oDR

Russia’s Regional Spring

Stepanov_reduced_0.jpg

Russia’s regions went to the polls on 4th March not only to elect a new president, but to decide who ruled in their own back yards. Here, results were less predictable: United Russia's support for any candidate was a liability, the local opposition had woken up and support from the authorities was no longer a guarantee of electoral victory. Mikhail Loginov followed the local elections in the Vologda and Pskov regions.

Mikhail Loginov
20 March 2012

Even opposition veterans were in no doubt that Putin would win on 4th March. In many Russian regions, however, this was also the date of local elections, and here both the campaigns and the results turned out less predictable. United Russia’s low poll in December and the Moscow protest rallies were a wake up call to the Russian regions, and the regional elections revived the long forgotten concept of competitive politics.

Aleksey’s problems

Aleksey has to cover about 500 kilometres a day. He works for a Moscow firm of consultants specialising in regional elections. At present the company is working in the Vologda region. Aleksey is in charge of the eastern part of the region, an area three times the size of Belgium. His mission is twofold: to ensure that Putin gets more votes on 4th March than United Russia did on 4th December, and to ensure that district council leader elections are won by the candidates agreed with regional governors. 

'United Russia’s poor showing in December was a stimulus to opposition in the regions. This opposition is not usually linked to parliamentary parties such as the Communists or ‘Just Russia’, let alone the ‘unofficial’ opposition. But each region has its own opposition – a local elite removed from power. Now it has recognised an opportunity.'  

The first part is relatively easy to organise. In Vologda’s north-eastern districts, in Totma, Nyuksenitsa and Nikolsk, as everywhere else in provincial Russia, Putin’s main campaign tool is television. Aleksey’s only task is to make sure that United Russia candidates don’t blame the federal authorities for local problems. The Putin election machine has issued strict instructions: anything negative is exclusively down to failure on the part of local government. It doesn’t matter if the local candidate’s vote is down from four years ago, so long as Putin gets the maximum number of votes. 

But it’s not quite so simple. At the parliamentary elections on 4th December the Vologda region returned a low vote for United Russia and its governor Vyacheslav Pozgalev had to resign. His successor, the former mayor of Cherepovets Oleg Kuvshinnikov, must not slip up this time.

Aleksey’s second goal, to ensure the victory of candidates on the ‘governor’s list’, is rather more tricky. United Russia’s poor showing in December was a stimulus to opposition in the regions. This opposition is not usually linked to parliamentary parties such as the Communists or ‘Just Russia’, let alone the ‘unofficial’ opposition. But each region has its own opposition – a local elite removed from power. Now it has recognised an opportunity. 

 It used to be that Aleksey could work from his office in Volodga, keeping in contact with his local staff by phone and only occasionally having to deal with problems in person. But now he daily covers a distance longer than that between Paris and Berlin, along potholed and slippery roads, monitoring his field workers’ progress and advising regional party bosses.

Revolt in Porkhov

Porkhov is a small district in the Pskov region, with a population of about 20,000. Its medieval fort is a reminder of sieges during feudal wars. Until the beginning of 2012, neither the regional nor district administrations could have imagined that the election of the leader of a district council could turn into a nasty battle. If the Vologda region was always prone to obscure political infighting, involving business owners from neighbouring areas, the Pskov region has always been a classic Putin power vertical. Its young governor Andrey Turchak is a Moscow appointee, totally loyal to the Kremlin, who demands the same level of loyalty from district council leaders and turns a blind eye to any abuses of power.

Stepanov

Viktor Stepanov, the winner of the Porkhov municipal election. Pskov governor Andrey Turchak endorsed him as a candidate, but Stepanov’s final victory was not easy (photo: informpskov.ru). 

Viktor Stepanov, the leader of Porkhov district council, fits the bill perfectly: he follows instructions from Pskov to the letter and at the same time does what he likes in his district. The locals will tell you that there is there is not a shop in the area that is not owned by a one of Stepanov’s relatives. The few businesses in the district are also either owned by members of Stepanov’s family or pay him protection money. The local standard of living is low, but Stepanov has built himself a luxury villa on the Shelon river. He also drives an expensive car, and the local governor has been known to advise him to ‘tone it down’. Stepanov still has the car.

Before December 2011 it was assumed that the spring district council election would automatically confirm him as leader. But it has suddenly emerged that Stepanov has a quite a few rivals who feel that he should be removed from power.

United Russia’ doesn’t exist   

Aleksey arrives in the small town of Nyuksenitsa and immediately heads for the district council leader’s office, to discuss the election campaign. The council leader is not expected to take initiatives. His function is to run the campaign to a timetable set by Aleksey, and also flag up local problems.

Some parts of the Vologda region suffer from rivalry between local forestry companies and their rivals in the neighbouring Archangelsk region. In the run up to local elections Archangelsk often puts up its own candidate and covers his or her campaign expenses. This is common practice in districts on the borders of two regions.

Nyuksenitsa has a different problem. The local council leader, who has been in post since the early 90s, is finally standing down. He has chosen his own successor, his deputy, a businesslike but somewhat shy man with no experience of public affairs. This successor has been approved by the regional governor, and all that remains is for the voters to ratify his succession at the polls.

‘A confidential survey carried out in the Vologda region in early January revealed that membership of ’the party of swindlers and thieves’ is a liability for any candidate.’

But here a problem arises. The official candidate is so weak that little Nyuksenitsa has produced a rival contender for the job. This local communist candidate is young, gets on well with the locals and is not afraid to criticise the council leader. There is an unspoken agreement that he does not slate Putin.  

Until the December national Parliamentary Elections, any official candidate’s election campaign presupposed his or her membership of United Russia, and United Russia was ‘Putin’s party’. Although on 4th December United Russia had the largest number of votes, you won’t find it talked about any more in the media.

Loktev_head_Nyuksenitsa

Viktor Loktev, the winner of the Nyuksenitsa election. Moscow election consultants were afraid that their shy and low profile candidate could lose to outspoken rivals. 

A candidate on the approved ‘governor’s list’ may mention in his biography that he was a Pioneer and a Komsomol member, but he won’t say that he is now a member of United Russia. A confidential survey carried out in the Vologda region in early January revealed that membership of ’the party of swindlers and thieves’ is a liability for any candidate.

In the run up to an election the political parties in most districts sign a joint statement, asking voters to ‘vote for stability’, i.e. for a candidate from the governor’s list. United Russia is listed here as just one party of many. It is true that it is in top place, but only because in Russian its name is highest up the alphabet.

Dolphins in the river Shelon 

‘I promised the town of Porkhov a swimming pool, but my fellow townsfolk deserve better. Instead of a pool the town will have a dolphinarium.’

A brightly coloured poster is stuck on the peeling paintwork of the local bus shelter in the village of Pava. On it, district council leader Stepanov describes his plans for a twelve-storey hotel, dolphinarium and heliport for tourists, to be built in the centre of Porkhov. An artist’s impression shows pale blue dolphins leaping higher than the tower of the ancient fortress. He also promises to move the inhabitants of the surrounding houses to other, unspecified, locations, and to introduce a charge for access to the forest.

‘The Putin election machine has issued strict instructions: anything negative is exclusively down to failure on the part of local government.’

It is not clear which of Stepanov’s opponents was offering to buy dolphins out of public funds in his name.  The council leader has three serious rivals: a communist, his former deputy and the leader of a village council. All three enjoy financial clout and some popularity among the public. The communist has emphasised his willingness to meet the voters – he is happy to talk to every single local inhabitant. The village head and the former deputy have created a full scale campaign network. Every week a member of their campaign team meets voters and hands out newsletters, leaflets and calendars showing the dates of Church feast days. At night posters of dolphins and photos of the council leader’s villa appear on walls.

‘A confidential survey carried out in the Vologda region in early January revealed that membership of ’the party of swindlers and thieves’ is a liability for any candidate.’ 

A year ago the registration of any opposition candidates by the local election committee would have been blocked by Stepanov, either directly or through the provincial authorities. Now this option is unavailable. The governor has given him his verbal support but refused to ban his rival candidates.

The last exclusive resort left to Stepanov is to buy off the voters. He began long before the official election campaign. In the course of three months he had meetings with most of the electorate, where he handed out gifts and promises. This was not an option open to his opponents.

Travellers are gathering at the bus shelter. Elderly women discuss the poster. One of them says, ‘Not more advertising!’ Two middle aged men show a better grasp of its meaning. ‘What’s this rubbish for?’ says one, ‘they’d be better writing about how Stepanov has fleeced the whole district’. ‘Everybody knows that already’, replies the other.  

Everyone knows, but no one is in any doubt that Stepanov will remain council leader.

I will not break the law

No one conducts opinion polls in Nyuksenitsa, but a week before the election Aleksey’s experience tells him that the candidate endorsed by the current council leader cannot win. And indeed on the evening of the election he is 300 votes short of victory. The chair of the local election committee refuses to stuff the boxes to make up the difference. She doesn’t want to break the law, although in the presidential election the vote for Putin has undergone a slight adjustment.

Stepanov_inauguration

 Andrei Turchak (left), governor of Pskov oblast, was the main guest at the inauguration of Viktor Stepanov for another term as leader of the council  (photo: www.pskov.ru)

In other districts officially endorsed candidates have been victorious. In most cases the gap between the winning candidate and his or her nearest rival was a mere 500 to1000 votes. Voting is not longer a formality; the winners faced a hard contest. In the next elections, Aleksey will need to work very hard to get the result he needs.

In Porkhov, Viktor Stepanov has won the election with a rather more convincing majority. But his opponents have formed a coalition against him and are determined to get him out. ‘No more jokes about dolphins’, they tell me, ‘it’s time for serious politics’.  

After Minneapolis, is the US ‘a failed social experiment’?

The horrific killing of George Floyd has shocked the world and sparked uprising across the US. Join openDemocracy to discuss what this means for the world’s superpower.

Panellists will be announced soon.

This is a change from the previously announced topic. Our discussion on how we will work after coronavirus will be rescheduled.

Get oDR emails A weekly roundup of political and social developments in the post-Soviet space. Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData