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Russia’s 2020 elections hotspots A semblance of real political competition makes the upcoming vote worth following in several regions

Source: Meduza
Gleb Shchelkunov / Kommersant

On Russia’s unified day of voting, September 13, residents of 18 regions will elect governors, another 11 regions will vote for local parliamentary deputies, and 22 regional capitals will hold city council elections. In several regions, the results may not be in favor of the authorities’ preferred candidates, in spite of the new three-day voting rules, which can create increased opportunities for manipulating the election results. “Meduza” special correspondent Andrey Pertsev offers a quick guide to Russia’s most interesting and unpredictable regional and local election campaigns. 

Irkutsk Region: The FSB Communist vs. the Kremlin’s outsider

The Irkutsk Region, located in southeastern Siberia, is very likely to see a second round of voting in the upcoming gubernatorial elections. In 2015, the government-backed candidate, acting governor Sergey Eroshchenko, failed to secure a win during the first round of voting and in the second round he lost to Communist Party (KPRF) deputy Sergey Levchenko. In December of last year, Levchenko stepped down — his party considered it a “forced-voluntary” move: the Kremlin had long wanted to remove the Communist Party governor from his post. 

The interim post was taken up by an outsider — Igor Kobzev, the former deputy head of the Emergency Situations Ministry, who hails from the Voronezh Region in Western Russia. The Irkutsk Region has always been weary of strangers, on top of the fact that Kobzev’s paramilitary management style has alienated local officials and businessmen. A sign of this discontent was municipal deputies endorsing the candidacy of Bodaybo District Mayor Yevgeny Yumashev in his run for governor. As a rule, local assemblies are controlled by regional heads or influential businessmen, most of the parliamentary seats are occupied by deputies from the ruling party, United Russia, or independent candidates loyal to the authorities, who either back the acting governor or a dummy candidate. But instead of calling into question the municipal deputies’ signatures in support of Yumashev’s nomination, regional election officials invalidated a number of his supporting signatures from regular citizens and refused to register him as a candidate.

Igor Kobzev’s most serious competition is Communist Mikhail Shchapov — a former FSB officer who is currently a deputy in the State Duma. Shchapov’s campaign emphasizes the fact that he’s from the region and that he will demand respect for the resource-rich Irkutsk Region from the federal center. Kobzev has taken the opposite approach, positioning himself as the candidate from Moscow: his campaign says that he “restored” the capital’s “confidence” in the region. On the other hand, his campaign is showing signs of being problematic for the authorities, since it relies heavily on “Black PR” — going so far as accusing the Communists of alleged plans to sell Lake Baikal to China. 

The Kremlin is aware of these difficulties — there’s currently a team of political strategists in the Irkutsk Region working to improve Kobzev’s odds, under the leadership of the head of the State Council’s operations office, Alexander Kharichev. 

Arkhangelsk Region: The legacy of Shiyes and a failed unification 

The far-northern Arkhangelsk Region became one of the most oppositionist regions in Russia after cities and villages across its territory began protesting against the construction of a massive landfill at the Shiyes railway station, which was meant to take in waste from Moscow. Governor Igor Orlov, who had coordinated this project with the Moscow authorities, was dismissed from his post, and the former head of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO), Alexander Tsybulsky, took over his position. Tsybulsky offered assurances that he was against the creation of the landfill and broke off the agreement with Moscow. However, Tsybulsky taking over the regional leadership led to protests from the beginning, albeit for a different reason. To increase his popularity, the acting governor proposed unifying the Arkhangelsk Region and the NAO. Although the okrug is already considered part of the Arkhangelsk Region, it has its own leader, parliament, and a separate budget (it’s what’s referred to as a “nesting doll region”). Tsybulsky suggested abolishing the NAO’s “federal subject” status, which would consequently deprive it of control over its own budget. This instantly sparked protests among local residents, who receive regional benefits and salaries that are quite high by Russia’s standards. As a result, the federal center intervened in the situation — the referendum on the unification, planned for September 13, was cancelled. The local authorities announced that the unification project had been abandoned. Nevertheless, the Nenets Autonomous Okrug became one of the only regions in Russia where the majority of local residents voted against amending the constitution during the nationwide vote Russia held from June 25 to July 1. The NAO’s population will also vote in the Arkhangelsk Region’s gubernatorial elections and it’s unlikely that this electorate will throw its support behind Alexander Tsybulsky. In the event of a low voter turnout, the tens of thousands of votes from NAO residents could play a decisive role in the overall result.

Moreover, the Arkhangelsk Region was already considered oppositionist before the controversy over the landfill in Shiyes. In 2015, Igor Orlov barely won the election during the first round (he got 53 percent), even though the candidate who came in second place (with 20 percent of the vote), regional deputy Olga Ositsyna of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), was virtually unknown in the region. This time, the politicians registered to run in the elections are of higher status and are better known. Tsybulsky’s main competition is Irina Chirkova, the head of the A Just Russia faction in the regional parliament. Chirkova actively supported the anti-landfill protests, as well as other demonstrations of popular discontent. The head of the LDPR faction in the regional assembly, Sergey Pivkov, is also quite well known. But low voter turnout could help secure Alexander Tsybulsky’s victory: some activists have called for a boycott of the elections, after entrepreneur Oleg Mandrykin, who was considered the candidate “from Shiyes,” was banned from entering the race. 

Novosibirsk Region: Team Navalny fights for power in the regional capital

The Novosibirsk Region, located in southern Siberia, is holding elections to the regional legislative assembly and the Novosibirsk City Council, which governs Russia’s third largest city. The regional capital’s municipal elections are noteworthy because an opposition coalition is taking part in the race, under the leadership of the head of Navalny’s local office, Sergey Boyko. The majority of the coalition’s nominees were registered as candidates. The coalition has managed to unite forces that are in conflict at the federal level. For example, representatives from “City Projects” — an initiative led by former Yabloko party member Maxim Katz, who Navalny has criticized repeatedly for cooperating with the authorities — are running under the coalition’s umbrella. The leader of the regional Yabloko party branch, Svetlana Kaverzina, was expelled from the party and removed from office for taking part in the coalition.

Boyko himself has experience running a successful political campaign: during last year’s mayoral elections in Novosibirsk, he came in second place. The city is currently run by Communist Anatoly Lokot. Technically, United Russia and the KPRF have divided the districts: in areas where strong United Russia members were nominated, the Communist Party nominated little-known candidates, and vice versa. However, as a result, independent candidates loyal to United Russia have become competitors for the Communist Party candidates in many areas. Due to this mess no single political force in Novosibirsk can exploit the state’s administrative resources completely. In addition, as admitted by the oppositionists themselves, election officials in the city count the votes relatively honestly, so the coalition’s candidates have a chance of getting into the city council.

Komi Republic: The Communists prevail over United Russia

There’s a serious chance that the Communist Party will win the largest number of seats in the Komi Republic’s State Council (the regional parliament). The party’s local branch is headed by Oleg Mikhailov, the young leader of the Communist Party’s faction in the republic’s legislative assembly. In the region’s capital, Syktyvkar, the Communist Party organized numerous rallies opposing the landfill in Shiyes (which is much closer to Syktyvar than Arkhangelsk, despite being in the Arkhangelsk Region). In addition, the KPRF supports the Komi national movement and has nominated its representatives as candidates for deputies. Mikhailov himself could have become a strong candidate in the gubernatorial elections, however he didn’t pass the “municipal filter” (which requires people seeking candidacy for the posts of regional heads to collect endorsements from 5-10 percent of their local city council members). 

The authorities are actively running a counter-campaign against the KPRF, to prevent it from gaining a majority in the Komi State Council. Two “red” spoiler parties were registered in the elections immediately: the Communists of Russia Party (CPCR) and the Communist Party of Social Justice (KPSS). Moreover, United Russia is actively reminding everyone about two candidates who were removed from the Communist Party’s ticket: one of them was convicted of pedophilia and the other was convicted of robbery and illegal weapons possession. 

Where else will the elections be interesting?

In the city of Shuya (located in the Ivanovo Region) three systemic opposition parties — the KPRF, the LDPR, and A Just Russia — have managed to agree on nominating a single candidate for 9 of the 11 single-mandate constituencies in the city council elections. In addition, members of the coalition have put up billboards featuring harsh criticism of United Russia.

The far-eastern Magadan Region, which became famous last year as the region that gave Russian President Vladimir Putin the lowest ratings, will hold elections for the regional legislative assembly, as well as the Magadan City Council.

In the Yaroslavl Region, former regional governor Anatoly Lisitsyn, from A Just Russia, is running in the by-election for the State Duma, and could possibly win against United Russia’s candidate, former Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey player Andrey Kovalenko.

The Republic of Tatarstan is set to hold elections for a new regional president. The republic’s current leader, Rustam Minnikhanov, is hoping to remain in the post he has occupied for the past ten years. On September 9, Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (the FBK) released an investigation uncovering millions of dollars in luxury real estate belonging to Minnikhanov’s family members. According to the FBK report, Russian businessman Ruben Vardanyan paid Minnikhanov’s wife about 3 billion rubles (nearly $40 million) for shares in a hotel and spa complex she owns in Kazan (the FBK considers this payment a bribe). In addition, according to the investigation, the president of Tatarstan’s family and the firms affiliated with it own an estimated 3.5 billion rubles (about $46.5 million) worth of residential real estate. That said, Tatarstan isn’t considered an opposition region. In 2015, Minnikhanov won 94 percent of the vote in the election for the regional leadership, according to the republic’s electoral officials. And United Russia won 72 percent of the vote in the State Council elections last year.

And finally: The Kremlin is testing its new parties at the regional level

The regional elections are supposed to serve as a training ground for the new parties created with the Kremlin’s support ahead of the 2021 State Duma elections. This includes nationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin’s For Truth party; the New People party created by Alexey Nechayev, the founder of the beauty and apparel company Faberlic; the Direct Democracy Party (better known as the “Party of Tanks”), founded by Vyacheslav Makarov, the developer behind the online role-playing game World of Tanks; and the Green Alternative party under the informal leadership of artist Vasya Lozhkin.

According to the Putin administration’s plan, as a result of these elections each of these parties should be exempt from collecting endorsement signatures for the upcoming nominations to the State Duma. To do this, a party needs only to win seats for its ticket in at least one legislative assembly by breaking the five-percent barrier in an election. Each party has been allotted a region where it enjoys the local authorities’ favoritism and administrative support.

The For Truth party was allotted the Ryazan Region, the Direct Democracy Party — the Voronezh Region, New People were to receive the Belgorod Region, and Green Alternative either the Komi Republic or the Chelyabinsk Region. However, according to Meduza’s source close to the president’s executive office, the authorities in the Voronezh and Belgorod regions wouldn’t cooperate with the leadership of the new parties. Since 1993, the Belgorod Region has been led by Yevgeny Savchenko — the only remaining “heavyweight” among the governor’s corps. Former governor Alexey Gordeev from United Russia — who is also an ex-deputy premier, former agriculture minister, and the State Duma’s current deputy speaker — maintains a strong influence in the Voronezh Region. Both politicians have enough political resources to concoct their own plans for the composition of the regional parliaments.

Consequently, New People has relied on a massive PR campaign in several regions, including the Novosibirsk Region, in particular. The Direct Democracy Party still hopes to make it in the Voronezh Region. But there isn’t a single new party that will be able to recruit regional “heavyweights” from other political forces to their ranks.

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Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Eilish Hart

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