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Star politics Almost every election season, Russian celebrities vow to run for office and serve the nation. They’re usually full of shit.

Source: Meduza
Sergey Karpukhin / TASS

What happened?

Russia’s current election season has featured several unexpected announcements from celebrities that they, too, would like seats in the next State Duma. Political inspiration has struck (sometimes faded) stars like former t.A.T.u. singer Julia Volkova, rapper Slava KPSS, musicians Victoria Dayneko and Tatyana Bulanova, and entertainer and stylist Sergey Zverev, just to name a few.

Journalists, meanwhile, have gleefully covered these celebrities’ plans in great detail, releasing interviews with the “candidates” and reporting on the public’s reactions. Even the headlines about stars seeking office sometimes make it seem these campaigns will go ahead, whether Russians welcome them or not.

For many people, the media attention seems strange, given how many celebrities are already federal lawmakers. After all, retired athletes Svetlana Khorkina and Irina Rodnina, hockey player Vladislav Tretiak, and TV presenters Pyotr Tolstoy, Evgeny Revenko, and Oksana Pushkina are all current deputies. Crooner Iosif Kobzon also spent many years in parliament.

At the same time, however, the Russian authorities generally dislike drawing attention to the political process (particularly how the system actually works). As a result, many voters don’t really know the requirements for joining the State Duma, and people generally assume that any famous person who announces plans to run for office will end up with a seat in Parliament.

For this reason, political news often feels divorced from events in the real world, becoming a kind of myth or sideshow from an alternate reality where rappers take their seats in the legislature.

But the spoken and unspoken rules of politics dictate that no superstar candidate will really be part of the next parliament. Meduza takes a look at some of Russia’s recent “political” news and determines if it really deserves any attention.

So what really happened?

The current celebrity takeover of Russian politics began with the news that Julia Volkova from t.A.T.u. was “running for State Duma.” This is the headline and the phrasing that appeared on many media platforms. In her “campaign video,” Volkova herself stated that she was “running for the State Duma under [the ruling political party] United Russia.”

All of this was seen as a done deal: United Russia had put forward Volkova as a candidate for the State Duma. Since the party’s nominees win most elections, Volkova’s election seemed inevitable: the ruling party had essentially made this recording artist a deputy. Presto!

But the singer was only announcing her run for the United Russia primaries in her single-member district. In fact, anyone can try their luck in the ruling party’s primary election. The winners, however, are usually known in advance: primary voters are rank-and-file party members and public sector employees are typically told beforehand which candidates to support. Only then do United Russia’s primary winners (with some rare exceptions) begin their run for the Duma in the general election. 

If we look a little more closely, we can identify the winner-to-be in the district where Julia Volkova attempted to run. There’s one universal rule when it comes to primaries: If there’s a sitting deputy, a high-level bureaucrat, a major businessperson, or a well-known public employee on the ballot, that’s who will win. All available administrative resources will go into supporting that candidate. 

Sources told Meduza that the frontrunner in the Kineshma electoral district in the Ivanovo region (this is where Volkova decided to make her bid) was a local head physician. And that’s exactly who won. Maksim Kizeev, the head physician of the Reshma sanatorium, won the primary with 36,000 votes. Volkova, who didn’t campaign except for a few videos shared online, collected a measly 919.

Rapper Slava KPSS (also known as “Gnoyny”) is a different story. First, he said he was only considering a run, and then he said that he was definitely running for the State Duma as a nominee from the Green Alternative party. The rapper described the group as “really good people — they’re all vegans and vegetarians.”

Green Alternative did not disavow that they had been in contact with Gnoyny, but — for whatever reason — they ultimately endorsed another celebrity candidate, singer Victoria Dayneko. The party later clarified that its negotiations with the rapper had “reached an impasse.”

Meduza has previously recounted that Green Alternative is one of the political initiatives launched with support from the Presidential Executive Office in 2020. Each of these parties was intended to cater to voters with certain political views. Green Alternative was meant to attract an audience concerned with environmental issues. Slava KPSS isn’t well known for his environmental activism, so the party was probably able to remind the public of its existence with his help.

Unlike Slava KPSS and Julia Volkova, however, some celebrities did win official nominations and will compete in Russia’s upcoming elections. The above-mentioned Victoria Dayneko was at the top of Green Alternative’s list of candidates; Tatyana Bulanova was among the top five candidates on Rodina’s federal list; stylist and advocate for a clean Baikal Sergey Zverev is a candidate for the Greens (not to be confused with Green Alternative) in the Buryatia single-member district; and folk singer Denis Maidanov is running in the Moscow region on United Russia’s ticket.

Maidanov is the only one virtually guaranteed to end up in the Duma: United Russia candidates for single-member districts in the Moscow region traditionally win. Zverev could also come out on top; he's popular in Buryatia since he's shown himself to be an advocate for both the local environment and Buryatia’s culture.

Dayneko and Bulanova's chances don't look as good. According to survey data, neither Green Alternative nor Rodina is a party that will clear the five-percent threshold in the September elections (meaning that neither party is likely to send even one representative to Parliament).

How to make sense of all this?

When reading articles about potential celebrity deputies, there are a few simple rules that can help you. In order to be considered a candidate for the State Duma, any individual (even a famous person) must meet the following criteria:

  1. A candidate can only run on a party’s ticket after that person’s name is on the party’s candidate list. This could be either the federal list or the list for candidates in single-member districts.
  2. Guaranteed status is only conferred to a registered candidate if that person represents one of the 14 parties with the so-called “parliamentary benefit.” Parties receive this “benefit” after winning a local legislative election in at least one region. With this status, candidates don’t need to gather signatures to run for the State Duma.
  3. Nominees from “non-benefit” parties and independent candidates need to gather at least 200,000 signatures to qualify for registered candidacy — an enormous logistical obstacle. Furthermore, election officials often reject the endorsements collected by opposition candidates, dubbing the signatures “illegitimate” or “defective.”

Ultimately, even candidates from “benefit” parties aren’t really guaranteed seats in the State Duma. In fact, it’s likely that most candidates won’t receive enough votes on election day. Only single-member district candidates from United Russia, top-level officials on the federal list for any parliamentary party, and those high up on regional lists typically have strong chances.

But there’s a catch. United Russia is unlikely to send anyone from the top five spots on its federal list to the State Duma. These big names appear on the party list to improve United Russia’s election results, but the group’s seats will almost certainly be “sent down” to party members at the regional level. Even in the regions, United Russia’s party lists are often led by governors who also have no plans to join the Duma. As a result, the candidates with the best odds of actually becoming lawmakers are those listed second or third.

So, the next time you see a news story about a Russian celebrity answering the noble call of elected office, check to see if that person actually meets the criteria for candidacy. The odds are usually against it. 

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Text by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Elizabeth Tolley

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