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Scenes from an election campaign

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The upcoming Moscow mayoral election is much in the news because one of the candidates, Alexei Navalny, is appealing against a prison sentence. Anastasia Valeeva gives a snapshot of some of the campaign days thus far...

Anastasia Valeeva
16 August 2013

On 8 September Moscow goes to the polls to elect a new mayor.  There are six candidates: 

- Acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, standing as an independent candidate; 
- Ivan Melnikov, first deputy head of the Russian Communist Party; 
- 'A Just Russia' chairman Nikolai Levichev; 
- LDPR [Liberal Democratic Party of Russia] Duma deputy Mikhail Degtyaryov;
- Yabloko party chairman Sergei Mitrokhin; 
- Alexei Navalny, representing RPR-PARNAS [Russian Republican Party – Russian Freedom Party].  

The two centres of gravity in this group are Sobyanin and Navalny. Sobyanin (and, naturally, the current state of affairs in Moscow) is opposed more or less unanimously by all the other five candidates, but only Navalny is voicing strong criticism of Sobyanin's Moscow.

Attitudes to Navalny differ considerably. Yabloko party candidate Mitrokhin has been asked in all seriousness why he doesn't stand down in favour of Alexei Navalny; independent candidate Sobyanin is compelled to cross swords with him to parry his criticisms. The other candidates fluctuate: one checking that Navalny is playing by the rules and another trying to copy his election gimmicks.  Anything that doesn't fit into this script just looks like a limp struggle for fourth place.

29 July 2013

Sokolniki metro station. A group of residents is taking Yabloko candidate Sergei Mitrokhin and his party officials to inspect a residential building, which has recently undergone cosmetic refurbishment. The dissatisfied tenants accompany the mayoral candidate and local housing official Irina Lvovna around the various stairways, complaining continually. They have visited three staircases and are now standing in the courtyard. Sergei Mitrokhin puts authoritative questions to the housing official as to why the entrance hall and stairway are in such a pathetic state and what is going to be done about it. She answers tiredly that, according to official documents, the refurbishment was recorded as 'satisfactory', except for the roofs and balconies and they are all that require further repair. The residents grumble and make personal remarks about her.  'I don't mind.  I'm used to it,' sighs Lvovna. The tenant representative was shown all the documents, but when Lvovna asks where she is, the residents wave her questions aside.  'She's tired.  The repairs have worn her out.'  

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Sergei Mitrokhan, candidate for Yabloko, talks to disgruntled residents in suburban Moscow. The hapless Mitrokhan has styled himself as Batman, flying in to save Muscovites; observers wonder if he would be better served by standing down and throwing his weight behind Navalny. 

Dmitri Kabanov, the sub-contractor who carried out the repairs, is standing some way off.  He is over-wrought and furious with the tenants' complaints. 'They want us to work for nothing.' He draws me a diagram of four boxes showing how the local authority allocates the budget: the sum of money decreases as it moves from one box to another, ending up with the sub-contractor receiving three times less. The meeting ends with Sergei promising to take the matter under his personal control.  

In a recent interview on TV Rain, Kseniya Sobchak asked Mitrokhin what image of himself he would like to promote.  His reply was that he is like Batman, flying in to save Muscovites as soon as they call on him.  The quote soon went out on social networks, with pictures and joky comments that Mitrokhin should become mayor of Gotham City.

31 July 2013

A demonstration against the construction of a commercial/entertainment centre in the Landscape Park at Mitino seems to have attracted almost all the mayoral candidates – except, of course, Sobyanin. Those who, unlike Sergei Mitrokhin, are not just pushing one line about protecting Muscovites, regard attendance at such demonstrations as an essential part of their election campaign, no matter what the reason for the demonstration might be. 

The youngest candidate, Mikhail Degtyaryov, goes from Mitino to a protest outside the US embassy at the 'monstrous behaviour of the American rock group Bloodhound Gang' (one of whom put the Russian flag down his trousers). From there he goes to celebrate Airborne Forces Day with the troopers, then to a demonstration against illegal taxi drivers at a bus station and, finally, a Honey Fair.

1 August 2013

Alexei Navalny’s election headquarters, 9pm. Crowds of people, bright lights, no one going home. A delivery man appears in the doorway, shouting ‘Who ordered pizza?’  The ground floor is open plan, with volunteers signing in canvassers and handing out printed materials. There are various ways of canvassing: round stickers or leaflets; the ‘Navalny cubes’ (four posters set up in a square on a rigid frame); there are banners to be hung on balconies, or using a projector to beam the candidate’s name on to the neighbouring building or courtyard. The creative process is ongoing: Navalny’s team is endlessly thinking up new canvassing gimmicks to spread their message in ways that will catch public attention and are, very importantly, legal, such as changing the name of one’s home wifi network to ‘Navalny_nash_mer’ [Rn. Navalny for mayor]. 

To the right a staircase leads downstairs into what the team call the ‘bunker’. In one room canvassers are being briefed how they should talk to people in the street. In another a heated discussion is going on about the team’s latest decision to produce an election newspaper. Journalists sympathetic to Navalny turn up throughout the day and regular team members are setting up printed material. Every day Navalny himself holds three to five meetings with voters at metro stations, each one of which attracts from two to six hundred people.  This way he hopes to be able to speak to one percent of the voters.

2 August 2013

A call to Sergei Sobyanin’s headquarters.  I listen to pleasant music for one minute, before getting through to a call centre.  I ask if Mr Sobyanin will be meeting voters and am told that for the moment no such meetings are planned, but if anything comes up they will certainly let me know. I could also approach one of the canvassers who have set up pickets throughout Moscow and leave with them, as it says on the site, ‘my instructions for the mayoral candidate Sergei Sobyanin.’  The pickets are there every day, from 5pm to 9pm in the week and 12pm to 8pm at weekends. 

On this particular day, the LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky has publicly questioned money being paid to Alexei Navalny’s election account via an internet payment system and said he will be asking the Public Prosecutor to check that these contributions don’t contravene the law.

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'The Great Gatsby': 'A Just Russia's' candidate, Nikolai Levichev, looks down on commuters

5 August 2013

Moscow is covered with posters showing the eyes of the ‘A Just Russia’ mayoral candidate, Nikolai Levichev. Unless you know it’s him, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s an advertisement for spectacles or a reference to the novel ‘The Great Gatsby’ in which the eyes of Dr T. J. Eckleburg on a poster look desolately down on the town.  Mr Levichev also makes use of a newspaper to promote his candidacy.  It hit the blogosphere because of its amusing lifestyle advice: ‘Stress leads to cellulite’, ‘Dill wine for sweet dreams’, ‘Kohlrabi – the giant among cabbages’.

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A campaigining point for the Communist Party. "I ask the woman if she’s a volunteer and learn that she’s from an advertising agency."

8 August 2013

Theatre Square, Bolshoi Theatre.  A woman sits at a small table outside the metro station.  It’s well stocked with literature promoting the Communist Party (CP) candidate, Ivan Melnikov. I go up to her and she gives me a few things: a newspaper, a leaflet and a pocket calendar.  She looks tired and makes no attempt to suggest who I should vote for.  I ask her if she’s a volunteer and learn that she’s from an advertising agency.

10 August 2013

The official start of campaigning on TV and radio and in magazines, which will continue until 6 September.  One has only to see the election film of the CP candidate to understand who his target audience is, and his main ideological opponent. The film’s main protagonist is an 85-year old pensioner who’s seen watching Melnikov on TV.  The mayoral candidate says ‘We bring in gastarbeiters and they live like cattle;  we build cycle lanes, but are afraid to go out in the evening; we open fashionable European-style cafes, but our parents have to count their kopecks.’ This fills the grandad in front of the TV with righteous anger.  He says that, although he has not been out much recently, today he’ll go and vote ‘for his future.’ The film’s makers have put these words in the mouth of an elderly 85-year old, though the average lifespan for a man in Russia is 63.

TV debates 

Media campaigning presupposes TV debates, but in July Sobyanin made it clear that he would not be participating in any such debate

Media campaigning presupposes TV debates too, but in July Sobyanin made it clear that he would not be participating in any such debates, though this was not confirmed by a spokesperson, only gleaned from references to sources close to the candidate.  The matter was cleared up on the first day of campaigning, when the head of Sobyanin’s election team Lyudmila Shevtsova told the RIA Novosti press agency: ‘This issue can now be settled once and for all.  Mr Sobyanin will not take part in any debates, choosing instead to concentrate on campaigning at meetings with voters. He asked his team what we thought and we set out the arguments “for” and “against”, giving our opinion that he should not engage in debates. He accepted our point of view and was in agreement with it.’

But in a way Sobyanin does actually take part in debates, even if only virtually. Alexei Navalny is well-known for exposing corruption and revelations about property owned by civil servants and their families.  He discovered that Sergei Sobyanin’s daughter owns a flat in central Moscow with a floor area of 308 sq.m. and valued at $5.27 million.  On 9 August he published this information in his magazine. This attack could not go unanswered and on 12 August the Acting Mayor commented to journalists: ‘Everything was declared seven years ago and no one is hiding anything.  It’s all speculation.’  He explained that he was given this flat when he was head of the Presidential Administration; he then privatised it and registered it in the name of his younger daughter Olga (b. 1997).  The legality of privatising official property was immediately questioned by Navalny and several other members of the opposition, including the Astrakhan politician Oleg Shein and journalist Sergei Parkhomenko.  A request for clarification was duly submitted to the Public Prosecutor.

The first meeting of mayoral candidates took place on ‘Moscow 24’ channel on 12 August.  The debate went out live and lasted almost one hour and a half.  All the candidates (except Sobyanin) took part.  During the debate, the LDPR candidate Mikhail Degtyaryov, who had ordered the same cubes for his own campaign as Alexei Navalny, accused the latter of siphoning off money [using a term much publicised by Navalny himself] i.e. hiking the costs of the cubes by a factor of two. 

On the same day the Public Prosecutor’s office announced that a check on Navalny’s election funding initiated by Vladimir Zhirinovsky had confirmed that the Navalny campaign was being funded from abroad. ITAR-TASS agency reported the Prosecutor’s words: ‘More particularly, that the Yandex Money system has processed over three hundred donations from foreign legal entities and individuals, as well as anonymous donors from forty six different countries, to Navalny and members of his election headquarters team.’  The Yandex Money press secretary Asya Melkumova explained that the system does not in principle accept money from legal entities and that the IP address of the sender indicates only technical access to the internet, not citizenship.

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Oleg Pakholkov of Just Russia parades supposedly illegal materials seized in Navalny's campaigning HQ. Navalny's team have cried foul, questioning the legality and origins of warantless police searches of an election HQ. Photo (c) RiaNovosti/Evgeny Biatov

13 August

Navalny posts another blog, entitled ‘Another daughter. Another flat. Another question to civil servant Sobyanin’.  In it he writes about Anna Sobyanina (b. 1986) and her St Petersburg flat with a floor area of 204.9 sq m. and her business which supplies furniture to state institutions. 

The rules of the 12 August debate entitle each candidate to put one question to another candidate.  Alexei Navalny makes successful use of this right without any debates. But the answers sometimes come from unexpected quarters.  On that day Nikolai Levichev and some of the ‘A Just Russia’ deputies went to a building on Chistoprudnyi Boulevard to the centre of Moscow.  They wanted to check information, which had apparently come in on the hot line, that in one of the flats illegal campaign materials promoting another mayoral candidate, Navalny, were being prepared for distribution. The police were called and broke down the door to the flat, arresting the residents they found inside.  One of them, Vasily Drovetsky, said the police had no warrant.  After the raid the deputies gave an interview about the illegal campaign materials.  Three people were arrested and one journalist was beaten up.

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