The regime's gaffe machine Meet St. Petersburg Acting Governor Alexander Beglov, who just might be the Kremlin's worst candidate in this fall's elections
In the fall of 2019, 16 Russian regions will hold gubernatorial elections. The strangest and most widely discussed campaign among them is taking place in St. Petersburg, where voters will select new municipal legislators and the city’s governor. In dozens of precincts, local elections are being organized in secret, and groups of muscular men have stood in line at registration offices to make sure opposition candidates can’t turn in their paperwork. Russia’s Central Election Commission has threatened to cancel St. Petersburg’s local legislative races, and even the Kremlin doesn’t seem to believe in Alexander Beglov, the regime’s candidate for governor. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev has done his best to explain what’s going on in Russia’s cultural capital.
Doubts began to circulate about the Russian regime’s chances of winning the St. Petersburg gubernatorial elections early last winter: it was late 2018 when Alexander Beglov’s campaign, took off, albeit unofficially. The former presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District, whose long political career includes a St. Petersburg City Hall job from the time Vladimir Putin served as the city’s vice governor, was appointed as acting governor in October of last year.
Among St. Petersburg’s residents, expectations fell largely in the new municipal leader’s favor: many had wanted a change in the city’s leadership and hoped for somene like Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin who would speed up subway construction, improve the city’s parks, and make progress on landscaping and infrastructure more generally. The previous governor of St. Petersburg, Georgy Poltavchenko, was often rebuked for paying more attention to questions of religion and morality than to material conditions in the city. After his departure, local journalists even counted how many cathedrals Poltavchenko had managed to build in his seven years in office (though there turned out not to be all that many). Of course, nobody could forget that it was under Poltavchenko that plans first unfolded for the landmark St. Isaac’s Cathedral to be transferred to the ownership of the Russian Orthodox Church. That effort went afoul of popular protests and was never completed.
St. Petersburg’s new governor turned out to be much more like his predecessor than Moscow’s Sobyanin. They even looked alike (which immediately spurred a wave of online jokes) and prayed alike: Beglov showed the same level of interest in religion and got involved in the local cossack movement (he had previously chaired the Presidential Council on Cossacks).
Despite all of Poltavchenko’s flaws, St. Petersburg residents recognized a redeeming factor in his leadership style: he was not a publicly active politician, and those he governed rarely had to see him. In one interview, the former governor even said people shouldn’t care much who leads them: “For me, the ideal scenario is that nobody would know about me at all.” Alexander Beglov, on the other hand, began appearing in the media with astonishing frequency months before election day.
When the Kremlin favorite tried to win over hearts and minds in Petersburg, his campaign quickly backfired.
In the few months following Beglov’s appointment, he failed to make any clear achievements unless you count generous gifts to the city from the federal center. Putin promised St. Petersburg a new park in a newly planned complex that would also house Russia’s Supreme Court. Another presidential present was to be a Putin-approved high-speed rail line from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
Meanwhile, the acting governor himself focused on public relations, which did not turn out to be his strong suit. Even Beglov’s first announcements in October 2018, such as a call to turn St. Petersburg into a “patriotic capital,” demonstrated that the new man in charge was hardly a seasoned leader.
Beglov also began appearing frequently on local TV screens. Usually, the segments that featured him took the form of a ride around the city during which the governor would stop to examine various locations. The electoral effect of these inspections was not what the governor expected: during the research process for this article, Meduza got several earfuls of complaints from Petersburg residents frustrated at road closures caused by the governor’s motorcade. Many began to see Beglov not as a representative of the regime who cares about his constituents but as a representative of the regime who had come to interfere in their affairs.
Those complaints were soon joined by more serious doubts about Beglov. Last winter brought masses of snow to the city, blanketing St. Petersburg’s roads and sidewalks in deep drifts. That turned out to be Beglov’s fault too: even as the city’s public services failed to clear the snow, the governor sparked further frustration by using the drifts for self-promotion. Political advisors from a team run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the notorious entrepreneur known as “Putin’s chef,” designed a media campaign in which Beglov gave out shovels to city officials so that they could clear the snow manually. The advisers then organized a service day during which the governor joined his subordinates to clear the roads. “Beglov’s shovel” became a disparaging meme, and residents began viewing Beglov’s symbolic gestures as a pattern of “solutions” that were not nearly as systemic as the problems they were meant to solve. As the city lay buried in snowdrifts for weeks, local residents watched their leader rely on tools as outdated as individual shovels.
Thanks in part to the efforts of his own PR team, Alexander Beglov quickly became a comic figure in Petersburg politics. On one occasion, the governor made a point of helping a local pensioner cross the road, but those who saw the resulting image only pointed out that the governor could have taken action to make sure that road was cleared in the first place — and that he was clearly jaywalking. A couple of weeks later, Beglov saved a woman from a burning building, but it quickly came to light that he had only greeted her when she reached the ground after first responders did the heavy lifting. In April, Beglov walked into a puppet theater during a performance for children, called himself “Uncle Sasha” (a nickname for Alexander), and asked the audience to guess at his profession. He wasn’t satisfied until somebody shouted, “our current governor!” During a May Day demonstration, Beglov decreed, “Our city is home to actively disgusting people,” though he later corrected himself and said he meant “active, creative, strong-willed people.” At the same time, city officials began taking harsher and harsher measures toward locals, underlining Beglov’s contrast with the relatively quiet Poltavchenko. On May Day, for example, police forcefully cleared out opposition marchers while leaving the rest of the city’s annual parade untouched.
The presidential administration tried to find another candidate, but Putin insisted on Beglov.
The gaffes that trailed Beglov and his team drew constant attention to the St. Petersburg gubernatorial elections even before the candidates officially threw their hats into the ring, and they are still drawing attention to this day.
The most infamous incident surrounded the efforts in Beglov’s campaign to collect the signatures required for him to run. Local activists for opposition politician Alexey Navalny published a video that seemed to show signatures for the acting governor being forged. Beglov has already promised not to submit signatures to the local election commission in the district where the forgeries were spotted, admitting, at least, that a violation had taken place.
Another scandal concerning the signatures for Beglov’s campaign had unfolded only slightly earlier, thanks once again to Navalny’s team. They claimed that students at one of St. Petersburg’s universities were being forced to sign for Beglov’s campaign. Yet another signature scandal broke out over campaign volunteers collecting signatures for Beglov in the St. Petersburg, metro, where all forms of political agitation are prohibited.
The acting governor needs signatures to run because he’s campaigning as an independent, not as a member of the ruling United Russia party. The party’s approval rating has dropped in recent months, and running under its name could hurt candidates in the fall elections. Government-backed candidates for the next Moscow City Duma race are also running as independents for the same reason. Nonetheless, in Beglov’s case, the decision to run independently seems not to have had its intended effect: voters are likely to associate the acting governor with the regime no matter what, and the signature-collection scandals are hardly increasing Beglov’s political capital.
Sources within the Russian presidential administration told Meduza that government insiders see Beglov as an “unelectable candidate.” Kremlin bureaucrats began suggesting as early as winter that the acting governor should be replaced with someone younger and more modern. However, Vladimir Putin refused to switch out his old acquaintance despite Beglov’s obvious PR problems. The final decision to stick with Beglov was made in early May.
At that point, measures were taken to strengthen Beglov’s team. Prigozhin’s advisors were pushed to the periphery, and bureaucrats from the presidential administration began visiting St. Petersburg. They were joined by representatives of the political firm IMA Consulting, which has close ties to the Kremlin. Now, Petersburg-based political consultant Alexander Seravin plays a key role in the acting governor’s administration. He is known for having worked with former Kirov regional governor Nikita Belykh in the 2014 elections and running a winning campaign in 2018 for Pskov Oblast Acting Governor Mikhail Vedernikov.
Another scandal surrounding secret local elections in St. Petersburg could also affect the gubernatorial race.
On September 8, 2019, St. Petersburg will hold both citywide gubernatorial elections and districtwide elections. The latter were also rocked by a recent scandal: opposition candidates have been unable to find out when the elections are officially declared so that they can turn in their registration paperwork on time. Other innovations apparently designed to keep candidates out of the elections if they are not under government control have included election commissions working different hours from the ones they publicly announce and lines of intimidatingly muscular young men standing in line at the commissions. These strongmen pretend to wait to turn in their own candidacy paperwork while keeping candidates who don’t have government ties from doing the same. One male opposition candidates eventually devised a method of tricking that system: he put on athletic garb and sunglasses, after which the line of fake candidates accepted him as one of their own and allowed him to register his candidacy.
Five years ago, a smaller cohort of opposition candidates encountered similar obstacles. Now, however, the number of people who are dissatisfied with the ruling government or who are simply interested in running for office on the local level has grown, creating a broader audience for scandals like these. The contrast between the current electoral chaos in St. Petersburg and the 2017 local elections in Moscow has made the scandals surrounding Beglov appear even more shocking: in Moscow, opposition candidates registered without difficulty and even won some local council seats,
However, the difference between the municipal elections in Moscow and St. Petersburg is not that the capital is a more democratic city: it’s that local councils in Moscow have almost no authority. Significant portions of their small budgets are spent on planning neighborhood celebrations, and deputies can send citywide officials suggestions on infrastructure policy that the latter are not obligated to carry out. All government power and money in Moscow is concentrated in the hands of officials from the citywide administration who have no relationships with local neighborhood councils. In St. Petersburg, on the other hand, authority over local policy is delegated to those councils, and deputies can select and fire the head of the city’s administration. Local councils appoint local housing officials as well. They have real power and real money, which means influential groups, such as the allies of St. Petersburg legislative speaker Vyacheslav Makarov, have good reason to fight over council seats. No one in the ruling government wants to share that power with the opposition.
Keeping opposition candidates out of local elections is also beneficial for Beglov’s gubernatorial campaign: Kremlin officials have been concerned about the fact that his election will coincide with local legislative ones since spring. If there were no local elections, the gubernatorial vote could be run in the same way it was in the far eastern Primorsky Krai region this winter. There, after a Communist Party candidate won the election in September 2018, the election’s results were canceled, and a new vote was held a few months later. The presidential administration then selected opponents for the new acting governor, Oleg Kozhemyako, who would only bring a limited number of observers to the polls. In this case, opposition candidates running for local council seats will likely bring in election observers who can also spot violations in the governor’s race.
Meduza has discovered that the Kremlin did discuss the idea of postponing St. Petersburg’s local legislative elections in the spring, but its officials could find no legal justification for such a move.
However, the anti-opposition antics themselves could add new fuel to that fire in the Kremlin. On June 27, Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova said in a radio interview with the St. Petersburg branch of Ekho Moskvy that she wouldn’t rule out canceling the city’s local legislative elections: “I’ve asked our lawyers to look into that possibility if we can’t put a stop to these disgraceful [violations of candidate registration procedures].”
Beglov has recruited potential rivals to work in City Hall to avoid including major parties in his election.
Usually, gubernatorial election scandals reach their peak during the registration period for candidates: that’s when the “municipal filter” (which requires regional candidates to receive a certain number of signatures from local legislatures dominated by the regime) sorts out weaker opposition candidates from any stronger ones. Before that stage, campaigns are typically uneventful. This year’s St. Petersburg elections have been an exception even to that rule: before the registration stage had even begun, a Liberal Democratic Party candidate stepped out of the race.
By all appearances, that development represented an attempt on the Kremlin’s part to avoid the scenario that emerged in Russia’s far east in 2018: in races where a pro-regime candidate was running against a more established candidate from the Communist or Liberal Democratic Parties, voters tended to choose the latter.
In St. Petersburg, Acting Governor Beglov offered Liberal Democratic Party candidate Oleg Kapitanov a post in City Hall, and Kapitanov accepted and withdrew from the governor’s race. Many St. Petersburg residents saw the move as an attempt to buy out Kapitanov and reduce political competition for Beglov.
Other politicians with a history of attracting voters’ attention who had previously expressed a desire to run will also be absent from the St. Petersburg governor’s race. Oksana Dmitrieva of the Growth Party and the Communist Party’s Maxim Shevchenko didn’t even turn in their registration paperwork, and Boris Vishnevsky, a deputy in St. Petersburg’s citywide legislature, will likely be unable to overcome the municipal filter.
The only possible opponent Beglov may face who is more or less well-known is the film director Vladimir Bortko, who was nominated by the Communist Party. Bortko has not yet initiated an intensive election campaign. However, if St. Petersburg voters decide to vote against Beglov no matter what, he may not have to.
Translation by Hilah Kohen