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Dummy candidates, disillusioned voters: ‘United Russia’ in a tight corner

A small city near Moscow is electing a mayor. Not the most startling news, perhaps, but the ruling party seems to have changed places with the opposition. Things are more topsy-turvey than usual and the voters have lost all faith with President and candidates alike, says Mikhail Loginov (photo: Ridus Agency)

‘United Russia’ party activists are holding an unsanctioned protest meeting. The mayor of the city sacks local authority employees who are campaigning for the ‘United Russia’ candidate. Bikers are calling for the abolition of military service and the dissolution of one of the houses of parliament. They are doing what they can for ‘United Russia’, but they are being persecuted by the police.

This is not science fiction, but reality in a small town near Moscow – Pushkino, which is electing a mayor. The election storyline proves that even if the opposition is not taking part in an election, the struggle for power continues.

The battlefield

Pushkino is a typical city of the Moscow region, about 30km from the capital, with about 100,000 inhabitants.

Bikers

Some of Mayor Lisin’s opponents make regular use of bikers in the election campaign: young people ride through the city yelling unpleasant slogans about him

The election makes its presence felt even in the train from Moscow, because the compartments are all decked out with posters of the candidates. As the train approaches the town, campaigners suddenly appear, offering travellers newspapers and leaflets. Moscow Prospekt, the city’s main road, is strewn with abandoned newspapers, which lie around like fallen leaves.

‘Pushkino is a typical city of the Moscow region, about 30km from the capital, with about 100,000 inhabitants. The election makes its presence felt even in the train from Moscow, because the compartments are all decked out with posters of the candidates.’

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In the 90s and the 00s Pushkino’s destiny was no different from that of any other city or district in the area around Moscow. Enterprises dating from Soviet times have either reduced productivity or closed down completely; new food industry enterprises and vodka distilleries have opened up and at the same time Moscow construction companies have started building residential buildings in the town and selling flats to Muscovites. Currently, approximately 85% of the population works in the capital.

Contributions from industry and grants from the region succeeded in doubling the city budget in the 00s, which meant the Pushkino administration could build fountains and monuments and modernise the local health service. But then the city’s top brass were prosecuted for contravening financial legislation and Mayor Bashkirtsev received a suspended sentence. The case against his deputy responsible for the economy, Margarita Smailovskaya, was dismissed: her supporters said that this was because she was innocent.  Her opponents maintain she was acquitted because she returned money to the city budget.

Whatever the case, 2008 saw the advent of a new mayor to Pushkino, Viktor Lisin. Like Smailovskaya, he is a ‘United Russia’ party member. He had no doubt that in 4 years’ time there would be no problem in extending his term of office, as he would have the support of both his party and city administration staff.

The rape of party democracy

In the summer of 2011 the supreme council of ‘United Russia’ laid on the party grassroots the obligation of running primaries. The victor of the intra-party election would become the ‘United Russia’ candidate. The primaries were mainly won by incumbent deputies, or city mayors. The result was then approved by the regional branch of the party and the candidate elected.

Lisin

Viktor Lisin, the present city mayor, believed he had a second term in his pocket. The local branch of 'United Russia' surprised him by nominating another local politician as its official candidate in the municipal election. But Lisin is not ready to surrender...

This was how it was to be with the Pushkino mayor, Mr Lisin. He quickly set up the primaries and received the majority vote. Smailovskaya was in second place, but with considerably fewer votes. Lisin sent off the documents for approval, but….sensation! The regional branch of ‘United Russia’ supported Smailovskaya’s candidature.

She had a strong support group, the Militant Brotherhood, which is composed of officers who had served in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The leaders of this organisation are wealthy and more than capable of organising the pressuring of their opponents. Smailovskaya is assistant to Dmitry Sablin, a State Duma deputy and one of the Brotherhood leaders. Sablin had convinced the regional branch of ‘United Russia’ to put none other than Smailovskaya forward as candidate.

A year ago Lisin would probably not have contested the party decision, but last year’s State Duma elections resulted in a considerable falling-off of  ‘United Russia’ authority and anyway the new Moscow Region governor, Sergei Shoigu, had said that the elections must be fair.

'Viktor Lisin... had no doubt that in 4 years’ time there would be no problem in extending his term of office, as he would have the support of both his party and city administration staff.'

So Lisin decided not to kowtow to his party comrades and announced the ‘rape of party democracy’; he then registered as an independent candidate, and started campaigning against the ‘United Russia’ candidate, Margarita Smailovskaya.

Electric saw or truncheon?

The Pushkino situation was unique in the Moscow region. In Russia any opponent of a candidate who is also city mayor is considered the opposition. But the Pushkino ‘opposition candidate’ is actually standing for the ruling party, ‘United Russia’.

This considerably restricted Lisin’s chances in his battle with Smailovskaya. He was even embarrassed to remind voters of the criminal case against his opponent, because this would have meant allying himself with [Aleksey] Navalny who regularly described ‘United Russia’ as the party of thieves and swindlers.

Similarly, Lisin could not employ the usual methods to derail Smailovskaya’s campaign.  He decided, for instance, not to use the police to break up her unsanctioned rally. But he did all he could to sabotage it.

Firstly he refused to make any of the city squares available for his opponent, so Smailovskaya announced that she would hold the meeting in a park. Staff at her headquarters joked that this was the first ‘United Russia’ unsanctioned rally in Russia’s history.

Lisin arranged for lorries with mobile platform lifts to go to the site of the rally. When Smailovskaya had only just started speaking, the lifts were erected and workers started sawing dead branches of the trees with electric saws.

‘If anyone doubted that Lisin is sawing [Rn play on words – also means siphoning off] the city budget, then there’s the proof,’ said Smailovskaya.

Smailovskaia

Margarita Smailovskaya, former Pushkino deputy mayor, has seized the lead in regional backstage politics. She may have won the official 'United Russia' nomination for the forthcoming mayoral election, but she is not particularly keen to flaunt her party affiliation. Russia's ruling party seems to have lost its voter appeal for good. Photo: www.smailovskaya.ru)

Lisin didn’t risk breaking up the rally, but he is fairly tough in his suppression of any opposition. A Pushkino inhabitant asked him at a meeting why kiosks selling bread also sold smoking blends, which addiction experts consider a drug. Lisin issued instructions to discover where this young man worked and, when it emerged that he was an electrician working for the city administration, sacked him.

‘A Just Russia’ raider, a communist-capitalist and network bikers

There were 20 candidates registered to stand in the Pushkino election, but apart from Smailovskaya and Lisin only 2 have any hope of winning. One of them is Sergey Gulin, the director of a big enterprise called Iskozh. In his 10 years of running the factory the number of employees has gone from 1500 to 200 and productivity has fallen by 80%, but he is still hoping for support. In Pushkino he is regarded as the representative of large financial groupings specialising in hostile takeovers. To avoid being removed from the election, Gulin is standing under the ‘A Just Russia’ banner.

The other picturesque character is Sergey Zaburniagin, the CPRF [Communist Party] candidate. Although communists are considered to be engaged in a struggle with capitalists, he owns several companies; a year before the election he proposed removing the monument to Lenin on the square outside the railway station and putting up in its place a statue of St Sergey of Radonezh. But the communists turned a blind eye to this and allowed him to go forward as their candidate.

'The Pushkino situation was unique in the Moscow region. In Russia any opponent of a candidate who is also city mayor is considered the opposition. But the Pushkino ‘opposition candidate’ is actually standing for the ruling party, ‘United Russia’.

The other candidates all registered at the suggestion of either Smailovskaya or Lisin. At Russian elections they are known as dummy candidates: their main task is not to increase their own popularity, but to dent the popularity of the opponents.

Smailovskaya’s most original dummy candidate is Serkov, representing the Social Networking Party (SNP). This is a classic fake-party, which understands it will never get a candidate into the State Duma, the city parliament or even a village council. But their efforts turn elections into a show.

This happened in Pushkino too: the SNP set up the ‘Pushkino Patrol’, essentially a political game with prizes, open to anyone resident in the city. Participants take photographs of potholes, broken benches or practically invisible road-markings and upload them to the Patrol website. The weekly prize is an iPhone and there is no shortage of willing participants.

Serkov himself is a biker, whose biker friends regularly tear through the city streets with banners screaming ‘Pushkino Patrol’ and yelling ‘Lisin is a thief, Lisin – scram!’ from time to time.

‘United Russia’ underground

In any Russian town or city the strength of the ‘United Russia’ position can be gauged by studying its office. If the party is strong, it’ll be a two- or three-storey detached house, or a floor of a modern office building.

The Pushkino ‘United Russia’ headquarters are located in the semi-basement of an apartment block: a narrow corridor and 4 rooms, the sort of accommodation where there would normally be a fairly modest shop, serving the needs of a limited number of customers. But a shop would have a sign to lure customers in, whereas the party office only has a small plaque. The leadership of the party doesn’t, apparently, want Pushkino people to express any interest in it at all.

As always, there are several people in the office. They come in late in the day, drink tea (or vodka, with salads brought from home, if it’s anyone’s birthday). The members are elderly ladies, who will usually do anything to avoid party work, but before an election they have to knuckle down.

Election_PUshkino

Mayor Lisin makes it difficult for his rivals to organize election meetings. But Moscow regional governor Shoigu has promised that elections on his watch will be fair...

‘The Moscow leadership maintains that the party is as respected throughout Russia as it always was,’ says Larisa Osipova, the chair of the local branch. ‘But in actual fact the “thieves and swindlers” label has stuck and the heads of local branches in residential areas are afraid to publicise their membership of the party.’

The members come to a meeting in support of Smailovskaya. They only campaign for her, though they don’t use the party logo and certainly don’t mention Putin’s name. Faith in the President has fallen away to a considerable extent and he is anyway no longer associated in people’s minds with ‘United Russia’.

We don’t believe in anyone

The biggest street protest in Pushkino had nothing to do with the election. People from 2 of the low-rise villages on the edge of the city – Zavety Ilyicha [the Testament of (Vladimir) Ilyich (Lenin), often popularly called simply Ilyich] and Novaya Derevnya [New Village] – suddenly discovered that a whole block of high-rise apartment blocks was to be built on the wasteland between them. They were very anxious about the increased use of the existing infrastructure, chiefly the roads, and about 1000 of them turned out for the so-called 'public discussion'. The outcome of this discussion is only a recommendation and has no bearing on the final decision as to whether the blocks should be built or not.

‘The Moscow leadership maintains that the party is as respected throughout Russia as it always was,’ says Larisa Osipova, the chair of the local branch. ‘But in actual fact the “thieves and swindlers” label has stuck and the heads of local branches in residential areas are afraid to publicise their membership of the party.’

'We are against the construction of high-rise buildings near us,' says Pyotr, a young computer programmer. 'But when did the authorities ever seek the opinion of ordinary folk?'

Pyotr is glad that these discussions coincided with the election. Smailovskaya had a meeting with the residents and declared that the project was Lisin's and would certainly be cancelled. But the residents are very afraid that, though she may listen to them before the election, she'll only talk to the constructors when she has been elected.

Pushkino residents have no faith in the mayor, the candidates, or even Putin. Large-scale vote rigging is also not very likely, because the Electoral Committee is afraid of taking votes away from 'United Russia.' But it doesn't want to make trouble for the existing mayor.  The winner will be the one who can give the voters an original show.


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