Insider resistance, Siberian-style Opposition candidates almost never win governorships in Russia. Here’s how a group of Communist politicians and small-town mayors is trying to break that trend.
For five years, the Irkutsk region was a “red” region — in other words, it had a governor from the Russian Communist Party (KPRF). Sergey Levchenko had won a competitive race against a candidate from the national ruling party, United Russia, but last year, he resigned from his post. Levchenko had been planning to compete for a second term, but he faced pressure to quit from the federal government. Acting Governor Igor Kobzev, who was appointed to replace him, was imported to Irkutsk by federal officials from a city more than 3,000 miles away. Local mayors and even United Russia officials aren’t excited about what he’s brought to the table, and he’s up for election on September 13. Meduza correspondent Andrey Pertsev traveled to Irkutsk to see how this independent-minded area of Siberia is taking on a Kremlin-backed leader and why the opposition might actually win.
Until very recently, the Irkutsk region was known as the area of Russia where opposition sentiment was strongest and opposition politicians had the best chance at success. In 2018, a plurality of the region’s legislative seats were held not by United Russia members but by Communists, a major abnormality. In 2020, when the Khabarovsk region stole the spotlight as Russia’s center of anti-Kremlin energy following the arrest of its then-governor Sergey Furgal, Irkutsk’s protests in support of Furgal were even larger than those in Moscow or St. Petersburg.
Now, it is once again the Irkutsk region’s turn to test the bounds of Russia’s gubernatorial politics. After a series of scandals, Communist governor Sergey Levchenko was forced to resign. His replacement, a former federal deputy minister named Igor Kobzev, is now up against a different Communist — former FSB officer Mikhail Shchapov. Shchapov also brings his status as a current State Duma deputy into the race, something no other opposition candidate in the country can boast. Meanwhile, Kobzev wasn’t even the top pick for acting governor among the local United Russia crowd, and he stands a real chance at losing.
Rumor has it that being governor of the Irkutsk region is something like teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts: people rarely last more than one term. Pavel Dobrodeyev, a former executive official in the region who now works for the KPRF, said new governors of all parties often face so much suspicion that people start wondering whether each one signs a resignation letter in advance, with only the date left blank.
In Communist Sergey Levchenko’s case, state TV channels started playing videos that layered dirt over the new governor’s reputation. One showed him killing a bear. Others revealed that a company associated with Levchenko’s family had been winning government contracts. When floods devastated the region in summer 2019, the tepid government response didn’t help Levchenko’s career. Still, Dobrodeyev said much of the controversy was generated on purpose, and it escalated when Levchenko said he would seek a second term. In 2019, one of the governor’s ministers was arrested on illegal logging charges, ramping the pressure up to new heights. When Levchenko finally resigned, he made clear that it was his decision, but not a fully voluntary one. Local KPRF officials told Meduza that the party might be able to gain in some ways from its governor’s resignation — in other regions, parliamentary parties have had their state funding increased after opposition leaders yielded the governor’s chair.
One would think that Levchenko’s exit could only have been to United Russia’s advantage — the ruling party had lost influence over the course of the Communist governor’s tenure and now had the chance to get it back. The local party’s plans for a comeback didn’t pan out, however.
At first, party leaders worked extensively to groom Sergey Sokol, the speaker of the regional legislature, to become their next gubernatorial candidate. Sokol has close ties with an influential man by the name of Sergey Chemezov, who leads the major federal corporation Rostech. “Typically, Sergey Chemezov’s opinion always got taken into account when it came time to choose a governor for the Irkutsk region,” a source in the regional legislature told Meduza. This time, though, Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Igor Kobzev, a total outsider to the area, and Chemezov was “seriously displeased,” the source said.
Kobzev isn’t actually running as a United Russia candidate — on paper, he’s running as an independent—but he’s still very clearly presenting himself as the Kremlin’s pick. His campaign materials argue that he’s gotten the Irkutsk region back into Moscow’s good graces, pulling in federal funding as a result. That angle hasn’t won over any of the local political parties, United Russia included. When Kobzev was introduced to top regional officials in a large ceremony, his speech was met with near-total silence instead of the usual thunderous applause, Meduza’s source in the regional legislature said.
Sokol, the local United Russia favorite, is still in charge of the party’s regional branch, but he’s left his seat as the speaker of the region’s parliament for a post representing Irkutsk in the federal Duma. Playing second fiddle to a pro-regime governor, our source explained, isn’t as good a gig as sparring with one from the KPRF. Meanwhile, Kobzev hasn’t gained any popularity. “Of course, nobody in United Russia is interfering with Kobzev’s work, but they’re not rushing to help him either, by any means!” a source in the regional government said. A newly announced rail project that involves mass deforestation around Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, has only dented Kobzev’s popularity further.
Igor Kobzev himself declined to speak with Meduza for this story. His press representatives said that he hasn’t met with journalists at all, even for press conferences, because the region is under a self-isolation order due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The mayors vs. the feds
Another line of opposition to the new acting governor comes from local mayors and municipal leaders. Bodaybo District Mayor Yevgeny Yumashev, who’s running for governor as an independent, has been at the head of this group.
In an interview with Meduza, Yumashev said, “I know all the mayors, we all talk, and none of them are happy about the fact that they’re pushing people on us who aren’t locals!” He was unafraid to name names. On one hand, Yumashev said, Sayansk Mayor Oleg Borovsky has openly opposed Kobzev: “I respect that guy. He’s not scared of anything, and he’s fighting for his constituents for real. Just a decent, principled dude doing his job.” Others, like Svirsk Mayor Vladimir Ornoyev, have earned Yumashev’s ire: “He used to be on the front lines supporting Levchenko, but now he’s jumped ship. Ornoyev signed onto Kobzev’s appointment himself.”
By and large, though, the Irkutsk region’s mayors aren’t happy with the new acting governor. A number of them supported Yumashev’s candidacy in the governor’s race, allowing him to move beyond bureaucratic hurdles and legal pressure that would usually have proved fatal. Even when Yumashev was told to step aside into a vice governor role or face potential arrest, he kept campaigning. Ultimately, the region’s election commission shut down the mayor’s candidacy, claiming that some of the voter signatures on his registration petition were invalid.
This was no surprise. Still, the Bodaybo mayor’s short-lived campaign showed the lengths to which the Irkutsk region’s municipal leaders have been willing to go to resist pressure from above. Meduza’s source in the regional legislature explained, “These are people who were elected by the local population, and they’re not used to having people coming over and bending them to their will.” When Kobzev’s hired consultants started threatening local mayors with jail time if they didn’t give money or support to his campaign, the source added, it didn’t go over well. “You can’t say that kind of stuff here, especially not to well-respected people!”
Sergey Bespalov, the head of oppositioner Alexey Navalny’s local headquarters in Irkutsk, remembered a similar situation unfolding in 2015, when the Communist governor Levchenko first won against an establishment candidate. That candidate “started putting pressure on the mayors, but they didn’t understand or accept that kind of behavior. And the entire [administrative] system has a single driving force behind it, which is the mayors,” he said. Yumashev, for one, is now throwing his support behind Communist Mikhail Shchapov’s gubernatorial campaign.
“The Siberian character”
At first, it didn’t seem as though the former FSB officer Shchapov would be Kobzev’s opposition rival. Ex-Governor Sergey Levchenko himself was poised to run again, even after his forced resignation. Bureaucratic obstacles stopped him from doing so before he could even get started. There’s a federal law in Russia that says if a governor resigns, and legislators schedule a special election to fill that governor’s seat, the ex-leader has to get permission from President Vladimir Putin himself to participate in the campaign. When Russia switched from appointing governors to electing them in 2012, this allowed Putin appointees to keep their seats by resigning and then immediately running again with the president’s permission. In Levchenko’s case, though, the law was a major blow.
Irkutsk’s gubernatorial elections were scheduled for this September anyway, so the legislature didn’t have to designate a special election — in a regular election, Levchenko would have been able to run without presidential permission. However, according to an anonymous regional legislator, a number of Putin’s subordinates traveled to the region to put pressure on United Russia representatives, who voted for the election to be labeled a special election even though its timing didn’t change. When Levchenko asked Putin for permission to run, he never received a response.
Now, Levchenko told Meduza, he’s putting his energy into supporting his replacement, Shchapov. Levchenko’s approval numbers in the region are about as high as Kobzev’s, according to sources in the Putin administration, so the ex-governor brings serious heft to his fellow Communist Shchapov’s campaign.
Meanwhile, opposition to Kobzev is growing. Yumashev, the opposition mayor, pointed out that the new acting governor chose federal-level finance moguls instead of local politicians to be his deputies. Levchenko said the new gubernatorial administration has been handing down a constant stream of unrealistic orders with absurdly short deadlines, leaving numerous projects unfinished. The former governor also pointed out that instead of retooling the region’s tax revenue, Kobzev has started taking out large amounts of credit to fund the government. Under the acting governor, the Irkutsk region’s debts have risen to 29 billion rubles ($388.6 million), which is about 14 percent as much as the region’s annual budget.
Sergey Bespalov, the local Navalny ally, is convinced that Kobzev really might lose despite his federal support. The region’s budgetary problems are getting out of hand, he said, “but what has to happen is for Shchapov to start yelling about these things.” In the early stages of his campaign, the KPRF candidate stayed relatively quiet. Bespalov is concerned that Shchapov’s FSB background and the fly-under-the-radar personality that comes with that background are holding him back.
Still, the opposition manager thinks general dissatisfaction with the regime will play a big role in next month’s election regardless of how Shchapov runs his campaign. In Mayor Yumashev’s words, it’s “the Siberian character” that might emerge victorious in the end. “The center uses Siberia as a colony for resource extraction,” the local leader concluded in frustration. “It’s simple mathematics — just look how much of our taxes goes straight to Moscow. Two thirds! And what for? So that [Moscow Mayor Sergey] Sobyanin can retile [the capital’s] sidewalks twice a year?”