Russia’s electoral testing ground Welcome to Novosibirsk, where multiple opposition parties are battling for real power and setting the stage for Russia’s nationwide elections
In Russia’s Novosibirsk region, not one but two opposition groups are building up a serious challenge to the ruling party. One of them, the Communist Party (KPRF), is part of what’s known as the systemic opposition — it’s recognized by the Russian government and permitted to hold elected seats across the country. In fact, the KPRF currently controls Novosibirsk City Hall: Communist Mayor Anatoly Lokot is leading a push for the party to gain power region-wide. Meanwhile, a non-systemic opposition coalition called Novosibirsk 2020 is mounting a challenge without state recognition. Its leader, Sergey Boyko, is the head of Alexey Navalny’s local headquarters. Both groups have accused each other of working secretly with their dominant rival United Russia, led by Governor Andrey Travnikov. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev traveled to Novosibirsk to see how Russia’s ruling party and its multifaceted opposition are handling this unusually competitive race, rehearsing the tactics they’ll use in the 2021 State Duma elections nationwide.
At a recent campaign stop in front of a local mall, Helga Pirogova and Sergey Mayorov faced off to win the votes of Novosibirsk’s Borovaya and Krasnaya Gorka neighborhoods. Pirogova is part of an opposition coalition called Novosibirsk 2020, and Mayorov is an independent, but perhaps the loudest politician at the event was a former United Russia member named Alexey Alexandrov. Alexandrov, a regional legislator who was kicked out of the ruling party in 2016, tried to sway the audience away from Pirogova. “Why do people call liberals liberasts [a play on a homophobic slur]? Because in the 90s, they came into the old Soviet relationship and plundered the whole thing,” he said.
Despite Alexandrov’s protests, voters went on telling Pirogova about local infrastructure problems: the government had promised to build a new school building after tearing down the old one, they said, but it still hadn’t done so. City officials had also built a large highway through the area without adding a smaller road for ordinary residents to reach their homes.
Alexandrov tried to convince the crowd that even if she does win a seat on the Novosibirsk City Council, Pirogova wouldn’t be able to get the money to build a school because it wouldn’t be within her authority. Scolding her, he said, “You want to bring back the 90s! Not a single decision will be able to get through!”
Voters were skeptical. “The 90s are never coming back!” one woman yelled back at Alexandrov. Nobody seemed to want to listen to the regional deputy. Before long, he huffed, “You’re not my electorate,” stormed away to his car, slammed the door, and left.
Helga Pirogova went on to tell the crowd that the city could improve its infrastructure if opposition deputies get enough seats to implement their platform. While her opponent, Mayorov, walked around handing fliers to potential voters, she managed to chat with a few of them as well and give her contact information to neighborhood activists without too much trouble. In this round of the battle, victory was hers.
One of the most dramatic and unusual election campaigns Russia has seen in a long time is now unfolding in Novosibirsk and the surrounding region. On September 13, voters here will choose legislators for the region-wide Legislative Assembly as well as councilmembers for Russia’s third-largest city by population — which, as local politicians are fond of saying, is actually the country’s largest municipality in terms of geographic size.
The old and the new
The Novosibirsk region has a history of protest voting. In 2014, Communist Anatoly Lokot won its capital’s mayoral election over United Russia’s Vladimir Znatkov, who had been hand-selected by the regional regime. During that race, both the systemic and the non-systemic opposition in the region united behind the Communist Party candidate. After endorsements from several influential groups, Lokot was able to ride that coalition to victory. In elections to the federal State Duma, the Novosibirsk region has never been very eager to support United Russia. In 2011, the ruling party won 33.8 percent of the vote (despite a 49-percent nationwide average), and in 2016, that total was 38.3 percent (still much lower than the national average of 54 percent).
Russia’s recent constitutional plebiscite also went quite poorly here, at least by the Kremlin’s standards. Nationwide turnout was reported at 67.9 percent, but the Novosibirsk region only saw 47.8 percent of voters come to the polls. 67.8 percent of them reportedly voted yes, which is a full 10 percentage points less than the national average of 77.9.
Now, the region technically has two ruling parties — United Russia overall and the KPRF in its capital city. In 2017, when United Russia’s Andrey Travnikov was brought in from a city 2,000 miles away to become the acting regional governor, the two parties made a kind of informal non-aggression pact. Mayor Lokot was Travnikov’s most obvious rival, and Lokot probably would have been able to win a gubernatorial election, but he ended up deciding not to run. Soon afterward, United Russia refrained from nominating a candidate for mayor, allowing Lokot to win a second term easily in 2019.
Now, though, the political fight seems to be on once again. Novosibirsk’s elections have drawn in new parties (including spoiler parties created with Kremlin support), and those parties seem to be using the region as a training ground for the 2021 State Duma elections. In effect, the area is becoming a miniature model for the entire country: like Russia as a whole, it contains both a megacity with strong opposition movements and large swaths of rural territory.
On almost any street corner in Novosibirsk nowadays, there’s a campaign poster for the New People party. The party was created by Alexey Nechayev, who founded the beauty and apparel company Faberlic. The ads themselves are drawn up in calm, green-gray tones, but they don’t say anything at all except for the party’s name.
Stanislav, a member of New People’s Novosibirsk team who asked to be referenced by first name only, explained that Novosibirsk’s double-party situation opens room for new parties to take root. “There are good conditions for candidacy here. Usually, the opposition electorate’s second choice in any given region is the KPRF. Here, though, that’s a secondary ruling party — a Communist, Anatoly Lokot, is in charge of Novosibirsk, and people know that both inside and outside the city. That means if somebody here doesn’t want to support United Russia, then they won’t be voting for the Communists, either,” Stanislav said.
Despite their goal of gaining a foothold in the region, New People hasn’t recruited any well-known local politicians as candidates. The party’s Legislative Assembly list is led by 20-year-old Darya Karaseva, who is a new name in the region’s public sphere. According to Stanislav, that’s intentional: “What kind of new people would recruit well-known figures?” So far, the party has praised local and regional leaders for allowing more freedom to the opposition than other regional governments do. It’s also promised to bring about new waves of political agitation by adding positions to its platform over time. “So far, we’re just habituating people to our name. It attracts people. They want to know what’s behind it. Later on, we’ll tell them!” the New People team member promised.
Another new pro-Kremlin party called “For Truth!” also tried to start up an active campaign in the region. The party, led by nationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin, placed billboards around Novosibirsk, but they have since mostly disappeared. One source within the party told Meduza that the ads will eventually return, but he added that Prilepin’s team isn’t taking aim at the Novosibirsk region’s electorate specifically. Some of the parties campaigning in the region may be doing so to win legislative seats — in Russia, if a political party earns seats in any regional assembly, that party doesn’t have to collect the 200,000 signatures usually required to run for the federal State Duma. For Prilepin’s party, according to our internal source, this is not the priority. Because the Novosibirsk City Council doesn’t even have party lists, that isn’t an important target for the group either. “This is a chance to develop campaign methods, techniques to use in the State Duma election, and nothing more,” our source said. When asked how “For Truth!” would get around the signature collection requirement, he said the party is putting its hopes on the Ryazan region, where it has mounted an unusually intense campaign.
New People, meanwhile, has made clear that it’s counting on winning seats in the Novosibirsk region’s Legislative Assembly to get past the signature requirement. The party hopes to gain a foothold in the Novosibirsk City Council as well.
Existing systemic opposition parties seem to have no intention of giving up their piece of the pie in the Legislative Assembly. The most noticeable campaign to keep newcomers from taking over has come from A Just Russia, most of whose leaders are loyal to the Kremlin. Despite that fact, the party’s billboards in Novosibirsk take a rebellious position: “the people against the system.” These posters aren’t nearly as common in the city as New People’s ads, but they’re still pretty easy to spot.
Mikhail Bolshov, a Legislative Assembly candidate for A Just Russia, contrasted the party’s politics with those of the Communists. “I was in United Russia for 15 years myself, but I couldn’t change anything in the party. You propose one thing, and they push through something else. The trust rating for United Russia in the city has fallen sharply, and it’s only a little better in the region at large. People expected a lot from the Communists — they hoped the KPRF mayor Anatoly Lokot would change the situation in the city. But as it turned out, he hasn’t moved that far away from United Russia. The ‘people against the system’ project shows that there are parties who are willing to resist those in power,” Bolshov argued.
While I didn’t notice any advertising for the United Russia party around Novosibirsk, there are a lot of billboards around town bearing PSAs that star Andrey Travnikov — the regional governor and the number-one candidate on United Russia’s Legislative Assembly list. Andrey Panferov, the deputy chair of United Russia’s local headquarters, told Meduza that United Russia is leaning into conversations with voters rather than external advertising. “We’re actively holding meetings with current legislators, we’re collecting information, we’re talking to people. They’re worried about the coronavirus pandemic. People are asking us how we’re going to act, what exactly they’ll get from us. That’s what people are saying,” Panferov said. He called Governor Travnikov “the clear leader” in his upcoming race but admitted that ruling party members will be hearing some “unpleasant things” from their electorate.
A local opposition
Another major player in the Legislative Assembly elections could have been the opposition coalition led by Sergey Boyko, who’s in charge of Alexey Navalny’s Novosibirsk campaign headquarters. In 2019, Boyko ran for mayor against Lokot and won second place with almost 20 percent of the vote. In October of the same year, he announced that he was putting together a new city-wide opposition collective. In February 2020, that collective emerged as the Novosibirsk 2020 coalition. Its goals include fighting the two parties currently in power and turning Novosibirsk into a “livable city.”
However, the coalition’s candidates will not be running for seats in Novosibirsk’s regional parliament: Navalny’s political allies usually have their registration applications for those races denied. In the regional capital’s city council elections, however, there are no party lists, and each district simply chooses a winner. In 40 out of Novosibirsk’s 50 districts, there are ‘independent’ candidates who are informally affiliated with Novosibirsk 2020.
“If you hunt two hares at once, you won’t catch either one. Every volunteer assigned to a Legislative Assembly campaign would drain the campaign for City Council,” Sergey Boyko said when asked why his group is sticking to city-level elections. He added that 38 of the coalition’s candidates were able to collect the signatures they needed to make their campaigns official.
The Navalny ally described his coalition’s candidates as “people who are well-known in the city, but not all of them were in politics.” Those who were already politicians include Boyko himself, Novosibirsk’s former Democratic Choice party leader Sergey Dyachkov, former regional Yabloko party head Svetlana Kaverzina, and Alexey Mazur, a journalist and former regional legislator. Novosibirsk 2020’s political newcomers include activists Alexandra Popova, Helga Pirogova, and Daniil Markelov. Joining them are Maxim Katz and Ilya Varlamov, who work for an urban improvement nonprofit called Gorproyekty (City Projects). Katz has joined the coalition despite public conflicts with Alexey Navalny, whose regional headquarters has become a kind of home base for Novosibirsk 2020.
“Their disagreements are somewhere over there, and we’re over here. Novosibirsk is built a little differently. Here, federal disagreements don’t really function. You shouldn’t overestimate the standoff between Navalny and Katz. Our common enemy is much more clearly identified — the separation between them and us is stronger and much more noticeable,” Boyko assured me. That “common enemy” includes both United Russia and the KPRF — Boyko’s opposition team openly asserts that the two parties are allied. The boxes that Novosibirsk 2020 volunteers use to collect signatures for their candidates feature slogans calling on voters to speak out “against Lokot and United Russia,” bundling the Communist mayor into the region’s current regime.
“United Russia and the Communists have split up all the districts amongst themselves. Take United Russia’s primaries, for example: their incumbents got hundreds of votes in their own districts, but in districts that have KPRF incumbents, United Russia nominated people who have never campaigned for anything before, and only a few dozen people went to their primaries. Likewise, in districts where the people United Russia needs are running, the Communists nominated young folks who never really got their campaigns running,” Boyko explained.
Still, the opposition campaigner believes, United Russia probably won’t hold up its end of the bargain. “The Communists are vulnerable, but once you strike a deal with the devil, you have to be prepared for him to double-cross you. In a bunch of districts, there are people running against the Communists who are supposedly independents, but as soon as they get elected… I’d bet a box of cognac that after the elections, if they win, they’ll join United Russia’s faction [i.e. become non-member affiliates]. You can tell by their biographies. But technically, that wouldn’t violate their pact,” Boyko said.
Alexandra Popova, who’s running under Novosibirsk 2020’s banner in District 50, confessed during her interview with Meduza that she likes being called a social activist. “I’m a citizen who cares. This is my city. I live here, after all,” she said. “I clean up the lots around my house because the government does a bad job of it. But it just makes your blood boil — you do your neighborhood clean-up, but that’s not enough anymore. You look around at what’s happening in the city, and it drives you mad. You realize that you have to work from the inside, but to join United Russia, which is in disgrace, or the local KPRF, which is in disgrace — nobody in town would shake hands with you after that, and I value my reputation. So then you look around and ask, who else can I join? The coalition, of course. Sergey Boyko is in it, and I voted for him in the mayoral election. I know what that guy’s doing.”
Popova criticized Mayor Lokot for, as she put it, “entering into an alliance with United Russia.” Daniil Markelov, another coalition candidate, also said the mayor has been too passive. Markelov’s main rival in his race is a construction mogul and United Russia member named Alexey Dzhulai. It wasn’t easy for Markelov to collect the signatures he needed to register his candidacy: on one occasion, a large man wearing a mask destroyed his signature collection box, and Markelov’s volunteers have regular run-ins with aggressive, intoxicated young people. The candidate suspects that his opponent has been hiring thugs to hinder his campaign.
“Something has to be done. This is the third-largest city in the country, and it’s a shitshow, it’s a mess, it’s dirty and rotten. The people who made it that way were people we elected in hopes of making things better. How can the Communists call themselves an opposition party if they’ve been voting for everything United Russia proposes for five years straight? Everybody’s tired of it!” Novosibirsk 2020 candidate Maria London agreed. London is one of the group’s best-known and most outspoken members; she used to be the editor-in-chief of the TV company NTN-4. Now, she’s running against Ivan Konobeyev, a KPRF candidate who used to be a journalist for that same company.
Svetlana Kaverzina had to give up her post as the regional head of the Yabloko party to join Novosibirsk 2020. She was forced out because Boyko’s coalition also includes Rostislav Antonov, an openly imperialist activist who supports the self-declared republics in Ukraine’s Donbas region. “Still, I think they were looking for a reason. I think Yabloko has [an implicit] condition that you can’t team up with Navalny,” she hypothesized.
Antonov himself has already left the coalition, citing disagreements over the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s new constitutional amendments (both of which Antonov supports). According to Boyko, Novosibirsk 2020 decided to part ways with Antonov after he started publishing a newspaper that favored the amendments, but the coalition’s members will still support his campaign.
The Communists’ perspective
The KPRF’s campaign in Novosibirsk differs a bit from the party’s usual tactics: the Communists’ posters are bright red as always, but ads for incumbents also list the number of playgrounds they’ve built for local children. “In local elections, people are primarily interested in the local agenda — public benches, playgrounds, things like that. The opposition here also talks about what they’ve done, not about broader issues like the constitutional amendments. That’s important — people always ask, what have you done? What are you going to do?” said Andrey Zhirnov, a Communist Legislative Assembly representative.
When he spoke with me, he had just wrapped up a meeting with potential voters in Novosibirsk’s Zayeltsovsky neighborhood. Together with Communist City Council candidate Valery Naumenko, Zhirnov spoke with constituents in the yard of a private home. Most of the attendees were elderly and middle-aged women, and they appeared to see Zhirnov and Naumenko as opposition candidates, not establishment ones. “Watch out — if you start getting really active, it’ll all turn out like it did with Furgal!” warned one woman, jokingly referring to the arrest of another regional governor and the mass protests that followed.
Zhirnov accuses Sergey Boyko himself of collaborating with the current regime. “The loudest coalition candidates have all been put up against Communists, and so have the candidates with the most resources. In my district, Boyko is supporting nominees from the Strizhki corporate conglomerate — that’s a construction lobby. Boyko says he’s supporting some kind of ‘green’ team, but he should be honest and say he’s supporting Strizhki candidates who will end up joining United Russia’s faction in the City Council,” the Communist said indignantly.
In Zhirnov’s view, the coalition was put together to “tear pro-opposition citizens away from the Communists.” He added, “They [the coalition] are always repeating that the KPRF isn’t an opposition party.” The KPRF legislator emphasized that opposition support is running high in Novosibirsk. “The anti-regime mood among voters here is very strong. In Novosibirsk, almost 40 percent voted against the [constitutional] amendments even though the vast majority of people who were against the amendments didn’t show up. That’s a really alarming signal. The city budget has been squandered because of the pandemic, so things that were supposed to be done haven’t been done. Utility companies haven’t been working for more than two months. How are people supposed to live?” Zhirnov said, attempting to describe the average voter’s mindset.
Another Communist Party member spoke anonymously with Meduza about how exactly Novosibirsk 2020 might be collaborating with United Russia. He said the link between the two groups might be Viktor Ignatov, a State Duma member from United Russia who also curates the party’s campaigns in the Novosibirsk region.
A number of Meduza’s sources independently called Ignatov a political “grandmaster.” For years, he was the lead political strategist for former Novosibirsk Governor Viktor Tolokonsky. “We’re talking about the best political manager in Russia,” said a federal-level leader in the nationalist Rodina party who knows Ignatov well. The KPRF member who spoke with Meduza anonymously added that it was Ignatov who paved the way for Communist Anatoly Lokot to win Novosibirsk’s mayoral race in 2014. For two years afterward, Ignatov even worked as Lokot’s political deputy despite the fact that the two belong to competing political parties. A source close to the Novosibirsk city government said that at the time, the Communist mayor and the United Russia political advisor had “an excellent relationship.”
“Then, something happened. It may well be that there was a falling-out after the 2015 City Council elections. The Communists got 15 seats [out of 50], but they were supposed to have gotten more than half because Lokot was still in his honeymoon period with the voters. Only Ignatov could have designed that kind of situation. He likes schemes where candidates are scattered among districts. That year, he added a lot of turbulence because when party lists were eliminated in City Council elections, 10 new districts appeared, and the whole district system was redrawn. All the local players came running to Ignatov. He likes being in control of the chaos,” said Meduza’s source near the local government. Two other sources, one close to United Russia and the other close to A Just Russia, also claimed to have heard about negotiations taking place between Ignatov and Novosibirsk 2020 leaders.
Boyko, meanwhile, called the KPRF’s accusations that he’s been collaborating with United Russia “a projection” of the Communists’ own actions. “Lokot did business with Travnikov, and he didn’t even bother finding opponents for United Russia in 12 different districts. That’s despite the fact that the Communists don’t even have to collect signatures [to register their candidates]. We’re going up against United Russia and the KPRF. We don’t differentiate between the two — they’re all crooks,” he said. Fellow coalition member Alexandra Popova reacted to the Communists’ claims about secret negotiations by laughing, “It’s like we’re in kindergarten! Conspiracy theories for toddlers!”
Viktor Ignatov declined to speak with Meduza. Local United Russia leader Andrey Panferov also dismissed the idea that his party could be working with the non-systemic opposition. When asked about possible under-the-table agreements with the KPRF, however, he offered the following: “Of course, some of our candidates are stronger, and others are weaker. On a strategic level, there are neighborhoods that are of [more] interest to us. When we nominate candidates, we don’t make deals [with the Communists], but we do learn about their opinions. It’s important to know. For us, partisan squabbles are unacceptable. The entire history of the region shows that as soon as we start clubbing each other over the head, that doesn’t lead anywhere good.”
An unpredictable election
Sergey Boyko feels certain that his opposition coalition will be able to set up its own City Council faction as soon as this election is over. An anonymous source within United Russia, meanwhile, told us the ruling party would not only maintain its local and regional majority but actually decrease the Communists’ influence. The party official argued that the key to United Russia’s success are the public celebrations its legislators regularly throw for their constituents and the fact that party members distribute groceries to elderly members of their communities. He said the party’s approval rating is “fine” but didn’t name any numbers, specifying instead that the party will be relying on areas outside the regional capital to achieve the results it’s looking for. Representatives from other parties and from Novosibirsk 2020 didn’t even offer that level of approximation. They only argued that there aren’t many United Russia supporters left in the region.
Still, both Novosibirsk 2020 members and representatives from the Communist Party said that if pro-opposition voters show up at the polls, the results could be unpredictable. “The main thing is to understand how prepared the city is to pursue change, how much people want it. In 2014, that desire [for change] was off the charts, Lokot won, and we supported him. For the most part, our election commissions don’t lie over here!” said Novosibirsk 2020 candidate Sergey Dyachkov in a burst of optimism.
Translation by Hilah Kohen