Protect Yuntolovo! Money v nature in St Petersburg

Alexander Granik
23 March 2009

The municipal district of Yuntolovo is not famous for its architecture, historic places or other sights. Located in the northwest of St. Petersburg, is has mostly been built up in the late 20th and early 21st century.But Petersburgers know the name, for beyond the unremarkable houses lies the largest nature conservancy area in St. Petersburg, a reserve of almost 1,000 hectares.

It is largely thanks to this reserve that several species of animals and birds have been preserved in the megapolis, and that the northwest of the city has not yet suffocated from industrial waste and exhaust gases.

As one of the least environmentally damaged districts in Petersburg, Yuntolovo has always attracted the rapacious attention of officials and businessmen.  Both parties share a desire to make a quick buck at any price. The most recent global investment project with the picturesque name "Acanthus" proposed constructing a large number of residential and office buildings in Yuntolovo, the Western high-speed diameter road, other communications and even a zoo. While the oligarchs were re-selling one another the rights to as yet unfinished sites (in the latest sale, quite recently, Oleg Deripaska sold his business in St. Petersburg to Suleiman Kerimov), the residents of the district realized that unless they protected Yuntolovo themselves, there would soon be nothing left of the reserve. They would just be left breathing the exhaust of thousands of cars racing along the Western high-speed diameter road...

The most active among the defenders of nature were, appropriately enough, ecologists. The public organization "Protect Yuntolovo!" was set up and joined forces with the protesters against Gazprom's plan to build a sports venue for children on the nearby Martynov Square.  The battle led to extremely difficult relations between the protestors and the district and city administration.

It was against this background that municipal elections were announced in Yuntolovo. The "Greens" put forward a united team of 13 candidates.   Besides the protectors of Yuntolovo and Martynovsky square, who were not party members, there were also representatives of "Green Russia", the ecological group of the Yabloko party.

As the Yabloko party is not represented in the Russian parliament, the ecologists had to stand as independents. Federal and city electoral laws require tens and hundreds of thousands of signatures for registration. But candidates in the municipal election had to present on average just over 60 signatures to the Municipal District Electoral Commission (MDEC). The protectors of Yuntolovo were well known and sympathetically regarded, so it took only a few hours to collect the signatures. People signed up quickly,letting candidates into their apartments and even showing them their passports,which is not done lightly these days. All the signature lists were submitted to the Yuntolovo MDEC by the appointed time; statements of consent to stand in the election and other necessary data were also presented.

The way seemed clear. But in fact their problems were only just beginning. When the 13 Green candidates appeared at the MDEC on 31 January 2009, they were stunned to hear: "There was a meeting of the Commission yesterday and you are all refused registration!" "What do you mean, yesterday?"  asked the outraged candidates. "You are obliged by law to invite us to the meeting two days before it takes place, and hand out the papers so that the candidates can present their objections!" "Yes...we didn't manage to warn you in time. Sorry. We received the papers late ourselves. But we acted strictly according to the law. Look for yourselves:here are the expert opinions on your signatures."

The incredulous ecologists were given copies of expert opinions from the Interior Ministry. They contained almost identically phrased statements that about half the signatures were "doubtful", but that a more precise opinion would require additional material. Moreover, in comparing the signatures of the same voters in the documentation of different candidates, the experts opined that the "signatures were written by different people". Or vice versa: the signatures of different voters were "written by the same person". Similar faults were also found with dates (by law, the voter is obliged to write them by hand, like the signature).

In the legal literature such expert opinions are regarded as being able to determine probabilities, rather than precise conclusions. The expert may believe that the signatures have been written by different people, but cannot say which signature lists contain the genuine signature of the voter, and which the forgeries, etc. However, from the point of view of the Yuntolovo MDEC, if the expert had any doubts, it meant that the signatures were not authentic.

The next stage of the "electoral campaign" began:  the "Greens" went to the Primorsky court. All 13 were making only one demand: that the decision of the Yuntolovo MDEC of 30 January to refuse registration be annulled and the MDEC obliged to register everyone.

The lawyer representing the interests of the electoral commission prevaricated as best she could. In one case she even presented an application to summon as witnesses all the 25 voters whose signatures were "in doubt" and in another case 23 voters were summoned. The judges imperturbably agreed to the application, noting only: "But it will be up to you to ensure that they show up, of course".

In the evening a mass phoning of voters began, asking them to come to court and declare that their signatures had been forged. People laughed, hung up etc. The next day not a single witness appeared and the courts began to deliver decisions on the merits of the case. The decisions of the Yuntolovo electoral commission were annulled in respect of 2 candidates and their registration was declared mandatory. It became clear that the remaining 11 appeals could expect the same decision.

Then the electoral commission changed tactics. They sent a new lawyer to the hearings on 10 February.  He laid before the judges 11 MDEC decisions dated 9 February. These stated that the MDEC decisions refusing the "Green" candidates registration were annulled...and there was to be a new inspection of the signature lists. This is unambiguously prohibited by law.

But now the judges shrugged their shoulders: the appealed decisions had been annulled, so there was nothing more to be examined. The new decision would have to be appealed again. The candidates were forced to cancel their applications. This time just one collective submission was made by all: a demand to annul the new decision of the electoral commission, and finally, to register everyone.

On 15 February the lawyer from the Yuntolovo MDEC appeared at the court hearing. The absurdities continued: this time the court was presented with the decision of the electoral commission of 14 February, cancelling the decision of 9 February. "We realized that we were wrong, we really didn't have the right to schedule a new inspection of the signature lists," he said. When asked by the judge to explain this backtracking, the lawyer, unabashed, replied that the reason was the "poor legal qualifications of the electoral commission".

This time the court decided that the electoral commission was not entitled to cancel its own decision: this could be done only by the court or by a higher electoral commission. The decisions of the electoral commission of 9 February were nevertheless cancelled. But the court could not register the candidates.  Now the decisions of 30 January came into force once more and had once more to be appealed: the case was reopened because of the new circumstances.

The Prosecutor's Office of the Primorsk District protested the court decision, citing the disappearance of the object of appeal as grounds for refusing the application.  The court decision would anyway not come into effect for sometime.  For this reason the candidates referred back to the MDEC decision of 14 February, which declared the decisions of 9 February unlawful. However, the Yuntolovo MDEC managed to submit an appeal to the St.Petersburg City electoral commission. This body quickly annulled the decision of 14 February, without inviting any of the interested parties. The apotheosis of legal absurdity was the City electoral commission's reference to the decision of the Primorsk court, which had still not come into legal effect at that time...

Thus, by 1 March only two of the 13 candidates were legally registered.

But the MDEC did not stop the fight there. If even one ecologist were to be elected to the local council, he or she could gain access to all the documentation of the Yuntolovo administration. For some reason this had to be avoided at any cost. So Mrs. Vladimirtseva, the chair of the Yuntolovo MDEC,quickly went to the police about Tatyana Kuzmina, a senior lecturer and one of the registered "Green" candidates. She did not have anything on her except the probable expert opinion. But Mrs. Vladimirtseva was prepared to face criminal charges for a misleading report. She stated that Kuzmina had falsified signatures, and asked for a criminal case to be opened against her.

Some of our readers may in their time have made statements to the police when they have been the victims of a crime. They will remember how long it took for the police to react to these statements. Some may have waited a week, some for two weeks, or a month - if the police reacted at all.

Policemen from the 53rd police department of the Primorsky district visited the apartments of voters the day after they received Vladimirtseva's statement. Some were simply asked whether they had really signed the signature list. Attempts were made to convince others to make a statement that the signatures were not their own.  Others were told "confidentially" that the "wrong people"were trying to get into power, and that they must be stopped. However,  not one person denied that the signature was their own.

On 1 March, only two of the ecologists stood for election at the Yuntolovo municipal district. Unlike their rivals, they were given less than a week for their real election campaign. So they lost, although Tatyana Kuzmina got close to the minimum required number of votes.

Court hearings are still going on at the Primorsky district. If the refusal to register even one candidate is found to be illegal, there may be grounds for annulling the election results. Perhaps even for dissolving the Yuntolovo MDEC. In February the commission's decisions were found to be illegal by the courts and the City electoral commission. But so far this has changed nothing.

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