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Moscow's man triumphs in Russia's Far East How the Kremlin took back Primorye's gubernatorial election

Meduza
Primorye Acting Governor Oleg Kozhemyako casts his ballot, December 16, 2018
Primorye Acting Governor Oleg Kozhemyako casts his ballot, December 16, 2018
Yuri Smityuk / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On December 16, Russia’s Primorsky Krai held another gubernatorial election. This was the third vote in the past four months: officials threw out the last results due to mass falsification in favor of United Russia’s candidate, then acting Governor Andrey Tarasenko, who was promptly replaced with Oleg Kozhemyako. Incidentally, that's who won Monday’s election, receiving a healthy 60 percent of the vote. Communist Party candidate Andrey Ishchenko, who narrowly lost to Tarasenko in September, wasn’t allowed to participate this time. In a report for Meduza, special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev traveled to Vladivostok and learned how Kozhemyako cruised to victory with the help of political strategists from Moscow and financial investments from the federal government.

Kozhemyako denies that the ballot registration process was manipulated to keep viable competitors out of the race. He argued that the opposition simply lacks constructive ideas. A source in Kozhemyako’s campaign told Meduza that the acting governor actually hoped to face Ishchenko in the election, seeking a “clean contest” to wash away Tarasenko's September fiasco.

With this in mind, United Russia deputies contributed 58 endorsements to Ishchenko to help him pass the “municipal filter” (a statutory provision requiring candidates to enlist the support of a certain number of municipal deputies, in order to compete in an election). It wasn’t enough, however. Ischenko needed 140 signatures, he got 147, but election officials invalidated 13, ruling that 11 of the signatures came from deputies who had already endorsed other candidates and two were from people who weren’t actually municipal deputies. According to Vyacheslav Belyakov, a local political strategist who advised Kozhemyako’s campaign, Ishchenko waited too long to submit his registration paperwork, getting disqualified intentionally, in order to avoid another race while saving face.

A demonstration in support of Andrey Ishchenko, September 22, 2018
Alexey Mirny / TASS / Vida Press
Communist Party candidate Andrey Ishchenko makes a speech after the second round of voting, September 17, 2018
Alexander Khitrov / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Ishchenko had good reason to want out of gubernatorial politics: when political strategists from Moscow showed up to help Kozhemyako’s campaign, news segments about “defrauded co-investors” started appearing on TV (read more about these activists here). The broadcasts featured protesters who accused Ishchenko, whose small construction firm owns two apartment buildings, of disrupting a third housing project and using his status as a regional legislator to pressure their landlords into selling him the property.

Kozhemyako might have faced another viable opponent in Vitaly Verkeenko, the recently retired mayor of Vladivostok, who spent nearly a year in office building a solid political reputation. In late October, Verkeenko wrote a Facebook post about the gubernatorial race with oppositionist overtones, but instead of promoting his own candidacy, he named local Federal Security Service head Igor Struchkov as a worthy candidate. In the end, Verkeenko chose to return to his car business, which incidentally relies on close cooperation with regional officials. (Apparently, he decided not to tempt fate.)

So what did Kozhemyako do to win?

His campaign spent a lot of money on the election, especially on the mass media, ranging from ads in the traditional news media to promoted content on Telegram channels and Facebook. The campaign disrupted temniki (set guidelines for news coverage) to orchestrate positive content about Kozhemyako and negative content about Ishchenko, and even paid some outlets to “block” reports containing any information (good or bad) about Vitaly Verkeenko. Kozhemyako reportedly funded this entire operation with his own money, relying on the $430 million his family made over the summer, when it sold its local fishing business.

Kozhemyako also leveraged his ties to the Kremlin, wielding Moscow’s sizable resources in the two months he spent as acting governor, earmarking new spending programs across the region in an apparently successful effort to convince voters that he alone is their lifeline to federal subsidies. He announced billions of rubles in state funding for healthcare, housing, dam construction, and flood control, and he hijacked Ishchenko’s initiative to grant special benefits to roughly 80,000 senior citizens. A few days before the election, President Putin even signed a law moving the capital of Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District from Khabarovsk to Primorye’s capital in Vladivostok.

Before the voting on December 17, every single nominally opposition candidate in the race declined to use the independent election observers the “Golos” movement made available for free. LDPR candidate Andrey Andreichenko told Golos and Meduza that his campaign already had more than enough volunteers and didn’t need outside help. On election day, however, Meduza visited several polling stations where there were no LDPR observers whatsoever. At least one Golos observer who cooperated with Kozhemyako’s campaign says he witnessed “carousel voting” orchestrated by someone he later saw paying Kozhemyako’s observers in cash.

Some experts, like mathematician Sergey Shpilkin and electoral geography expert Alexander Kireev, have highlighted irregularities in Monday’s results, but Andrey Andreichenko was the only candidate to report any voting violations, and election officials dismissed his claims immediately.

What about Andrey Ishchenko? He now refuses to comment on gubernatorial politics, saying he’s returned completely to his construction business. When Meduza asked Ishchenko about Kozhemyako’s victory, his only response was: “They steamrolled it through.”

Ilya Zhegulev reporting from Vladivostok

Summary by Kevin Rothrock