Russia’s regional elections: who is to blame and what to do

Sep 17 2015

These elections were not a common occurrence: a substantial part of what can be called the Europe-oriented democratic opposition were hedging their bets on Kostroma.

In May of this year, in anticipation of the 2015 regional elections and the 2016 State Duma elections, several opposition movements merged to create the Democratic Coalition in order to nominate a list of candidates from the unified opposition. This alliance was formed on the basis of the existing RPR-Parnas party, which has the right to participate in Russia’s Parliamentary elections in 2016 without collecting signatures.

Initially, the activists wanted to run for regional parliaments in three oblasts: Novosibirsk Oblast, Kaluga Oblast, and Kostroma Oblast. In Novosibirsk the team of candidates was denied the right to participate in the elections, in Kaluga the coalition members chose not to participate, and so it was the Kostroma campaign that overwhelmingly attracted the attention of the liberal opposition. The full force of the coalition was devoted to the region: the list of candidates was headed by the deputy chairman of Parnas party Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of the Russian opposition Alexey Navalny visited Kostroma several times to campaign for the coalition, and his colleague Leonid Volkov took campaign management upon himself. Volunteers and paid campaigners were invited to Kostroma from all over the country. One can judge the scale of the campaign from the following fact – the party was able to cover all precinct elections commissions: 545 observers from the Democratic Coalition were working in the region’s 400 precincts.

So why was the result 2% and not 10% as was initially planned by the opposition? Why did the Kostroma elections end up being a public whipping of the democrats and Kremlin’s revenge for 2013, when the leader of the democratic opposition Boris Nemtsov was elected deputy of Yaroslavl Oblast Duma, and Alexey Navalny, although he lost the election, was able to gather 27% of the votes in the Moscow mayoral election?

Maybe it was a difficult region? Yes, but Yaroslavl Oblast, where Boris Nemtsov won, was not much easier. Kostroma Oblast and Yaroslavl Oblast are very similar. Both of them are in Central Russia, both are 96% populated by ethnic Russians, both receive subsidies from the federal budget, and the level of urbanization in these regions is also similar: in Kostroma Oblast 71.3% of the population live in cities and towns, while in Yaroslavl this measure is 81.7%.

Did the government interfere with campaigning, disrupt events, send “nashists” (former members of Nashi, a pro-Putin youth organization that uses particularly repulsive methods). Yes, but the same happened in Yaroslavl. Didn’t have enough time for campaigning? Boris Nemtsov’s campaign lasted a month, while Democratic Coalition had 25 days. It is doubtful that 5 extra days could have radically changed the outcome of the voting.

Or maybe there wasn’t enough money for organizing a quality campaign, as claimed by a deputy to the State Duma Dmitry Gudkov? Let’s calculate. The election fund of Parnas in Kostroma was $84,811 (using the exchange rate of September 8, 2015), the number of voters in Kostroma Oblast is 545,447 people, so 16 cents was spent per voter. The number of voters in Yaroslavl Oblast in 2013 was 1,045,217 persons, the election fund of the RPR-Parnas party was $119,796 (using the exchange rate of September 6, 2013), so 12 cents was devoted to every voter. So while Boris Nemtsov spent a third less money per voter, his result was two and a half times better.

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One of the main reasons behind the bad result was that the Kostroma people did not accept outsiders: the first person on the candidate list was from Moscow, the campaign manager was an outsider, and a substantial portion of the campaigners was not from Kostroma Oblast. “But what about Yaroslavl Oblast”, – you might say, – “Boris Nemtsov was not from there either”. That is not entirely so. Boris Nemtsov was viewed by the inhabitants of the region as someone who used to be the governor of a neighboring region, the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, the First Deputy Prime Minister of the federal government, and was a former leader in the State Duma, a federal politician with extensive experience. With all due respect, nothing like this can be said about Ilya Yashin, whom the Kostroma people viewed as an intelligent young man, about whom they had heard nothing even yesterday. Additionally, Boris Nemtsov announced from the first days of the campaign that he is staying in the oblast seriously and for a long term, and that he is going to buy an apartment in Yaroslavl.

There is another reason. Evidently Alexey Navalny’s thesis “we are against crooks and thieves” doesn’t work. People have become cynical: “so what if they are thieves, who are you, saints? You will also steal if you get the power”.

Another reason for Parnas’ misfortune is the radical change in the public sentiment in the last two years. In 2013, there was none of this aggressive pro-Putin hysteria, neither on TV or among the people. “Crimea is ours” syndrome has taken over the country. Those who advocate for participating in Putin’s pseudoelections often say that elections provide a platform that gives opposition activists an opportunity to deliver their position to the masses. But in reality, it is very dangerous for an opposition activist participating in regional elections to talk about the annexation of Crimea, Russian soldiers in Donbass, or about who shot down Boeing MH17. It’s dangerous because this honest position can repel over a half of potential voters, zombified by the TV propaganda. For example, here is a recording of how the second person on the party’s Kostroma Oblast election list, Vladimir Andreychenko, initially tries dodging a question about Crimea, and then talks about an occupation of a region of a neighboring country in the following way: “legally speaking, these measures were not executed in a completely clean way”.

A democrat who runs for a regional election is faced with only two options. Either you talk exclusively about overpriced rent and utilities, broken down roads and low salaries, and then you have a chance at winning. Or you tell the full truth about the war with Ukraine, and that the sanctions against Russia were completely fair and justified, as a response to Russia’s violations of its international obligations. In that case, your chances of getting elected into a regional Duma approach zero. In Kostroma Oblast, precisely the first strategy was picked, and so Ilya Yashin did not talk about the white paper report “Putin. War”, and Vladimir Andreychenko stayed silent about Crimea. But then, where is that platform for the opposition, if it is forced to avoid all acute and relevant political questions?

In stark contrast, in August 2013 Boris Nemtsov could afford the luxury of talking to Yaroslavl voters about the topical oppositional concerns, such as corruption and stealing during the construction of sports objects for the Sochi Winter Olympics and the personal enrichment of Vladimir Putin.

So what is there to do for the opposition activists who want to have a platform but refuses to participate in Putin’s imitation of elections? The answer is simple: to campaign Russians aside from Kremlin’s agenda and their fabricated elections.

To back my words with actions, I will reveal what I plan on doing. In the near future, I plan on resurrecting the YouTube project “Lies of Putin’s Regime”, which was created at the end of 2009 by Boris Nemtsov and I. The project will have two main directions.

The first will be devoted to the annexation of Crimea, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the economic crisis as a result of Putin’s military endeavor. Boris Nemtsov voiced the idea as early as in January 2015 that it is necessary to promote the thesis: “Putin is war and crisis”. Within the last 8 months, his idea has become even more relevant and timely, and I am sure it will become even more acute as the consequences of the sanctions exacerbate. There is a lot of work to be done with the population: according to public opinion surveys conducted by Levada Center, only a quarter of the population agrees with the statement that there is a war going on between Russia and Ukraine, while 60-70% categorically deny that assertion. But Putin is the cause of the economic crisis and the widespread poverty of the Russian population. Putin started the war with Ukraine, turned Russia into an increasingly isolated country, and brought about sanctions. About half of the videos will be about that.

The second direction will be about the advantages and the value of a democratic system. About the fact that fair elections, free mass media, separation of power and rule of law make individuals wealthier and make the society more just. The problem in Russia is unfortunately not only with Putin, his gang, and corruption. Russians have a very poor political education. For example, according to a recent poll, the number of Russians who associate democracy with procedures that guarantee the accountability of the government to its people does not exceed 20% of the total population. The Russian society is ill: with a lack of confidence in its own strength, with cynicism, apathy, and simultaneously with aggression towards neighboring countries and people. If my videos contribute even a little bit to the healing of this nation, I will know that my project was not started for nothing.

by Leonid Martynyuk

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