In 2004, Vladimir Putin abolished the direct election of regional governors in Russia, and they were instead appointed by regional legislatures on the recommendation of the president. However, after the 2011-2012 mass protests, elections were reinstated; and many appointed incumbents have taken the opportunity to resign early, spend a few months as ‘acting’ governors; and set an early date for elections.
One such was the Samara Region’s governor, Nikolai Merkushkin, whose early resignation was accepted by President Putin on 3 June, allowing him to stand in early elections.
On 10 June, an extraordinary session of the regional legislative assembly set the election date as 14 September, and allocated 198m roubles (£3.2m) for its organisation.
The regional legislative assembly set the election date as 14 September, and allocated 198m roubles.
30 June was the final date for candidates to register with the electoral commission. Seven candidates put themselves forward, but two stood down before the election. Svetlana Peunova, head of Russia’s opposition ‘Volya’ (‘The Will’) Party, collected only 250 signatures of assembly members and local mayors in support of her candidature, rather than the necessary 266; and her team complained that city councillors had been under pressure from regional officials not to support her. Sergei Tsyupko of the ‘Peace and Unity Party’ withdrew his candidature in favour of Nikolai Merkushkin, whose nomination was supported by Vladimir Putin himself.
So, on 30 July the electoral commission registered five candidates from different parties: regional assembly members Mikhail Matveyev (independent candidate of the Russian Federation Communist Party); Mikhail Belusov (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia); Mikhail Maryakhin (A Just Russia); Valery Sintsov, CEO of Samara’s Palace of Weddings (Patriots of Russia Party); and Nikolai Merkushkin of United Russia.
Pressure on candidates
There followed various attempts to discredit some of the candidates, in particular Mikhail Matveyev. On 11 August, the police arrested his brother Vladimir, on a charge of crossing the street at an unauthorised point. He was then taken to a police station, where officers claimed he was on a national wanted list for a crime committed in North Ossetia in 2013. He was held at the station for three hours and then released after having his fingerprints taken; and then it emerged that he was not a wanted man after all. On the same day, police also decided to conduct a search at the collection point for donations of food and clothing etc. for refugees from Donetsk and Lugansk, that had been set up by Mikhail Matveyev himself. The search had been ordered by two members of the Regional Interior Ministry’s Public Council; they claimed that the collection point had not been authorised by the regional authorities.
Casting their votes in Samara.
From 19 August, candidates were allowed to publicise their campaigns in the media, but the electoral commission and the editors at Samara’s state TV channel refused to show Matveyev’s campaign video. The officials objected to his statement: ‘with all due respect to Nikolai Merkushkin, I disagree with his proposal to abandon direct public elections for mayors, district council heads and members of district and municipal councils, and their replacement by ‘city managers’ appointed by the governor, and effectively by United Russia.’
Editors at Samara’s state TV channel refused to show Matveyev’s campaign video.
On the night of 7 September, unknown criminals stole banners bearing Matveyev’s photo, from the streets of Samara; and the next day, four members of his team out campaigning for him were attacked by young men who grabbed and tore up his election placards. They also warned their victims, ‘not to bother campaigning for Matveyev, because Merkushkin’s going to win.’
A benefit performance
In effect, the whole election campaign turned into a benefit performance for United Russia candidate Nikolai Merkushkin. This was particularly blatant in local media coverage, which sang the praises of this ‘great leader’ from morning to night, to the tune tacitly dictated by the regional government’s press and information office, whose officials were constantly on the phone to editors.
The free Volzhkaya Kommuna (‘Volga Community’) newspaper, financed by the regional government, had been promoting Merkushkin’s candidature since August. The 1.5m copies of each issue, dropped through letterboxes across the region, carried between eight and seventeen photos of the great man.
Independent journalists and media outlets were also subjected to harassment.
Independent journalists and media outlets were also subjected to harassment. Sergei Melnik, a journalist at the Tolyatti radio station Lada FM (Tolyatti, the region’s second city, is the home of the motor plant where the popular car is manufactured) was banned from going live on air after criticising the election. On 10 September, the station broadcast a live statement by Arkady Estrin, Tolyatti’s former deputy mayor, who called the election a farce, and, when asked by Melnik whether he would be taking part in this farce, answered ‘no’. The presenter added that he too had decided not to vote, and then addressed his radio audience directly: ‘and you too, my friends, have to decide for yourselves – we’re not asking anyone to do anything.’ He was taken off the air by the station bosses; and the regional Journalists’ Union refused to support him, saying that Lada FM was a private station.
The regional government’s press office also refused entry to its building to Anton Feinberg, a journalist with the ‘Moscow Echo in Samara’ radio station, when he turned up for the ceremony where Merkushkin would receive his candidate’s papers. ‘They told me there was no room in the office’, says Feinberg. ‘And when advance voting was taking place in the Sovietsky District, an official threatened to throw me out of a local electoral commission building because I was talking to voters.’
Nor did the Merkushkin campaign confine itself to influencing the local media: it also appealed directly to the 2.5m voters in the region. At the end of August, many households had a letter in the post from the United Russia candidate, asking for their vote. The ‘letter’ carried a statement to the effect that it was paid for by Merkushkin’s election fund. Many people were horrified that the Merkushkin campaign had their home addresses, and some made official complaints to the Public Prosecutor’s Office about violation of privacy.
On 1 September, the first day of the academic year, every school child in Samara received as a gift ‘The Samara Student’s Diary 2014-2015,’ published in an edition of 257,000 and with a double-page portrait of Merkushkin. It also contained a short biography of the politician, but failed to mention that it too was paid for out of Merkushkin’s election fund. Teachers handing out the diaries to their pupils reminded them to tell their parents to vote for him.
A lone voice
Golos-Povolzhe, an organisation dedicated to defending voters’ rights, was the only NGO to record legal infringements taking place during the election campaign. ‘Merkushkin made active use of his administrative staff and resources for his campaign’, Golos-Povolzhe’s director Lyudmila Kuzmina told me. ‘TVs in the entrance halls and lobbies of schools, health centres, and other public buildings, as well as metro and railway stations, showed Merkushkin’s campaign videos. The children’s department of Hospital No. 1 had his posters on the walls, although the hospital was not one of the areas authorised by the electoral commission for promotional campaign materials. Groups of 20 or more people were bussed to polling stations to cast their votes early; and in defiance of the law, had to vote openly, not in secret, and in the presence of commission members.
TVs in the entrance halls and lobbies of schools, health centres, and other public buildings, showed Merkushkin’s campaign videos.
‘On 5 September, for example, groups of public sector workers were brought to vote in the Zheleznodorozhny district of the city of Samara. In their hands they carried completed advance voting application forms and voting papers; and each group of 20 had its own ‘sheepdog,’ whose job was to make sure they ‘voted correctly,’ – that is, for the United Russia candidate Nikolai Merkushkin.’
Kuzmina had more to say about the dubious electoral process: ‘the Samaran regional government also sent official letters to its various ministries, informing them that heads of public sector bodies would be held personally responsible for seeing that their staff received advance voting application forms. Golos has become the voice of truth in Samara’s sea of lies. We have also discovered that the regional electoral commission was allocated funds from Moscow to pay constituency commission members for running two rounds of elections! The money has already been divided among the commissions, with each one getting 40-50,000 roubles (£645-805). Ordinary commission members are paid 26 roubles an hour (£0.40) for their work; deputy chairs 36 roubles (£0.60); and the chair and secretary are paid the equivalent of their day job earnings for election day, with the chair also receiving a bonus of 5000 roubles (£80). The money for the second round of elections, which will not take place, has also already been paid to the commissions, and will be doled out in bonuses to chairs, deputy chairs and secretaries only.’
Sweetening the voters
The public sector heads being leaned on by the regional government passed the message down to staff – doctors, teachers, factory workers – to campaign for Merkushkin on their VKontakte and Facebook pages, with the most active being promised bonuses for their efforts.
A goody bag filled with groceries to sweeten the voters.
Everyone who did get in was given a goody bag with groceries, which went down well with the pensioners.
On 12 June, people living in Tolyatti found flyers about a meeting with Merkushkin hanging in the entrance halls of their buildings; and pensioners were sent invitations in the post. As a result, there was a crowd of 1000 in the car plant’s Palace of Culture on the day. Not everyone was admitted – a team of ushers stopped anyone who was badly dressed or drunk. Everyone who did get in was given a goody bag with groceries, which went down well with the pensioners – for sausage they would be happy to vote for Merkushkin. His team, however, declined to reveal who had paid for this largesse.
At the end of August, civil rights workers in the town of Oktyabrsk noticed that posters demanding a 90% turnout at the 14 September election had appeared on all information boards outside residential buildings. Their text included the following statement: ‘if your block of flats produces a 90% turnout, we guarantee the building will be given a complete upgrade. Anyone who cannot vote on 14 September should do so in advance.’ Similar posters were to be found on buildings in Samara and all the small towns in the region.
Billboards throughout the region also carried posters urging voters to support Merkushkin, although Andrei Sokolov, head of the Samara Voters’ Union, believes they infringed several points of electoral law. ‘The billboards didn’t include the information that they were financed out of the candidate’s election fund’, he told me. ‘Voters were also not told that Merkushkin was nominated as a candidate by the regional branch of United Russia. And the people portrayed on the billboards had not given written permission for their photos to be used for Merkushkin’s campaign purposes.’
On 9 September, the Lada-Arena sports complex in Tolyatti was the venue for a forum entitled ‘Agreement. Order. Creation,’ attended by employees of local public sector companies and organisations. Tickets for the event were handed out at their workplaces, and management assured staff that they could exchange them on the day for goody bags containing smoked sausage, vodka and chocolates. However, it was only management that were given the goodies, to the fury of the people who had been cheated.
On 14 September, 1760 polling stations were open across the region from 8am to 10pm, and many legal infractions have been reported. According to Lyudmila Kuzmina of Golos-Povolzhe, observers accredited by the ‘Grazhdansky Golos (Civil Voice) newspaper were refused entry to polling stations: ‘at polling station No 2901, the Grazhdansky Golos observer was ejected from the building by force,’ she told me. ‘The chair of the electoral commission explained that she would neither allow him to enter the polling station or give him a document confirming that he had been refused entry, because “the regional electoral commission has handed down a spoken direction, that Golos observers are ‘foreign agents.’” At polling station No 2904, the observer was refused entry after a text message was received from the regional electoral commission. And the same thing happened at many polling stations.’
At polling station No 2904, the observer was refused entry after a text message was received from the regional electoral commission.
Andrei Sokolov, head of the Samara Voters’ Union, had other stories to tell: ‘at Polling Station No 3310, in the city of Samara, several people noticed that someone else had already voted in their names,’ he said. ‘The chair of the local electoral commission showed the observers, records of advance voting that contained incorrect voters’ addresses and ID details.’ Sokolov had also had complaints from voters in several other districts of Samara: ‘They said they had been repeatedly harassed by election officials ringing their doorbells and telling them to go and vote. At 1.30pm on Sunday we sent an official complaint about this to the regional electoral commission, but its chair Vadim Mikheyev told a press conference at 4pm that they had had no complaints.’
Residents of this flat were promised renovations to their building if 80% turned out on election day.
At 7pm, the head of the electoral commission at Polling Station No 3318 prematurely collected election officials’ signatures on blank copies of the final election report, which by law may only be produced after voting has finished. The idea was to falsify the results by stuffing the ballot boxes with fake votes for Merkushkin.
Other reported infringements included giving a ballot paper to someone who had already voted in advance (in this case the commission member in question was relieved of his duties), while in two polling stations in Samara, observers from the Liberal Democratic Party uncovered a ‘merry-go-round,’ where voters were voting twice, being given a second blank ballot paper by the officials.
Meanwhile, in the village of Krasny Yar, men clearly the worse for wear were being ferried to polling stations by car; and one of them told independent observers that he had agreed to vote for Merkushkin in return for a glass of vodka. About 50 others also cast their votes this way.
One man told independent observers that he had agreed to vote for Merkushkin in return for a glass of vodka.
Complaints of all legal infringements recorded by observers have been forwarded to the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Not everyone, however, could be persuaded to vote for Merkushkin. The residents of Obsharovka (population 5000) certainly would not. In January this year, their poultry factory went bankrupt, and 1000 people lost their jobs; and on top of that they were already owed six months’ back pay. Governor Nikolai Merkushkin visited Obsharovka in December 2013, and promised to look after its residents: they would have work by the summer of 2014, he promised, as well as a new village hall and school. The promises went unfulfilled, and in response Obsharovka staged a concerted boycott of the election.
Of course, there are Samara region residents unhappy about the massive falsifications that went on during the election. Many public sector employees have admitted that they feel sheepish about voting for Merkushkin in advance, but they were threatened with the sack if they did not.
According to the official figures released on Monday 15 September, 1.5m people (61.5% of those eligible) voted in the Samara Region gubernatorial election (compared to 45.43% in 2000, the last time an election was held). 19,736 spoiled ballot papers were registered. The highest turnouts were in the predominantly rural districts of Khvorostyansky 96.65%, Klyavlinsky (95.52%), and Pestravsky (94.55%). Turnout in the city of Samara was 50.7%; and in Tolyatti, 46%.
United Russia’s Nikolai Merkushkin received 91% of the vote.
United Russia’s Nikolai Merkushkin received 91% of the vote. The other candidates in the election received a pitiful share of the vote: 3.9% of voters backed Mikhail Matveyev; 1.6% Mikhail Bekousov; 1.1% Mikhail Maryakhin, and only 0.5% Oleg Sintsov.
On Monday morning, commuters were joking on their way to work that ‘Samara has turned into the “Merkushkin United Russia Conservation Area.”’ Indeed, it is a long time since the public’s votes meant anything in today’s Russia.
All images: (c) Valery Pavlukevich.