What would happen to Russia’s elections if the regional authorities stopped controlling them?

Russia's northern republic of Komi used to be known for its consistently high turnout on election day. But after a corruption investigation felled the region’s leadership, the future of managed elections is unclear here. RU

Elena Solovyova
30 January 2018

Komi's Central Election Commission. Source: siktivkar.bezformata.ruIn mid-November 2017, the electoral commission of Russia’s northern Komi Republic accepted documents from an advocacy group for a referendum on moving the region’s capital — from Syktyvkar to Ukhta. Ten days later, the referendum was almost unanimously approved by Komi’s regional parliament, and was set to take place on the same day as the Russian presidential election on 18 March. But on New Year’s Eve, Komi’s electoral commission quietly cancelled it. The majority of the republic’s loyal media outlets (which had hotly debated the prospects of changing the capital) remained silent on the matter of the cancellation.

Now Komi, which witnessed consistently high election turnouts under the previous leadership, risks collapsing the turnout for the elections in March 2018.

Apartments, cars and “firewater”

The Komi Republic earned the nickname of Russia’s “Chechnya in the north” after local turnout in the December 2011 legislative elections exceeded 72%, with the ruling United Russia party garnering almost 60% of the votes. Chechnya is known for reaching improbably high turnouts at national elections, with one district in the 2012 presidential run famously reaching 107% turnout.

Back then, the republic was headed by Vyacheslav Gaizer, who, since September 2015, has been held in Moscow’s Lefortovo detention centre, where he has been jailed on charges of creating and managing a organised crime group. Also being held in Lefortovo is Gaizer’s former first deputy Alexey Chernov, who was responsible for election-related issues and did much to ensure high turnouts in the republic.


Vyacheslav Gaizer. Photo CC BY 4.0: Wiki. Some rights reserved.Since Gaizer’s arrest, criminal proceedings against high-standing officials have become commonplace in Komi. Witness testimonies constitute the most interesting aspect of these trials. Take, for instance, one of the hearings in the case against Syktyvkar’s former mayor Roman Zenishchev, where a witness described how the ex-mayor handed Chernov a briefcase full of money destined for United Russia’s election campaign. A former United Russia strategist, Kirill Arabov, confirmed this in April 2017 when he appeared as a witness at the trial of another former Komi mayor, Pavel Smirnov. In Komi, it seems, all municipalities were obliged to raise a certain sum, and the republic’s leadership kept close tabs on their progress.

Big business, too, played a role in the financing of elections in Komi, only on a lawful basis. A promotion called Popadi v desyatochku! (Hit the Top Ten!) came to be a traditional means of coaxing voters to polling stations, with apartments, cars and more modest prizes up for grabs. And for this, you need money.

This well-oiled arrangement, which encompassed fundraising activities and various campaigning methods, broke down after the arrest of Gaizer’s team in 2015

Turnout strategies known as “Outcast” (marginal) or “Firewater” (ognennaya voda) were deployed in the more northern — and therefore more depressed — towns of Vorkuta and Inta. According to Arabov, lists of individuals on society’s fringes would be compiled with the help of the district police. The individuals in question were then contacted, and it was explained to them they ought to vote for United Russia, whereupon they would receive promotional calendars that could be exchanged for vodka or brandy. Former Inta mayor Pavel Smirnov, who was sentenced to eleven years in a high-security prison for bribery offences, confirmed that he had been personally involved in the Outcast/Firewater programme, but alleged that this was the case solely because the town’s kindergartners were going unfed, and that good election results would ensure additional financing. Smirnov also insisted that the strategy was deployed purely to boost turnout, and not to win votes for United Russia.

This well-oiled arrangement, which encompassed fundraising activities and various campaigning methods, broke down after the arrest of Gaizer’s team in 2015. A novel approach to boosting turnout was now required.

Battle of the referendums

In February 2017, reports surfaced in numerous Russian media about a potential new turnout-boosting manoeuvre whereby local referendums would be held concurrently with the presidential election. These reports were confirmed in November, when news emerged of the authorities’ intention to hold several regional referendums on 18 March, 2018.

In Komi, the idea of ​​relocating the capital was first mooted by Nikolai Tskhadai, the rector of Ukhta State Technological University.

Soon after Tskhadai’s proposal, the regional authorities began promoting the idea of holding a referendum in the republic — but failed to elicit a response from the denizens of Komi. At a mass protest calling for the resignation of the republic’s new acting governor Sergey Gaplikov in November 2017, the rally organiser (and Ukhta resident) Yegor Russkiy accused the governor of attempting to ensure a high turnout by siphoning money for the referendum out of the budget — in other words, out of voters’ pockets. Russkiy stressed that the republic’s budget was unlikely to cope with the relocation of state ministries and agencies to the new capital. Komi’s civic activists were outraged at the fact that the State Council green-lighted the idea of ​​relocating the capital immediately after it had yet again rejected a referendum on replacing Komi’s old oil pipelines — the principal cause of oil spills in the region.

Komi’s State Council only approved the referendum (on changing the regional capital) that had been instigated from above

The possibility of conducting an environmental referendum in the republic was stymied in every possible way. In May 2017, the electoral commission accepted documentation from the advocacy group of the republic’s oldest environmental organisation, the Pechora Rescue Committee, only at the third time of asking. Komi’s State Council rejected the questions for the referendum. Social activists made amendments to the questions with due regard to a linguistic and legal review conducted by parliament, but were once again rebuffed.


“You can fool some of the people all the time. You can fool all the people for a while. But you can not fool all the people all the time!” Source: The Pechora Rescue Committee / Vkontakte.Komi’s State Council only approved the referendum (on changing the regional capital) that had been instigated from above. The Pechora Rescue Committee thus announced a week of protests: 14 rallies and demonstrations were held in December in the towns of Ukhta, Vorkuta, Pechora, Syktyvkar and Sosnogorsk, and in the Usinsky, Ukhtinsky, Udorsky and Izhemsky districts. The protesters voiced a variety of demands but remained unanimous in their distrust of the government and Sergey Gaplikov. Following the protests, the referendum on the relocation of the regional capital was cancelled by the electoral commission as well.

Elephants walk backwards

The Gaiser/Chernov era witnessed the emergence of a rigid hierarchy based on vertical subordination: district administrations and town mayors were obliged to execute all decrees issued by the republic’s leadership to the letter.

Elections were not exempt from this arrangement. After the arrest of Gaiser and members of his team, control over election campaigns was lost. In June 2016, a criminal case on charges of bribery was launched against Elena Shbarshina, the former chair of the Komi Electoral Commission, following which she left her post. This may have happened as a result of the testimony provided by Konstantin Romodanov, the former deputy prime minister of the Komi government, after he struck a deal with the investigators. At a recent hearing in the Shabarshina case, witnesses testified about the mass electoral falsifications of 2011, when she was Electoral Commission chair. The defendant denied any involvement in these malpractices.

When Gaplikov was offered leadership of the region in September 2015, he reportedly had to look up Komi on the map

Yet the results of the September 2016 parliamentary elections proved highly revealing. Turnout only just exceeded 40%, with United Russia garnering 38% of the vote. Meanwhile, Sergey Gaplikov, acting head of the republic, was elected governor. Chief of the Olimpstroi state corporation from 2011 to 2014, Gaplikov survived in this post for longer than his predecessors and oversaw the completion of the bulk of the Olympic facilities. As a result, Gaplikov found himself among Putin’s inner circle during the Olympic games. The Olimpstroi chief must have been counting on a rapid rise up the career ladder — but he was promptly marginalised once the Olympics were over. When Gaplikov was offered leadership of the region in September 2015, he reportedly had to look up Komi on the map. Upon officially assuming the office of governor a year later, he wasted no time in overhauling several ministries.


Sergey Gaplikov. Photo CC BY 4.0: Wiki. Some rights reserved.Gaplikov’s most scandalous act was to merge Komi’s Ministry of Industry with the Ministry for Natural Resources and Environmental Protection. The Ministry for Natural Resources, responsible for monitoring industrial and mining corporations, was subordinated to the Ministry of Industry, hell-bent on increasing mineral extraction rates. The republic is beset by a plethora of environmental issues, with oil spills among the most serious. News of the merger was therefore greeted by appeals, petitions, protests and rallies that continued — though to no avail — into the spring of 2017. When asked whether the ministries could potentially be demerged, Gaplikov responded by quipping that “elephants don’t walk backwards”.

In June 2017, however, Gaplikov yielded to public pressure and approved the rebirth of the natural resources ministry. A similar scenario played itself out following the passing of Law 144-РЗ on the introduction of eligibility criteria for reimbursement of parents’ kindergarten fees. The law immediately hit the poorest families — not all parents had been informed that an entire suite of documents would now be required to receive reimbursement. People protested the law by holding rallies and signing petitions, and the Komi Supreme Court ultimately abolished the law as inconsistent with the Russian Constitution. The Komi government was forced to backpedal on another occasion, too: a decision by the regional branch of the Education Ministry to abolish mandatory Komi-language classes provoked a public outcry, leaving Gaplikov with no choice but to suspend the ministry’s ruling.


Head of public organization "The environmentalists Komi" Nina Ananina during a single picket on Stefanovskaya Syktyvkar area in front of the governor's administration. Source: 7x7-journal.ruThe icing on the cake was the cancellation of the referendum on relocating the republic’s capital. Under Gaplikov’s governorship, the Komi power vertical (erected by the previous leadership) has become corroded and rickety. Discontent with the governor is growing — as is the level of protest activity. Social partnership, meanwhile, is on the wane: the republic’s leaders have failed to reach an agreement with Gazprom in this regard. The abrupt power shift of two years ago has led to a situation where the old ties have been lost, the old rules no longer work, and decrees have to be cancelled because there’s no one to gauge the consequences and ensure that said decrees are competently implemented.

But the state of affairs in Komi should hardly be regarded as specific to that region. The recent firings of regional governors across Russia could lead to analogous situations in other subjects of the federation. Furthermore, the very fact that governors are being dismissed en masse is testament that the “Putin Vertical” is no longer functioning in its familiar form.


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