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Karelia: a story of autocracy and resistance

For years, Karelia was a last holdout for Russia’s liberal Yabloko party. But a series of arrests has seen its supporters drummed out of this northern province.

lead Petrozavodsk in the mist. Photo CC BY-SA 2.0: Mikhail Kryshen / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
At 52, Svetlana Chechil, a member of Russia’s liberal Yabloko party and the former head of a municipality in Russia’s northwestern Karelia Republic, was the oldest inmate in the women’s ward of Penal Colony No. 9. Chechil was a sort of mother to the other inmates, teaching the younger women to knit, and tutting when they cursed.

In a case described by Yabloko as “groundless, absurd and politically motivated,” Chechil was convicted of official misconduct in April 2016. She was found guilty of illegally turning two hectares of agricultural land into an area for holiday cabin development — her former district covers the western shoreline of Lake Onega. Today, that land lies as fallow as it’s been for decades. New municipal head Alexey Luchin explains that because Chechil failed to go through proper channels to change the land’s status, she was sentenced to a year and a half behind bars.

Chechil’s imprisonment is one in a growing number of instances of intimidation against the opposition in Karelia following the election of a Yabloko-backed mayor in the republic’s capital of Petrozavodsk in 2013. Until the crackdown, Karelia had one of the strongest branches of Yabloko in Russia

Opposition via Skype

Founded in 1993, Yabloko once stood at the forefront of Russia’s liberal opposition, but has seen its influence wane over the last 15 years. The party hasn’t won a seat in the federal Duma since 2003, but remained influential in Karelia well into the last decade.

Everyone I spoke with attributes this holdout to a single figure: Svetlana Chechil’s cousin, Vasily Popov.

Since the 1990s Popov has been one of the main organisers of the opposition in my hometown, Petrozavodsk, a city of 270,000. Like his cousin Svetlana, Popov, 53, recently spent some time behind bars. But unlike Chechil, he has nothing but praise for the Spanish jails where he was held. “The climate was favourable, the inmates friendly, and the guards good-natured,” he told me over Skype from Barcelona. “I don’t eat meat, so the vegetable and seafood diet was perfect.”

Svetlana Chechil. Source: ptzgovorit.ru. All rights reserved.

Though the informal leader of Karelia’s Yabloko branch was granted political asylum in Finland in February this year, he was detained for several weeks while vacationing in Spain. He, his wife and two others, all of whom remain in Russia, were accused of real estate fraud, in a case rights groups have declared politically motivated. Popov unwittingly remained on Interpol’s Red Notice list when he set off on vacation in April, and Spanish police seized him on the fifth day of his stay at a high-end hotel in Tenerife.

“Popov is a kind of deity, scattered everywhere and nowhere at once,” Anatoly Tsygankov, head of the Karelian-based Centre of Sociological and Political Research, told me. All of Popov’s commercial enterprises are nominally controlled by his associates.

Popov himself freely admitted he believed the absence of a paper trail would protect him from unwarranted meddling. For the most part, this worked. The interference amounted to a cavalcade of inconvenience.

“Popov is a kind of deity, scattered everywhere and nowhere at once — intangible”

In one particularly baffling instance, Karelia’s Federal Anti-Monopoly Service investigated the claim that advertisements for Popov’s dairy factory were frightening children. In the images, Popov’s daughter, Vasilisa, five or six at the time, sits at a wooden table set with a loaf of bread and a jug of milk. She wears a traditional Karelian pinafore with a birch bark wreath on her head. The watchdog suggested the expression on the Vasilisa’s face (she’s smiling) made her look like a Pokemon. The inquiry was later dropped.

There have been graver investigations. In 2008, Popov, then speaker of Petrozavodsk city council (known as Petrosovet), and mulling a run for mayor, was handed a seven year suspended sentence after being convicted of extorting a political rival, Andrey Mazurovsky. In a covert recording made by an associate of Mazurovsky, Popov is allegedly heard saying that he would accept “300,000” of an unspecified currency to pull a challenger from Yabloko out of the race in Mazurovsky’s district. Popov and his supporters dismissed the recording as the result of repeated provocation.

Popov had to step down as speaker — his career as an elected official was effectively over. During the course of several Skype interviews, he often spoke of the thrill of strategising in a campaign, the rush of outmanoeuvring opponents when the deck was stacked against him. He shrugged off this incident as nothing more than a clumsy misstep.

Vasily Popov. Source: Facebook. All rights reserved.

Though he could no longer hold office himself, Popov spent the following years running successful campaigns for other Yabloko members in Karelia. The fruits of his labour culminated in the election of his protege, then 34-year-old Galina Shirshina, as mayor of Petrozavodsk in September 2013.

To the surprise of Karelia’s government and the delight of its residents, the city elected a mayor with no allegiance to the ruling United Russia party. Alongside Ekaterinburg’s colorful anti-drug crusader Evgeny Roizman, Galina Shirshina became one of just two non-United Russia mayors in the country.

The understudy

For the Petrozavodsk mayoral election, the party initially put forward Emilia Slabunova, an experienced politician and lawmaker, as its candidate. Two weeks before the election, Petrozavodsk city court disqualified Slabunova from the race, citing inconsistencies in her paperwork. Slabunova, now the national chair of Yabloko, had failed to indicate on her candidacy application that she had a PhD.

Upholding arcane rules about paperwork is part of an arsenal of tools that local authorities have honed over the last decade to ensure most opposition-minded candidates never make it to election day. Indeed, Popov had decided to run with a “spare waiting in ambush” — a clever bit of tactical campaign innovation. Shirshina, a psychology professor with little prior political experience, was designated Slabunova’s understudy.

The head of Petrozavodsk, Galina Shirshina, gives a report on the work of the administration at the Palace of Children and Youth Creativity, 2014. Photo (c): Igor Podgorny / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

“Two months ahead of the elections, I registered my candidacy. No one suspected a thing,” she told me in noisy cafe in Petrozavodsk this summer.

When she won, people felt that “God exists and justice reigns,” Popov said.

Popov and Shrishina insist his role came to end as soon as she took office. “To preempt any speculation over my involvement, I refused to even enter city hall for the next five years,” Popov said.

When I mentioned this to Tsygankov, he raised an eyebrow and chuckled. He believes Shirshina depended on Popov completely. Shirshina demurred: “I might have called him to ask some specific question from time to time, but, no, he was not an advisor.”

From the outset, she presented herself as a different kind of mayor. She cancelled the swanky inauguration ball and revoked golden parachutes for government employees. She released weekly video reports detailing what the administration’s been up to, a tradition subsequently scrapped by her successor.

November 2013: Galina Shirshina reports that the city authorities will have to move a public clock from Gagarin Square, Petrozavodsk.

According to Tsygankov, when Shirshina took office, the Petrosovet was brimming with deputies loyal to Popov and Devlethan Alikhanov, a powerful Dagestani businessman and politician. Though a United Russia member, Alikhanov played a pivotal role in anti-establishment Karelian politics until his arrest nearly three years ago. Since then, he’s been held in solitary confinement as his own fraud trial drags on.

Shirshina maintained a constructive relationship with the council. “Popov made the decisions. All she had to do was implement them,” he said.

Will of the Kremlin

But by the spring of 2014, the political atmosphere in the republic began to shift. Shirshina’s electoral victory the previous autumn reflected poorly on United Russia governor Alexander Khudilainen (the win is seen largely as a testament to Popov’s skills as a political strategist). He could not allow her administration to successfully govern.

It is widely believed that Khudilainen’s predecessor Andrey Nelidov was dismissed in 2012 after two years on the job because the Kremlin was disappointed with election results in the republic. In the 2011 Duma elections, United Russia took just 32% of the vote in Karelia. That year, the party lost control of the republic-level legislative assembly, and in the March 2012 presidential elections, just 53% of Karelians cast their votes for Vladimir Putin, whereas he won 63% of the vote nationally.

Alexander Khudilainen and Vladimir Putin discuss the prospects for foreign investment in Karelia, March 2015. Source: Kremlin.ru. In 2012, eight years after Putin first abolished direct gubernatorial elections, then-president Dmitry Medvedev restored elections in what was seen as a concession to the wave of anti-government protests in 2011-2012. Shortly after, a caveat to the reform was introduced. The so-called “municipal filter” requires prospective candidates to collect signatures from between 5 and 10% of local council deputies — a practical impossibility for outsider candidates given that councils skew largely towards United Russia.

For political scientist Vladimir Gelman, this reform gave federal authorities “a powerful lever of control over regional leaders.” “Governors needed to carry out the Kremlin's political directives under the threat of dismissal: to bring in votes during elections, not to allow protests,” he wrote in an email.

Thus, in an attempt to prove his loyalty to the party in Moscow, Khudilainen’s started a war with the local opposition and won.

Shirshina didn’t mince words when talking about Khudilainen, a man she described as having “serious insecurities”. “He burns everything in his wake, so no one else can breathe, so that all is dead,” she said.

Shirshina told me that after the arrest of Petrosovet speaker Oleg Fokin (a close associate of Alikhanov) in late January 2015, council members got their orders from 19 Lenin Street — the address of the republic’s administration. “Khudilainen had several methods for exerting control: persuasion, threats, and blackmail,” she said.

United Russia freshman city council member Dmitry Danilyev sees this as a question of party discipline — part of a governor’s job is to uphold a unified party policy in his region. “There’s nothing untoward about council members cooperating with the republic’s leadership,” he patiently explained.

The poor quality of roads in Petrozavodsk is a perennial issue in local politics. Source: LiveJournal. Shirshina is generally regarded as a well-liked but ineffectual mayor. Her critics are quick to write off the achievements touted by her supporters: lowering the trolley fare from 17 to 10 roubles (“PR stunt”), opening five daycare centres in two years (“Shameless craftiness to take the credit! The daycares were built with federal funds.”), and lowering the city budget deficit (“by cutting essential housing programs!”).

In December 2015, just over two years into her five-year term, the Petrosovet voted to remove Shirshina from office.

Temporary measures

These days, the current speaker of the Petrosovet Gennady Bodnarchuk told me “anyone with eyes will see how the city is flourishing.” Bodnarchuk took over as chair in February 2015 following the arrest of Oleg Fokin.

When I told him Shirshina said the republic wouldn’t allocate money to the city and the council wouldn’t sign off on her initiatives, he scoffed: “The republic doesn’t give us any money either. We still manage to get things done.”

"Her removal was a result of her inaction and ineptitude,” he added.

Just before Shirshina’s ouster, the city council voted to cancel mayoral elections. Petrosovet members now appoint a “city-manager” from a list of candidates chosen by a special commission. Indeed, Danilyev, the young United Russia deputy who led a public campaign for Shirshina’s removal, explained that a city manager is not accountable to voters, but benefactors in the city council.

Bodnarchuk explained that cancelling elections was necessary because Russia hasn’t had enough time to develop a culture of democracy

Among other things, this means there is no longer a need for Shirshina’s weekly video reports. A city manager doesn’t need the reports to communicate with Petrosovet deputies, because she meets them in person often enough, Danilyev told me. “No one watched the videos anyway,” he added.

Bodnarchuk explained that cancelling elections was necessary because Russia hasn’t had enough time to develop a culture of democracy. “You don’t want a situation where one can, by way of indiscriminate political machinations, twist and distort facts to elect candidates who are unprepared for the job,” he said.

Gennady Bodnarchuk at a session of Petrozavodsk's Youth Council. Source: Youtube. Known as “Kremen” or flintstone, Bodnarchuk is a United Russia man through and through. Though his opponents suggest his nickname has nefarious origins, he assured me it dates back to the playground. Around town, he’s often called a “a man of the nineties,” code for tough guys who did well for themselves in the hardscrabble decade when the country was in shambles.

A university friend of Bodnarchuk’s described him simply as “someone who was strong when strength was needed.” Before I had a chance to ask, he said, “If you ask me straight, ‘Is Gena [Bodnarchuk] a criminal?’ I’d say honestly I have no idea. I never did business with him. We’re just friends.”

Though Danilyev appears to wholeheartedly believe that cancelling elections is a good long-term solution for the city, Bodnarchuk isn’t so sure. He sees it as a temporary measure to quell an “emergency situation”.

“Of course, the ideal form of governance is rule by the people,” he conceded. And in time, he told me, Petrozavodsk may just bring back elections. “These things are cyclical,” he added.

A return to elections hardly seems likely. The number of Russian cities that have moved to get rid of mayoral elections jumped dramatically since 2014 when an amendment to federal law gave regional legislatures the power to choose their local executive model. The city manager model has proved especially popular. As of 2017, just eight of Russia’s 79 regional capitals continue to hold direct mayoral elections. In 2009, 57 capitals elected mayors.

Women take the fall

As the Petrosovet prepared to boot Shirshina out of office and the investigation into Popov’s cousin Svetlana Chechil kicked into gear, the craggy arm of Russian law enforcement that Popov had so dexterously evaded for years began to close in around him.

Between April 2014 and May 2015, Popov, his wife and member of the Karelian legislative assembly Anastasia Kravchuk, Yabloko city council member Olga Zaletskaya, and nominal head of his supermarket chain Alexandra Kornilova were charged with conspiracy to commit serious fraud under Article 159 of Russia’s Criminal Code, a statute described by opposition outlet Meduza as “nothing better than the infamous [Soviet-era] Article 58… the same effective and universal tool for punishing people, except no one gets shot.''

“Because these guys were in conflict with the ruling party, the violations were noticed”

The four were accused of colluding to gaining illegal ownership of the Petropit building, a once thriving food production hub that had long since fallen into a state of disuse. The scheme allegedly saw the group renting the building from the city before purchasing it, thereby artificially lowering its price and depriving the city of 16.5m roubles (£340,000 at the time of the sale).

Tsygankov told me this kind of scheme happens all the time in Russia, but “because these guys were in conflict with the ruling party, the violations were noticed.”

Even Danilyev didn’t dispute this account. “Because Shirshina was such an active political figure, the activities of her and her team were closely monitored. This may have brought to light all of these infractions.”

Activists of the Yabloko Party protest in Petrozavodsk, demanding the resignation of governor Khudilainen, April 2015. Photo CC-by-2.0: Vitalij Fleganov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Sounding slightly exasperated, Bodnarchuk waved away suggestions of political persecution, rattling off a list of United Russia politicians who have ended up behind bars in Karelia, such as Giviy Karapetov, the former deputy minister of labour in Karelia who is serving a seven and a half year sentence for accepting bribes, or Andrey Nelidov, the one-time governor, who has been in jail pending an ongoing trial for accepting bribes allegedly with the help of his advisor and regional legislator Ivan Romanov. In a separate case, Romanov was sentenced to 29 years for pedophilia.

Bodnarchuk and Danilyev believe Yabloko plays the victim as part of a self-aggrandising PR strategy. Danilyev cites the 2016 city council elections, in which Yabloko’s 39 candidate party-list was disqualified with less than three weeks before election day because of improperly filed paperwork. He said Yabloko purposefully got themselves disqualified to garner sympathetic press.

Nonetheless, the investigation was announced into the Petropit sale two months later, coinciding with Shirshina’s first annual performance review by the Petrosovet. Nearly a year later, in late March 2015, a few weeks before Shirshina’s second annual review, Kornilova and Zaletskaya were arrested. They believe their arrests were timed to frighten deputies into voting against Shirshina. The results of the assessment would be used to oust her later that year. Shirshina said a number of deputies, sufficiently intimidated, came to her after the arrests, worried that what happened to Zaletskaya, a council member at the time, could happen to them.

After a wave of protests calling for their release and a letter from Russia’s Commissioner for Human Rights to Karelia’s Investigative Committee, the Supreme Court of Karelia ruled the women were to be placed under house arrest.

“We’ve ordered Popov to sit tight. We need him free, not behind bars”

Kravchuk, who had been at a yoga retreat in Vietnam, returned to Petrozavodsk and handed herself over to the authorities in early April. She was immediately granted bail. Though she was wary of going back to Russia, her three children remained in Petrozavodsk. “We still fight about this to this day, I shouldn’t have let her go back,” said Popov, who had left Russia in early early March, after being tipped off about a possible arrest. No one warned him his wife and friends were also at risk.

25 August 2017: Anastasia Kravchuk, Olga Zaletskaya and Alexandra Kornilova hear the court verdict. Source: Gubernia Daily. All rights reserved to the author. Though critics accused Popov of cowardice for allowing Yabloko women to take the fall, the women themselves say they urged him to stay away from Russia, arguing he wouldn't be much help to them from prison. “We’ve ordered Popov to sit tight. We need him free, not behind bars,” Slabunova said at the time.

Epilogue

The Petropit case dragged on for a year and a half. Shrishina let out a bitter laugh when I asked about her expectations ahead of the 25 August verdict. Acquitting them would mean the courts, the investigative committees and prosecutor's office, the former governor all admitting they had made a mistake. “No way,” she said. Back in June, Popov told me plainly: “There are no acquittals in Russia.”

Zaletskaya, Kravchuk and Kornilova had their bags packed the day the verdict was read, but the Petrozavodsk city court found them guilty and handed each a suspended sentence and a 500,000 rouble (£6,400) fine. The women of Karelia’s Yabloko have avoided prison for now, though prosecutors are appealing the sentence. Yabloko, meanwhile, plans to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. The party no longer holds a single seat on the Petrosovet, and out of the Karelian legislative assembly’s 36 members, just three are from Yabloko, compared to the 25 from United Russia.

Everyone I spoke with involved in these events laughed off the suggestion that Artur Parfenchikov, Khudilainen’s replacement, might bring a softening or openness to politics in Karelia

Popov has returned to Finland. After finally getting out of prison (she was subject to several last-minute “reprimands”), Chechil now wakes up at 5am every day to work as the director of a chain of bakeries owned by Popov. Shirshina continues to work as an advisor to Yabloko and was recently appointed director of the Popov’s dairy factory. Petrozavodsk’s residents no longer get to vote for mayor, and Bodnarchuk is head of the city council. Ironically, Khudilainen’s war on Yabloko failed to sufficiently endear him to Moscow. In February 2017, he (along with four other governors) was forced by the Kremlin to resign. Everyone I spoke with involved in these events laughed off the suggestion that Artur Parfenchikov, Khudilainen’s replacement, might bring a softening or openness to politics in Karelia.

“It's the same system. Softer, tougher, but he’ll do whatever he’s told,” Shirshina said of Parfenchikov. With Putin slated for a fourth term in 2018, there isn’t much to be hopeful about.

 


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