Send in the clowns Political strategists working for Moscow’s mayor and Russia’s president clash over the right response to the authorities’ declining popularity and the opposition’s growing organization
The Moscow Mayor’s office and the Putin administration don’t see eye to eye about who should represent the nation’s capital in Russia’s upcoming State Duma elections. They need a candidate with enough popularity to win back votes from candidates supporting Navalny’s “Smart Vote” campaign. Meduza learned that powers in the Moscow city government wanted to run with “creative types,” namely the film director Alexey Uchitel and the actors Dmitry Pevtsov and Vladimir Mashkov. Sergey Kapkov, the former director of Gorky Park, also made the list. The Kremlin wasn’t impressed, however, arguing that television news anchors, pundits, and pro-government public personas would be a better fit. The Putin administration will likely prevail: Meduza’s sources say TV anchors Timofei Bazhenov and Evgeny Popov will compete in single-mandate races in the capital.
Meduza originally published this article in Russian on February 25, 2021.
A handful of familiar television figures will likely represent the Russian authorities in parliamentary elections held in Moscow this fall. Sources close to the Kremlin, United Russia’s party leadership, and the city’s mayoral office told Meduza that these celebrities will run for office in single-mandate districts. The candidates will include author and nature and travel programming TV host Timofei Bazhenov (in Moscow’s 200th district), “60 Seconds” talk show co-host Evgeny Popov (in the 197th district), and former “Vremya” anchor Petr Tolstoy, who’s now the State Duma’s incumbent deputy chairman.
News of Evgeny Popov’s nomination appeared previously on RosBusinessConsulting’s website, and Timofei Bazhenov’s name has already started appearing frequently in local news reports, including municipal publications and the prefecture media, as well as in pro-government online communities. In the jargon of the political strategists, this tactic is called “underglow.” The press has been talking about “Timofei Bazhanov’s Environmental Movement” and inviting the public to join the group. “No one hаs approached me [about running for the State Duma], but I am certainly not ruling it out,” Bazhenov told Meduza.
According to Meduza’s sources, Mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s team of strategists wanted the actor Dmitry Pevtsov to run in the district earmarked for Bazhenov. In Moscow’s central district, meanwhile, City Hall advocated the candidacy of former Gorky Park director Sergey Kapkov.
Sobyanin’s office also apparently considered political candidacy for the actor Vladimir Mashkov and the filmmaker Alexey Uchitel. Reports that Dmitry Pevtsov and Sergey Kapkov might run for deputy positions even appeared in the newspaper Kommersant.
“The presidential administration blocked the nomination of the actors and the film director. They say they’re creative, unpredictable people, from whom you can expect just about anything,” a source in Sobyanin’s office told Meduza.
Actor Sergey Kapkov assured Meduza that he has no intention of running for the State Duma “either in the party-list races or in the single-mandate races.” Alexey Uchitel, in turn, said he “had no knowledge” of any such plans. Vladimir Mashkov didn’t respond to Meduza’s questions. Dmitry Pevtsov also dismissed any talk of an imminent political campaign, saying, “I’m a busy person. I might get a day off every three months. But if such a far-fetched idea occurs to me, as a fully grown adult, I’ll say so directly and openly. Everybody will hear about it if it happens.”
A source close to the Kremlin told Meduza that the Putin administration’s domestic policy team wants to recruit as many public figures as possible for the next State Duma, but the president’s strategists apparently don’t want any actors or athletes (and voices at United Russia have repeatedly stated the party’s disinterest in such candidates).
The Kremlin’s desired candidates are the stars of the small screen: news anchors and talk show hosts whose commentary focuses mostly on foreign affairs, not Russia’s own problems and politics. “Everyone knows these people, but they don’t deal with domestic issues. Instead, they just repeat how bad it is in America and Europe,” explained Meduza’s source.
The Putin administration reportedly hopes to repeat the success television figures enjoyed two years ago during Moscow’s City Duma races. (The Kremlin apparently spearheaded these candidacies.) Officials are also keen to overcome the challenge inherent in Alexey Navalny’s strategic voting initiative, which helped deliver 20 of the city’s 45 municipal council seats to individuals endorsed by “Smart Voter.”
“At one event, Alexander Kharichev [who oversees the Kremlin’s election efforts] spoke quite favorably about how TV show hosts participated in the Moscow City Duma elections, describing it as a positive experience that should be repeated,” says Meduza’s source.
In some upcoming State Duma races, the Kremlin is reportedly happy to field not just talk show hosts but some of their most familiar guests. In Novokuznetsk, for example, Oleg Matveichev (a pro-Kremlin political expert who frequents TV talk shows) is running for office.
The Moscow mayor’s list of proposed State Duma candidates reportedly includes the general director of the Stolichka pharmacy chain Evgeny Nifantev, as well as Svetlana Razvorotneva, a member of the All-Russia People’s Front political coalition and an executive director of the ZhKKh Kontrol Center (a nonprofit group devoted to monitoring public utilities in Russia). Nifantev ran for a seat in the 2019 Moscow City Duma elections but lost. Like Nifantev, Razvorotneva was a winner of the Kremlin-organized “Leaders of Russia-Politics” competition. Some of the competition’s other participants will likely seek State Duma seats, as well.
“So far, a nomination for me to run has not come through and I haven’t made any decision. As a visible public figure and winner of the Leaders of Russia competition, I will be happy should any party give me their attention,” Razvorotneva told Meduza. In his statement to Meduza, Evgeny Nifantev confirmed that he “is not ruling out the possibility” of his nomination for State Duma.
According to the newspaper Kommersant, United Russia’s party ticket in Moscow will feature the following three leaders: Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, current State Duma Deputy Speaker Petr Tolstoy (who is also running in the single-mandate elections), and head physician of State Hospital 52 Maryana Lysenko, who along with four other doctors in the summer of 2020 received the Hero of Labor award for service during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Meduza’s source in Sobyanin’s administration, United Russia plans to finalize most of its party lists and single-mandate candidates by early March, though a source inside the party itself says this likely won’t be finished until the middle of the month. “The mayor’s office and the Kremlin have different approaches, so these differences will take some time to iron out,” the source explained.
Officials in both Sobyanin’s and Putin’s administrations had previously eyed Dr. Denis Protsenko, a head physician at the hospital in Moscow that’s most closely associated with the fight against COVID-19. Last year, he too won a Hero of Labor award and spent significant time on national television, becoming the face of Russia’s campaign against the coronavirus.
Many assumed that Protsenko would be second or third on United Russia’s list of Moscow candidates, as both Meduza’s sources in the Mayor’s office and inside party leadership confirmed. But sources don’t agree about the physician’s future as a candidate for State Duma.
Sobyanin’s team apparently declined to nominate Protsenko because he didn’t campaign “actively enough” in favor of recent constitutional amendments that could extend Vladimir Putin’s presidency for another two six-year terms. A source close to United Russia’s leadership, however, told Meduza that discussions with Protsenko about political candidacy are still ongoing. Officials are allegedly “twisting his arm to run.” Another source told Meduza that Protsenko has no desire to enter politics and worries that “many of his colleagues in health care wouldn’t understand.”
Dr. Protsenko didn’t reply to Meduza’s calls or messages (although he did read them). On Facebook, meanwhile, political strategist Konstantin Kalachev wrote that Protsenko might run for the State Duma in Moscow’s 210th single-mandate district. Responding to comments in another Facebook thread, Protsenko later denied any plans to run for Parliament, albeit somewhat evasively. He also posted a link to a clip from the film “Heart of a Dog” where the protagonist offers the following evergreen advice: “Don’t read Soviet newspapers.”
Translation by Peter Bertero