A glitch in the system The rise and fall of Sardana Avksenteiva, once the most popular mayor in Russia
Sardana Avksentieva is stepping down after almost two and a half years as the mayor of Yakutsk, a port city in eastern Siberia. Until January 11, she was one of the only sitting heads of a Russian regional capital who won office by defeating a candidate from United Russia, the country’s ruling political party. Sometimes called the “people’s mayor,” Avksentieva was popular beyond her hometown. As soon as she took office, she sold off the city government’s expensive SUVs, then lowered public transportation fares, and last year she announced plans to transfer city employees to open offices on the outskirts of town. She also voted against constitutional amendments that could extend Putin’s presidency and voiced support for the self-proclaimed shaman Alexander Gabyshev, who’s repeatedly attempted treks to Moscow, where he plans to “exorcize” Vladimir Putin. The “people’s mayor,” however, has now named Yevgeny Grigoryev, a member of United Russia and the winner of the Kremlin’s “Leaders of Russia’’ contest, as her successor. Sources told Meduza that the Kremlin spent years engineering Avksentieva’s resignation.
“Today, January 11, I am delivering my letter of resignation to the Yakutsk City Duma. As you know, I’ve never held on to power, nor to any position — hence, perhaps, my ability to make difficult decisions. Please don’t dramatize the situation; nobody is irreplaceable, and the history of Yakutsk is measured in centuries,” Mayor Avksentieva wrote on Instagram. She cited health problems as an explanation. “The reason is stress and constant anxiety for the city. I have to admit that I can’t work 24/7. Tomorrow, I’m going to the hospital for surgery.”
In the same post, Avksentieva named her successor — her deputy mayor, Yevgeny Grigoryev. She called on constituents to vote for him in the elections scheduled to take place in the spring of 2021. In the following post, she added that Grigoryev is also supported by Aysen Nikolayev, head of the Sakha Republic. Both Nikolayev and Grigoryev are members of United Russia, while Avksentieva ran as an opposition candidate, defeating United Russia nominee Alexander Savinov, the speaker of the Yakutsk City Duma and the preferred candidate of Aisen Nikolayev (who previously served a long term as Yakutsk’s mayor).
In the comments on Avksentieva’s post, many citizens expressed their disapproval of the mayor’s choice of successor. “As a psychologist, in my opinion, Grigoryev looks like more of an opportunist than a fighter. It’s unfortunate you chose such a successor. I won’t be voting for him in the election,” wrote user mmanasytova. “So the city voted against United Russia, instead choosing you, and now you’re suggesting we vote for a United Russia candidate?” wrote user vladimir_dsone. More than a few users expressed similar sentiments. Commenters from Yakutsk and other cities, however, wished Avksentieva good luck, still calling her the “people’s mayor.”
Avksentieva’s resignation came as a surprise to most Yakutsk residents, despite the fact that local media began reporting on rumors about her resigning for health reasons back in November. Avksentieva herself was evasive, writing on Instagram, “Today I woke up to dozens of messages about how I’m sick, dying (or already dead), and stepping down as mayor 👻. Actually, I’ve taken a few vacation days to get checked out after some of my health markers were out of the ordinary. But when you’ve been alive for half a century, these things happen 🤒. You might have noticed that in my two and a half years at this job, I haven’t taken a sick day, I’m always on duty. Maybe that’s why rumors about my deterioration have caused such a commotion.” Exactly two months later, she resigned. The Yakutsk City Duma is slated to accept her resignation on January 14.
A source close to the presidential administration confirmed to Meduza in February 2020 that a “general decision about Avksentieva’s departure” had already been made. The source said that they still hoped to “work it out amicably,” but that there are also ways of ensuring the involuntary resignation of heads of municipalities: they can be dismissed by members of the Yakutsk City Duma after a declaration of no confidence from the governor, or after a second unsatisfactory assessment in the city’s annual report.
It’s possible that these plans were interrupted — initially by the coronavirus pandemic, and then by the protests in Khabarovsk that followed the arrest of governor Sergey Furgal from the LDPR, who, just like Sardana Avksentieva, was elected in a wave of opposition; perhaps the Kremlin was concerned that people in Yakutsk would follow suit and protest in defense of their mayor.
“There were no particular complaints about her work — she was in contact [with the presidential administration], she took part in mayoral training, she wasn’t a political outsider. But the fact that she occupied this post, the fact that she beat Savinov, was a glitch in the system that needed correcting,” a source told Meduza in February 2020, explaining that Avksentieva was supposed to be replaced by a young employee from Aisen Nikolayev’s team. This might be referring to Yevgeny Grigoryev, although Grigoryev started working in the Yakutsk administration back when Nikolayev was still the mayor (he served from 2012 to 2018).
Avksentieva’s victory in the 2018 Yakutsk mayoral election was also unexpected; she ran as a member of the little-known Russia’s Rebirth Party and wasn’t yet a public figure, despite some political experience. She had worked for a long time in the Yakutsk city administration, and she was working as the director of the Aerotorgservis commercial complex in Yakutsk’s airport at the time of the election. Additionally, while protests aren’t uncommon in the region (which exhibited Vladimir Putin’s lowest-ever level of support in the 2018 presidential election) and pro-government candidates often lose local elections, Yakutsk itself had always been led by United Russia candidates until Avksentieva became mayor.
One of the main reasons for Avksentieva’s victory was her support for a popular local politician, legislative assembly member Vladimir Fedorov. He ran as a member of the Rodina Party and was initially considered the favorite, but the party withdrew his candidacy. A political strategist from the presidential administration told Meduza that this was done at the Kremlin’s behest; members of the administration didn’t want a “convict with his own opinion” serving as mayor.
Fedorov didn’t take his suspension lightly and openly endorsed Avksentieva in response. He showed up at meetings with voters alongside Avksentieva, introduced her to people, and declared the two of them a team. Images depicting the two politicians as Agents Mulder and Scully from “The X-Files” television series began appearing in the local media (Fedorov resembles David Duchovny, the actor who plays Mulder). In the end, Sardana Avksentieva won 41 percent of the votes, while United Russia candidate Alexander Savinov got just 31 percent.
Notably, Aisen Nikolayev (who supported Savinov) had no trouble winning the gubernatorial election on the same day.
A shaman, the Constitution, and a move across town
It didn’t take long for Sardana Avksentieva to become popular. She quickly lowered the cost of a ride on public transportation and announced that she would sell the city’s fleet of luxury vehicles. She also started an Instagram account, which became one of her main methods of communicating with constituents. Vladimir Fedorov became her deputy mayor.
In March 2019, when indigenous residents of Yakutia held a protest after a local resident was raped by a person from Kyrgyzstan, Mayor Avksentieva met with the protesters. According to a source from the mayor’s office, this was at the request of Sakha Republic administration members, who recognized Avksentieva’s popularity and the power of her words.
However, not long after, Avksentieva took a step towards the establishment, joining the ranks of United Russia supporters.
According to a source close to the regional authorities, relations between the Yakutsk mayor and the governor were strained. “After his candidate was defeated, Aisen [Nikolayev] was jealous — he had believed his opinion was the decisive one in Yakutsk.”
In September 2019, based on a recommendation from the prosecutor’s office, Vladimir Fedorov was fired from his position as deputy mayor after the administration determined that he didn’t have the appropriate level of education; he only had a bachelor’s degree and they demanded a master’s.
For awhile, Avksentieva continued to behave in ways that defied United Russia and the nation’s political establishment. Even before Fedorov was fired, she supported Alexander Gabyshev, the self-declared shaman who set out to “exorcise Putin” from Moscow. In the summer of 2020, Avksentieva openly voted against Russia’s constitutional amendments, even displaying her ballot publicly. The state media began criticizing her more actively in response.
“A number of websites continue to distort the facts day in and day out. Yes, I might not be the best mayor in our city’s history, but I’m also not the worst, as they’re trying to portray me. Unprecedented lies began spreading about me after the election. This was to be expected. I won’t be surprised if they try to prosecute me,” Avksentieva wrote on Facebook. One of her deputies, Vasily Gogolev, had been prosecuted the previous year, and he was convicted in 2020 of abuse of power and sentenced to four years in prison.
One of Avksentieva’s last high-profile initiatives in office was her decision to sell the downtown city hall building. The plan was for the administration to relocate to the city’s outskirts, to a building with an open floor plan instead of separate offices. According to Alexey Tolstyakov, Avksentieva's press secretary, the mayor's resignation will not change these plans. (Tolstyakov told Meduza that Avksentieva is currently not offering any interviews or comments as she is “preparing for surgery.”)
According to a source close to the Kremlin, Avksentieva and the presidential administration initially discussed her nomination to the State Duma, either as a representative of a single-mandate district or as a member of a party (the Sakha Republic is currently represented in the Duma by Fedot Tumusov from the Just Russia Party, the sole representative from his district; he did not respond to Meduza’s requests for comment). In the end, however, this plan was “put on hold,” according to the source.
Vladimir Fedorov, who now works as the development director for one of Yakutsk’s largest companies, told Meduza that he’s considering running for mayor against Avksentieva’s successor, Yevgeny Grigoriyev. “I’ve had the thought, but I haven’t decided yet — I’m assessing the situation, holding consultations. The citizens are saying, ‘Fedorov, run for mayor!’ I can do the work, I’m not just an armchair expert, but you have to evaluate everything. A run for office should be for the good of the people,” he said, declining to comment on Yevgeny Grigoryev’s candidacy and adding only that he “respects Sardana and her decision.”
According to Fedorov, Yakutsk residents are still in shock after Avksenieva’s resignation announcement. “How is this possible? What happened? Sardana downplays her departure and her frustration when she’s among the people to avoid a second Khabarovsk. But the people understand everything, they’re worked up. The mayor was pressured to leave — this was all planned,” Vladimir Fedorov said.
“Judging by comments on social networks and online forums in Yakutia, few people actually believe she’s retiring for health reasons,” said Yakutsk journalist and political analyst Vitaly Obedin. “Most people believe that political and administrative pressure is behind it.”
“Immediately after the resignation announcement, Aisen Nikolayev, the head of the region, stressed publicly several times that everything had been discussed with him in advance,” Obedin says. “But, of course, the cherry on top was the mayor and her deputy’s completely humiliating trip to see Mr. Grigoryev and get his blessing. Look at the situation from the outside: a sick woman on the eve of an operation, after announcing a decision that could have been either voluntary or forced, for some reason goes with her deputy-successor to the governor for a personal reception, then poses in front of the cameras, and he approves it all.”
“It’s clear that it’s been difficult to elect a candidate loyal to the authorities to the State Duma with Avksentieva at the head of the city, and Aisen Nikolayev has long dreamed of regaining control of the city,” says Ilya Paimushkin, a political scientist who participated in Avksentieva’s mayoral campaign. “In the governor’s mind, reaching an agreement with her about leaving kills several birds with one stone: a popular mayor is leaving; a loyal candidate, Grigoryev, will get elected in the special election, which will be held as soon as possible [spring 2021]; and State Duma elections might take a different course, making it possible to push out Fedot Tumusov (a member of the Just Russia Party and Yakutia’s current representative in the Duma) from the single-mandate district.”
Sardana Avksentieva’s successor, Yevgeny Grigoryev, is the winner of the Kremlin’s “Leaders of Russia” contest. A source told Meduza that the competition itself features a training program that cites Avksentieva as a negative example of municipal leadership. “They say she spends time on PR while doing little for the city.”
“But that clearly isn’t the case. Yakutsk lives on and everything’s fine there,” the source said.
Translation by Sam Breazeale