Russia Update: Liberal Opposition Loses in Kostroma

September 15, 2015
Alexei Navalny and Leonid Volkov - centre - on election day in the Kostroma region on September 13, 2015. Photo: Alexandra Astakhova

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

Special features:

‘I Was on Active Duty’: Interview with Captured GRU Officer Aleksandrov
Meet The Russian Fighters Building A Base Between Mariupol And Donetsk
‘There Was No Buk in Our Field’
With Cash and Conspiracy Theories, Russian Orthodox Philanthropist Malofeyev is Useful to the Kremlin


Liberal Opposition Loses in Kostroma; Second Rounds for Communist Opposition in Some Regions

While the opposition party Parnas was reinstated after a struggle to make the ballot in the Kostroma Region, after a series of dirty tricks by the authorities to smear liberal opposition, the party gained only 2.16% of the votes and, like another opposition party, Yabloko, which gained 2.31%, failed to make the 5% threshold to gain entry to the local legislature, Nataliya Zotova of Novaya Gazeta reports.

Acting Governor Sergei Sitnikov retained his seat; the ruling United Russia party gained nearly 51% of the votes and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation garnered 18% of the votes. Candidates from Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ill-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and Just Russia also obtained seats.

Some candidates who opposed the Kremlin-backed United Russia but who were not part of the Democratic Coalition had successes. Vladimir Mikhailov, a manufacturer of automobile first-aid kits and former United Russia candidate who left his party after a dispute following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, ran on the Yabloko ticket and won a seat in his district. Maksim Guterman, another former United Russia member who left the party last year also gained a seat with 60% of the votes as an independent candidate.

While nominally the Kostroma election commission finally made good on claims by Kremlin leaders that the opposition could take part in the elections, the barrage of provocations aimed at Parnas indicated otherwise. Parnas was only belatedly put on the ballot after first being disqualified on contrived technicalities.

On the day of the elections, police suddenly claimed that “a murder” had taken place in none other than the office of Open Russia, which had planned to observe the elections. Nothing of the sort had occurred, but work was paralyzed for a time. In the previous days, officials had pulled from the Kostroma-Sharya train one activist who was carrying 200,000 rubles (about $2,900) in funds to pay for observers’ hotels, and another activist, a consultant of Open Russia who reportedly had 2 million rubles ($29,000) on him, which police claimed had to be seized as it was possibly “counterfeit.”

Zotova writes that 11% of the votes came from people who voted at home
after local officials brought the ballot box to them. Records were not
properly maintained for these votes

As Zotova writes, there was more aside from these tactics (translation by The Interpreter):

The second part of the “unfair game” was the constant smearing of Parnas. Just in the last week of the campaign, a newspaper called “Kostroma Gay Parade,” whose main heroes were both candidates from Parnas, was distributed. Provocateurs came to Yashin’s meetings with voters (once a fistfight broke out). An African American with diplomatic plates on his car arrived to speak in broken Russian with Yashin [to imply he was controlled by the US]. But his red diplomatic plates turned out to be only a sticker — volunteers tore off the fake and stuck it up on the wall of the toilet in the campaign headquarters. A party calling itself “Parzas” ran against “Parnas” along with one called “Against All.”

Yashin said the deliberate attempt to create “brand confusion” had some effect.

Translation: Surprisingly, the spoiler technology against us really does work. For example at Election Precinct No. 208. Parnas – 30 votes, ParZas – 16 votes.

Leonid Volkov, an opposition activist who was the campaign manager for
Alexey Navalny in the Moscow mayoral elections in 2013, organized 200
observers to fan out through Kostroma’s provinces and monitor the vote.

in the provinces, as Zotova discovered, people hadn’t heard of Parnas
or Navalny. Usually voting takes place in local youth clubs or Soviet-era “palaces of culture,” but in the town of Mirny, the club was closed due to
lack of funds for heat and electricity, and the voting booth was put in a
clinic. Only 6 people came. A nurse complained to Zotova:

And if
a patient comes now, what am I to do? They should at least install the
window — because the flies are getting into the treatment office!
Aren’t I right?

Her answer typified concerns many villagers have about the lack of attention and spending on basic infrastructure such as roads and building repairs.

In another town called Aleksandrovo, the voting
booth was put in the post office as the club was closed there, too.
About 30 people from 7 nearby towns came; a policewoman explained to
reporters that half the towns were dead.

Photo by Evgeny Feldman

Behind the wooden
building of the post office with the proud sign “Election District,”
there was a rickety fence. Then the tall grass began, and the forest
beyond it. At a spot where the telephones were working, a man in a
oil-spattered overalls was sitting on his motorcycle. He had come from
Kostroma “to his dacha” [cottage] and to visit a local friend.

“I’m not interested in the elections. They’re always the same.”
“Have you heard of Navalny?”
“Who is that?”
“He fights corruption.”
“Well, that’s pointless,” the man interrupts and rests his elbows on the handle bars.

tell you this. My wife and son in Kostroma were told: vote for United
Russia for 500 rubles. That’s half a thousand right off! I consider that
normal money to go and put a cross. Elections, you say.

“But you vote for cash, while your roads continue to fall apart.”

“But elections won’t change anything.”

“What can you do to change things?”

“I don’t know. Likely nothing.”

Before the election, Navalny
posted the well-known Lord of the Rings meme,
showing Prime Minister
Dmitry Medvedev as Frodo and Vladimir Churov, head of Russia’s Central
Elections Commission, as Gandalf. The introduction of a “unified” or
single voting day for both local legislatures and gubernatorial elections
prompted him to think of “One ring to rule them all.”  The opposition
believed the unified day was created to deprive them of momentum that
multiple elections might have given them.

2015-09-15 16:57:03

In a post-election
, regarding the Kostroma Region, Navalny discussed the 11% home vote, and said that he believes the inflation of votes (United
Russia won 45% of the votes to the regional legislature but 38% in the
city council,) suggests ballot-box stuffing.

counseled the opposition to not even take part in the elections as
there wasn’t a level playing field, or as Navalny put it, they were
getting into a game with card sharps. But the methods of fraud weren’t
the only explanation for the opposition’s loss, says Navalny:

of this must be analyzed thoroughly and taken into account, but first,
most likely we have to state our defeat (temporary!) in the battle with
the zombie box [television] which reigns in small towns and villages
unrivaled. As they say in the “Game of Thrones,” the news space of
Westeros is dark and full of terrors.

It’s in Moscow that
television programs about the unlawful arrest of the head of the
campaign headquarters provoke protests and a stream of volunteers, and
the story of the “American diplomat” provokes laughter. In Antropovo
(3,000 voters) this is a big deal and [means] fear.

In a round
table organized by Radio Svoboda
, the Russian-language service of Radio
Liberty/Radio Free Europe, Aleksandr Kynev noted that while there were
more votes for the opposition and people were more independent from the
ruling party, turn-out was low.

While Parnas could attract 3-11%
of the votes in city elections in Kostroma, in rural elections they
would attract none or very few; it would become a regular tactic of the
authorities to ensure low turnout in the cities and high turnout in the
villages to get the result they would need, he said. He also noted that the
liberal opposition was not the only interesting story of the elections
as a whole. In Amur Region and Mary-El, the incumbents in the mayoral
elections now face a second round of voting as they could not clear 50%.

Vsevolod Naparte, another participant in the round table said
not only leftists voted for the communists, but that the victory of the
communist opposition in Irkutsk “could not be viewed as a victory for
the opposition, since there isn’t an opposition as such in Irkutsk
region, there is no politics in Irkutsk.” The vote in Irkutsk was a vote
against Yeroshenko, and not for the Communist Party or [Communist party
leader Sergei] Levchenko,” he said, while adding that Irkutsk was “one
of the few places in Russia where civil society has formed.”

Sergei Yeroshchenko, the acting governor, was accused of plagiarism before the elections, Svoboda reported earlier.

The opposition is planning a protest rally on September 20.

Translation: On September 20, we are going to the rally because Yakunin should refuse or not refuse early release from prison, and not the Federation Council.

He was referring to allegations by his Anti-Corruption Fund of corrupt practices by former Russian Railways head Vladimir  Yakunin’s offshore companies and Yakunin’s recent announcement that he would not accept the Federation Council seat offered him.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick