“You Couldn’t Disgrace Yourself More”

August 19, 2013
Dennis Vyshinsky/ITAR-TASS

Last week, the apartment of a group of Navalny supporters was raided by Moscow police who were accompanied by Nikolai Levichev, the Duma deputy and Just Russia candidate for mayor. Levichev, whose own campaign materials have been found to contain racist and anti-Semitic content, accused Navalny’s team of compiling illegal campaign literature.

The storming of the apartment of Alexei Navalny’s supporters, which took place at the initiative of Nikolai Levichev, leader of the Just Russia party, has increased conflicts among party members. Some Just Russia members justify Levichev’s actions completely. Others do not understand them, recalling that Just Russia had never battled the opposition, but had become popular by criticizing United Russia. An expert believes that with this action against Navalny, the Just Russia members have finally parted ways with the protest electorate in order to preserve their agreements with the Kremlin.

The events in the building on Chistoprudny Boulevard provoked the latest wave of discussion about the politics of Just Russia (JR), given the party’s metamorphosis after the elections to the State Duma. During the Duma campaign in December 2011, the rating of JR members was teetering on the edge of the 7% threshold needed to get into the parliament. But in the end, the party gathered 13% of the votes and was able to attract to its side many protest voices, in part thanks to the campaign “Vote for Any Party Except United Russia” which Alexei Navalny conceived at the time.

In August 2013, Nikolai Levichev and Aleksandr Ageyev, State Duma deputies from JR were present during the storming of the apartment of activists in an informal group called “Brothers of Navalny”. For five hours, police tried to get into an apartment where there was believed to be illegal campaign materials for Moscow mayoral candidate Navalny. Although the police didn’t have a search warrant, they finally broken open the door with the aid of a chainsaw. According to the Moscow Interior Ministry Main Directorate, the forcible seizure of the apartment took place with the permission of the owner of the apartment, who did not object to the “inspection.”

Alyona Romashchina, the renter of the apartment on Chistoprudny Boulevard told gazeta.ru on the morning of 14 August that the landlady had not given permission for the police actions and was now intending to sue law-enforcers. But in fact, on the evening of the same day, the landlady reported that she had given permission “for an inspection to be made,” but had asked that the police not break down the door.

While the door was being sawed, JR leader and mayor candidate Levichev and Ageyev, head of his campaign staff, gave interviews to the media, explaining that a call had come into Levichev’s hot-line reporting that the apartment-dwellers were “unloading campaign literature in large quantities” at night. On the morning of the 14th, Levichev and Ageyev filed a complaint with the Moscow City Elections Commission regarding unregistered campaign materials.

At Just Russia, members are divided in their perceptions of the events related to the break-in of the apartment.

On the night before, Oleg Pakholkov, a JR faction member in the State Duma, was demonstrating to journalists the confiscation of the material as evidence of unlawful campaign literature. He is sure that the party appreciates Levichev’s action; “after all, they caught Navalny red-handed.”

Pakholkov doesn’t understand why the police needed a search warrant to saw the door, and break into the apartment and search it. “What methods the police used to establish that Mr. Navalny was violating the law, lawful or not so good, it doesn’t matter,” the law-maker said. “Unlawful campaign leaflets in fact were there. There was a search of the apartment; based on the statement that came in (The Moscow Interior Ministry Main Directorate said the report came from Levichev’s campaign headquarters—gazeta.ru), the police had the right to enter the apartment and inspect it. If when the officers had begun knocking, someone had come out with their passport and stated who he was, then the gentlemen police officers would have nothing left to do but leave and return with a search warrant.”

Pakholkov noted that negotiations with the “Brothers of Navalny” went on for several hours, but none of them came out. “And what if there were terrorists there, what, are they supposed to just turn around and leave?” asked the deputy. According to Pakholkov, by not opening the door, the activists acted like “professional provocateurs of the police,” and after the door was broken down, they couldn’t provide their identification papers.

“But meanwhile, when they were dragged out on to the street for resisting the police, they shouted professionally to journalists that they had shown the apartment lease. I haven’t seen such play-acting in a very long time,” Pakholkov told gazeta.ru, imitating the shouts of the detainees, who spent the night at the Basmanny District Interior Ministry Department [police station]. Two of them – the activists Oleg Kozlovsky and Vasily Drovetsky – were sentenced to 10 days of administrative arrest for failing to obey the demands of police officers. Roman Pereverzev and Kirill Andreyev were each fined 1,000 rubles.

Pakholkov also claims that he himself did not take part in the search but only took several leaflets from one of the boxes. “Yes, I confess, I took several leaflets from there and brought them out. I didn’t take part in the search and didn’t even go into the apartment, I took a package that was on top in order to show to journalists. It turned out that Mr. Navalny did this all very badly and unlawfully – he’s the good guy, but those that managed to prove that he was violating the law, they’re the bad guys,” said the deputy. Asked why Just Russia didn’t limit itself to just a statement to the police, but took an active part in the storming of the apartment, he replied that members of Levichev’s campaign staff and the candidate himself wanted to “monitor the police.” He also believes that the party and its mayoral candidate Levichev will not suffer reputational harms related to the events on Chistoprudny Boulevard.

Deputy Oleg Nilov believes that Navalny’s campaign headquarters paid for their use of double standards.

“If crooks are involved in unlawful enterprise, then they’re crooks. And if crooks are involved in campaign PR methods that are unlawful, and find money for this, and print campaign materials, why aren’t they crooks?

I believe that they are crooks. If they just found two leaflets there, that would be one thing, it would be sad. But they discovered two tons of materials there – it’s another thing,” notes Nilov. “We were hearing from them, “Anything goes for friends, the law is for enemies.’ What, now the poles have changed? Nilov believes that the police acted within their authority since they were stopping the actions “of criminals who had locked themselves into the apartment.” In Nilov’s opinion, the questions for the police, who opened the door without a court order, could only arise if there hadn’t been dubious campaign materials behind the broken door.

“When a bandit, a criminal, a murderer, a narcotics dealer are caught, do you also believe that you have to observe absolutely all the letters and punctuation points?,” he asked.

“More dangerous for the country are the crooks and criminals who violate the law selectively,” he said. “The most important thing is what was behind that door. If there are criminals behind the door, then I believe that yes, you can ask at the appropriate time, why did they take so long to break down the door, why did they have no decrees, decisions or  warrants as it seems to you, but that is all secondary. What’s primary is whether it’s a criminal or not, a violator of the law behind the door who is waiting it out for hours, or not. For me, these details are very important, and the devil is in those details.”

However, far from all of Levichev’s fellow party members approve the actions of his campaign headquarters.

Oksana Dmitrieva, deputy chairman of the JR faction in the State Duma was bewildered by the events that had occurred. Dmitrieva plans to raise the actions of Levichev’s campaign staff at the next party congress, which will take place in the fall.

Recently, she criticized the campaign headquarters for a scandal that broke out around Levichev’s campaign newspaper in which journalists discovered that the correct answer to a word-puzzle question about Jews was “Yid.” As gazeta.ru wrote earlier, if Levichev gets only a low percentage of votes in the mayoral election, this could lead to serious internal party consequences and provoke public dissatisfaction by various groups of JR members over the current course of the party. Ever since the Duma elections, the party’s policy has changed drastically. The JRs managed both to take part in the rallies on Bolotnaya Square and publicly renounce the white-ribbon movement, and expel from their ranks party members who disagreed.

Until now, Just Russia had never fought with anyone else during the elections except the party of power; this antagonism to other opposition members is happening for the first time, notes Dmitrieva.

“I am bewildered. In the years I have taken part in political activity, and run election campaigns, I always fought against United Russia. For that, they tried to strip us of our registration, and arrested the print runs of our campaign literature, although we were not guilty of anything. We were battling the elephant, so to speak, the ‘bear,” and we didn’t pay attention to the rest,” she said.

“It is surprising that such a thing could happen at all. If it is true what the media are reporting, then the participation of Just Russia in this operation looks more than strange,” Ivan Grachev, chairman of the Duma Committee on Energy agreed. Grachev believes that they had to wait until after the elections (for mayor of Moscow), since it is then that the party will be able to evaluate the campaign and draw conclusions. But in Grachev’s opinion, serious changes and the election of a new chairman of the party are not expected; there have always been groups of both supporters and opponents of Levichev among JR members.

Oleg Shein, a deputy from the Astrakhan Region Duma who left the Coordinating Council of the opposition earlier at the party’s behest could not find words to comment on the actions of Levichev’s campaign staff. He did note, however, that the attitude toward such events in principle is entirely obvious.

Sharp commentary directed at Levichev’s campaign staff can be heard only from former party members.

“The vice-speaker came to a search at some apartment. Can you imagine that the vice speaker of the US Congress would head up a brigade to storm an apartment where supposedly the leaflets of his opponent were being printed? Just imagine the news in any other country – in Germany, France. A normal person would have their hair stand on end,” said Gennady Gudkov indignantly. Gudkov was expelled from Just Russia in March for opposition activity.

The former deputy recalled that the success for JR in the 2011 elections was ensured by Navalny, Ilya Yashin and other politicians who called for voting for any party except United Russia (Gudkov counts himself among them). Now those party members who appeared at State Duma meetings with white ribbons are publicly disassociating themselves from the protest movement. According to Gudkov, the “betrayal” in JR occurred not on 13 August 2013, but much earlier. The deputy recalls how on 27 October of last year at the party conference, “as people hooted, the persecution was announced of all those who criticized the government, supported the protest movement and had fought for honest elections.” The initiator of the new line was Levichev, says Gudkov.

“If people have any sense at all of honor and conscience, of course they must change the party immediately. They cannot disgrace themselves any further. I was simply embarrassed,” he said.

“I know some of the people, and I know that they went there against their own will, because they had nowhere else to go. I will not name names, but there are people who are threatened with a criminal case and can get off only by supporting Mironov (Sergei Mironov head of the JR Duma faction—gazeta.ru) and Levichev. What Levichev did yesterday finishes him off for any normal, decent person,” said Gudkov confidently.

Yevgeny Minchenko, head of the International Institute for Political Expertise believes that the internal conflicts in the JR are sufficiently serious that the story of the seizure of the “Brothers of Navalny” apartment will be used in an internal party struggle against Levichev. Meanwhile, the expert does not agree with the opinion, widespread on social networks, that Levichev has buried himself as a politician.

“I believe that after the results of the Moscow elections are seen, there will be some reckoning and a decision will be made,” he said.

In 2011, Just Russia was so successful because it could become a force that personified “the moral leftist protest” against the Kremlin line, says political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. Meanwhile, the party was built as the “second leg” of the party of power, and therefore always united the apparatchiks. “Levichev is an organization man, a functionary, a wonderful apparatchik. As a wonderful apparatchik, he determined that the main thing is to build the correct relations with the Kremlin. From there comes the money and the access to the elections. In that sense, Levichev is not a public figure but an insider, an apparatchik politicians,” says Oreshkin.

As Oreshkin explains, Levichev was faced with a difficult choice: he was forced to sacrifice the protesting electorate to fulfill deals he had made with the government.

As a result, Just Russia has to reconcile itself with its image as a “bureaucratic party” since the chapter of the protest movement has now been closed, believes Oreshkin. “Levichev’s position in that sense is doomed. He cannot become a public politician, that is not his niche. And now he has emphasized that he is an apparatchik, he’s virtually become an informer. For the protest electorate, that’s not pretty, it’s bad. That means he will be forced to bid farewell to the protest electorate for the sake of keeping his deals with the Kremlin,” says Oreshkin.