetbaggers

In general, the people of Oryol seem to be unlucky with their State Duma representatives. The local CPRF is the only party that believes it is worth sending local leaders to the country's highest legislative assembly. Oryol Region is currently represented in the State Duma by one deputy who hails from Moscow and another from Rostov, while the representative of 'Just Russia' comes from Kursk. The deputies are few and far between and they are rarely seen in the region. Nevertheless, the local authorities and the leadership of most of the political parties, rather than supporting local representatives, have again thrown their weight behind Varyags [a disparaging term for outsiders parachuted in], and wealthy Varyags at that. This is presumably because of the pressure exerted on the local authorities by the business community, and this community's desire to be granted parliamentary immunity. There was quite a scandal in the Oryol branch of the 'Just Russia' party when its leader, Nikolai Varlamov, who had opposed this practice, was temporarily relieved of his duties as chairman of the Regional Council by his own party, and a completely new Council was elected.

Resistance to outsiders

When it emerged that the party leadership was again considering placing Kursk businessman Aleksandr Chetverikov – a major chicken meat producer – at the top of its regional list of candidates for the State Duma rather than a local candidate, Nikolai Varlamov and several district leaders wrote a letter to 'Just Russia' chairman Nikolai Levichev, criticizing this practice. “We do not wish to be deceived again, or to deceive the hopes of our voters. The election might end in failure if, instead of a local candidate for the State Duma, Oryol Region is represented by a Varyag from another region, someone removed from our problems and from the aspirations of the Oryol population... We've been told: you will work for A.V. Chetverikov ... from Kursk. The very same Chetverikov who has never attended any of our events and has never stood up for the rights of a single Oryol inhabitant! This kind of  'leader' will not only fail but will also undermine all our efforts to strengthen the party's image...

Oryol_cityview

The 400-year old city of Oryol, founded by Ivan the Terrible as a fortress on the banks of the river Oka, suffered terrible damage during WWII.

“Everyone is aware of the extremely low ratings enjoyed by Mr. Chetverikov, who hasn't even dared to join the 'troika' of the party list in our region and has lost elections in a single mandate district... Admittedly, our own candidates are poorer than A.V. Chetverikov, but they are honest people for whom JUSTICE is not a slogan but a way of life. We believe that their work has earned them the right to represent the interests of our voters and to represent our party in all state bodies. We know how our people live and what they live by and we are ready to defend their interests by spreading the ideas of socialism and justice to the masses.”

“We hope that the regional branch's views will be heard and taken taken into account when the list of candidates for the State Duma and for the Orlov Regional Council of people's deputies is drawn up.”

No alternative

However, the hopes of the Oryol members of  'Just Russia' have been dashed. As Nikolai Varlamov pointed out, “justice has clashed with money and lost; the party has lost face”. Incidentally, to hand the businessman an easy victory, A. Chetverikov has been 'nominated' in as many as three regions: Kursk, Oryol and Kaluga. In spite of this, 'Just Russia' members from Oryol are not confident the party will succeed.

"In this situation, the voters of Oryol are again facing a choice between CPRF and 'United Russia'.  Unfortunately, there is no alternative."

As for the local branch of 'Right Cause' with its 212 members, nobody really believes they stand a chance. The ratings of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) are also very low – it is no coincidence that local journalists and experts would be hard pressed to even recall the name of the local LDPR branch leader. It would take the boisterous Vladimir Zhirinovsky to visit the region and promise them something.

In this situation, the voters of Oryol are again facing a choice between CPRF and 'United Russia'.  Unfortunately, there is no alternative.

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