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Russia’s last independent mayor is going down fighting

Galina_Shirshina_speech_stand СС Vladimir Larionov.jpg

In Petrozavodsk, Karelia, the conflict between Russia’s last independent mayor and the governor has turned nasty. The political fallout could reach the Kremlin.

Alexandra Garmazhapova
7 July 2015

In Russia's North West, the struggle between Aleksandr Khudilainen, governor of Karelia, and Galina Shirshina, mayor of Petrozavodsk – the capital of Karelia – and Russia's last independent mayor, is heating up. Ahead of the State Duma elections due to take place next year, Khudilainen is making serious efforts to sideline Shirshina. 

Moreover, with the region facing a poor economic situation following European Union sanctions, there is less money to throw at the population. And for governor Khudilainen that is a problem: after all, the Kremlin evaluates the work of regional chiefs not in terms of their corruption ratings nor infrastructure projects, but their election results.

Electoral manoeuvring

Though election results are, as a rule, falsified by public officials, the Petrozavodsk mayoral race of September 2013 may have provided grounds for resentment inside the Kremlin's walls. 

An independent who ran with support from the opposition Yabloko faction, Shirshina came from nowhere to win a convincing victory against her incumbent opponent. Previously an understudy to a popular Yabloko deputy in Karelia's legislative body, Emiliya Slabunova, Shirshina is now the centre of a political conflict attracting increasing local and national attention. 

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Galina Shirshina reporting on her administration's record, Petrozavodsk, May 2014. (c) Igor Podgornyi / VisualRIAN.

Ultimately, Shirshina won the September 2013 race due to two factors. First, Slabunova was removed from the race following a court decision (she failed to indicate her level of education accurately, writing 'higher' instead of PhD). Second, the local branch of United Russia was riven by internal conflict.

Indeed, following his arrival from neighbouring Leningrad region, Governor Khudilainen brought his own United Russia people with him, and difficulties arose when Khudilainen's people tried to dictate the rules of the game to their Karelian counterparts. Karelians, as a rule, don't like people from outside. 

Disregarding this (common) knowledge, Khudilainen's team openly came out against the acting mayor of Petrozavodsk, Nikolai Levin. Levin had taken the post in 2009 thanks to the support of Devletkhan Alikhanov, an influential businessman and former member of Russia's Federation Council. 

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Aleksandr Khudilainen and Vladimir Putin discuss the prospects for foreign investment in Karelia, March 2015. Via Kremlin.ru

Not one to sugar the pill, Khudilainen would refer to Levin as his 'clueless mayor' during meetings. Then, in August 2013, Levin was sent a broom by Oleg Gromov, Khudilainen's deputy. The message, it seemed, was clear: 'Come on, tidy up this town'. Residents of Petrozavodsk, however, interpreted this message in their own way: 'Get out of town'. Either way, Levin's team did not take this message well and it didn't have much of a positive impact on his campaign. In the space of two weeks, Shirshina managed not only to gain serious momentum, but also take the lead (41.9% against Levin's 28.9%).

At the time, observers were inclined to see Vasily Popov, businessman and local leader of Yabloko, as the man behind the Karelian capital's new mayor. But after Popov was placed under criminal investigation, and members of his circle were arrested, he now finds himself residing in nearby Finland. These same observers also believe that Popov is the man who really calls the shots: while Popov takes key decisions, Shirshina takes the flack.

Shirshina's victory in the 2013 elections has led to an increasingly fierce confrontation between the republic and city authorities. In summer of 2014, according to several Petrosovet (Petrozavodsk council) deputies, republican officials tried to force the council to give Shirshina an 'unsatisfactory' rating. Given that two unsatisfactory ratings in a row leads to automatic resignation, the intent behind this move was obvious. In the end, the deputies refused to comply. Now some of them are in prison.

Petrozavodsk is a small town. Everyone knows everything about everyone else.

'Release the hostages'

Shirshina went six months without interference, lowering the trolleybus fares, revoking the golden parachutes given to public officials. She even received flowers from Khudilainen on public holidays.

But in February last year, the animosity between governor Khudilainen and Vasily Popov turned into outright conflict after the local Yabloko party organised a press conference to announce that a criminal case was being prepared against them. In response, press outlets aligned with the republic authorities quipped: 'Your desire to be arrested does not always align with our intentions.' 

Two months later, though, and searches were carried out in the central office of Lentorg (a commercial enterprise which belongs to Popov), at the home of Popov and Anastasia Kravchuk (vice-speaker of Karelia's legislative body; married to Popov), as well as the home of Aleksandra Kornilova, director of Lentorg, and Olga Zaletskaya, a Petrosovet deputy. 

The poor quality of roads in Petrozavodsk has been a perennial issue in local politics.

The poor quality of roads in Petrozavodsk has been a perennial issue in local politics. CC http://varandej.livejournal.com/40596

Kravchuk and Kornilova are now under investigation for fraud. According to the investigation, between November 2011 and January 2014, Kravchuk and Kornilova managed to gain illegal ownership of a building by deceiving and abusing the trust of officials in the mayor's office. The city is alleged to have lost 16.5m roubles (£188,000) as a result. 

In spring of this year, Kornilova and Zaletskaya were sent to remand prison, but after a wave of public demonstrations, demanding that Khudilainen 'release the hostages', Kornilova and Zaletskaya have been placed under house arrest. What exactly Zaletskaya is charged with remains unclear: though Zaletskaya presented herself at court as a witness, the judge referred to her as the 'accused'. 

As to Kravchuk, initially she fled to Finland with her husband. Following the arrest of her friends, however, Kravchuk's position became untenable and she returned to Russia.

Kravchuk’s situation might have something to do with her having tried (and failed) to get a criminal case opened against Oleg Gromov, following Putin's visit to the region in April 2014. The republic's authorities had long delayed giving the mayor's office the money for road repairs, but suddenly demanded that the roads be fixed before Putin's arrival. Karelia's roads, it should be said, are terrible. 

Shirshina refused this request, stating that she wouldn't be able to put the job out to tender in time. In response, Gromov allegedly waved his hand and said that he'd do it himself. The republic's authorities, it seems, anxious that their leader not be discomfited in any way by his journey, shored up the highway with train rails. After the president left, they took them out at night. 

Tit-for-tat

But when Kravchuk contacted the prosecutor's office, demanding they investigate who repaired the road without an official contract, and with what money, it turned out that 'no one' was responsible.

In what might be seen as a tit-for-tat move, a criminal case was then opened against Yevgenia Sukhorukova, the deputy mayor, at the end of 2013. The investigators believe that Sukhorukova, as deputy head of the Prionezhsky district, illegally gave away valuable agricultural land, for the building of dachas.

The mayor's office refutes these accusations: in 2012, they say, Karelia's state land registry admitted that this land wasn't valuable. In November 2014, Shirshina openly accused Khudilainen of initiating the investigation into Sukhorukova, commenting that the governor 'cannot build a normal working relationship' with the mayor's office.

Then, on 3 April 2015, another Yabloko member, 69-year-old Galina Karasova, the chairman of Petrozavodsk Veterans' Council and deputy chairman of Karelia's Yabloko party, was accused of election tampering, and had her home searched. Allegedly, in autumn of last year, Karasova hindered the electoral process at a polling station during emergency elections to the Petrosovet.

The republic's government asserts that Karasova, on the orders of Popov, who wished to shoehorn his own people in to the Petrosovet, bussed in paid-for-voters  – a common practice in elections at all levels. According to Yabloko, however, Karasova blocked the voting line with the help of her fellow pensioners in order to prevent state employees (who were also bussed in) from casting their fraudulent votes. That is, she did not carry out falsification, but, rather, prevented it.

Today only deputies Emilia Slabunova and Aleksandra Spiridonova remain untouched by criminal investigations

Today, only deputies Emiliya Slabunova and Aleksandra Spiridonova remain untouched by criminal investigations in Karelia's Yabloko party. 'Party members even make jokes about whether everything's 'clean' at home, if we have our things ready by the door should they come for us in the night,' says a tired Emiliya Slabunova. 'You understand all too well how criminal cases are slapped together.' 

According to our source inside the republic's government, the cases against Kravchuk, Zaletskaya and others were supposed to have been opened several years ago. But they were 'in favour' back then, and so no one paid attention to their corruption.

Now, when the 'state's policy has changed', thieves must be punished. Our source, of course, could not explain exactly why the 'state's policy has changed' right at this moment, and particularly regarding people who criticise the region's governor.

Two sides of the barricade 

'Shirshina is a good mayor,' says Aleksei Vladimirov, a local journalist. 'I feel sorry for her; they're really giving her a hard time! But she's trying, see how clean the town is – that's her work.' 

People on the other side of the political barricade have rather a different view of the situation. 'There's nothing human in her. She was a psychological trainer before, and she's still one now,' rejoins one official from the republic's administration. 

Meanwhile, Valery Potashov, an economic journalist, speaks of the economic crisis facing the republic: the amount of foreign investment has fallen, and IKEA, the republic's largest investor, has now left. 'For the first two months of 2015,' says Potashov, 'Karelia's state budget income has fallen by 82%.' 

'For the first two months of 2015,' says Potashov, 'Karelia's state budget income has fallen by 82%.' 

Sources in the Karelian government continue to back Khudilainen. As far as they're concerned, Khudilainen deserves a statue. 'In 2012, when industry in the republic began to break down, he [Khudilainen] managed to save people's jobs and the monogoroda [single industry towns]. He brought in Medvedev, Putin, Naryshkin [speaker of the State Duma]. In 2014, we could breathe easy again, and returned to growth. In the second half of the year, we received another setback. But there's room for optimism. We should have a federal programme by May, and we'll pass through the worse crisis period more or less okay.' 

By contrast, the opposition believes that Khudilainen gets away with everything, and will continue to do so as long as he retains his protection from above. 'When we say Khudilainen, we mean [Sergei] Naryshkin.'

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The economy of Karelia, a republic between Finland and the White Sea, has badly suffered. Photo: CC Alexander Kaasik, 2012

Supporters of Khudilainen don't dispute the fact that the head of the republic and the head of the State Duma studied at the Baltic State Technical University together, and know one another well.

'Naryshkin is a wonderful person,' say officials in the republic administration, 'but you should know we make decisions here not on the basis of friendship, but the feasibility of carrying out tasks set by one man. And that person is Putin, not Naryshkin.'

Ratings

Having survived last year an attempt to rate her work as 'unsatisfactory', in early June this year, 24 out of 27 deputies performed a volte facevoting to give Shirshina an 'unsatisfactory' rating.

Shirshina was blamed for a poor record on waste collection, bad roads, political manoeuvring and so on. Aleksei Belyaninov, a member of United Russia, even said that '2014 was a muck-up [in terms of waste collection], to put it plainly'. One of Belyaninov's colleagues, Valery Matveyev, even said that improper city maintenance leads to the 'subversion of the foundations of our state and society.'

Shirshina was not to be cowed: she boldly declared that 'nothing terrible has happened', and that she and her supporters could carry on working as they had been because they were in fact working satisfactorily. The mayor herself contends that the deputies have nothing against her: they are merely frightened, seeing how so many of her supporters are under investigation.

This is Shirshina's first bad rating. If she receives another, automatic resignation awaits. Moreover, the Petrosovet deputies can fire the mayor by other means – for example, for not fulfilling her duties for three or more months. That is, they can, hypothetically, sack Shirshina just because they don't like her. 

It might seem strange that Shirshina should attract such a bad rating when she understands what the public wants its politicians to be doing. In remarks to journalists she stated that 51% of car-owners in Karelia are residents of Petrozavodsk, yet their transport taxes go to the republic's road fund. Petrozavodsk, however, didn't receive a penny from this fund in 2015. This is why there is no money for road repair. This has not stopped pro-republic media from alleging that the mayor does not want people in Petrozavodsk to drive on normal roads. Journalists at local papers with pro-republican leanings complain of censorship and writing articles to order – they are forced to write hit pieces about Shirshina under threat of losing their job. 

This is Shirshina's first bad rating. If she receives another, automatic resignation awaits

The local Yabloko cell says that Khudilainen is determined to hinder every move made by Shirshina. The republic's government denies these accusations. As they tell me in the governor's press office: 'The region's leadership has never had any personal or political complaints regarding the mayor of Petrozavodsk.' The press officers add that more than 1.2bn roubles (£13.5m) have been assigned to Petrozavodsk in the past four years for roads repair.

To which their opponents counter that yes, the money is coming in, but only at the last minute – when there is no time to organise a tender.

Endgame 

On 18 June, the Karelian deputies voted to cancel direct elections in the republic. The deputies explained their desire as follows: 'the conflict between republic and city authorities is placing the investment atmosphere in a dead end.' Igor Sharapov, deputy chairman of the Petrosovet, believes that Petrozavodsk needs to appoint a 'city manager' if it is going to get over this conflict. Direct elections can return when the situation stabilises.

Emilia Slabunova heard about the plans to revoke direct mayoral elections long ago. Apparently, it was originally the republic authorities that wished to introduce this change. Khudilainen decided to 'act smart', though, and 'make it seem as if the Petrosovet wanted this itself.' Slabunova insists that the Petrosovet has no independent decision-making ability itself. Instead, there is just the conflict between Shirshina and Khudilainen, who cannot tolerate independence. 

Residents of Petrozavodsk have already come out for a return of direct elections, having written to Vladimir Semyonov, speaker of the republic's parliament, calling the decision to cancel elections 'anti-democratic and against the interests of the 260,000 residents of Petrozavodsk.' 

According to rumours, the Karelian governor flies to Moscow every week for 'consultations', trying to secure any and all support possible. 

Khudilainen's opponents have gathered 10,000 signatures for a petition demanding both his resignation and a referendum; and affirming that the residents of Petrozavodsk should be able to decide themselves whether they want to elect the mayor or have the Petrosovet, the city council, appoint a 'city manager'. And the police have detained people collecting those signatures.

All this political manoeuvring has put Karelia in the media spotlight. Political pundits and the Kremlin are watching the region closely. It is not inconceivable that Khudilainen will succeed in getting rid of the independent mayor – only to gain a competitor at the gubernatorial elections. Despite the fact that Russian governors are currently choosing early elections en masse (before the economy gets too bad to explain away), the Kremlin has not given Khudilainen the green light.

This has put Khudilainen in a very difficult position. According to rumours, the Karelian governor flies to Moscow every week for 'consultations', trying to secure any and all support possible. 

Meanwhile, Shirshina is not giving up without a fight. She recently gave an interview to Kommersant newspaper, in which she responded to the question of whether she wants to run for governor by saying: 'Not yet. The key word is “yet”.'

Standfirst image: Galina Shirshina, mayor of Petrozavodsk. CC Vladimir Larionov.

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