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When it works In 2020, Tomsk was the only place in Russia where ‘Smart Vote’ propelled candidates to a city-council majority. Here’s what happened in the year that followed.

Source: Meduza
Andrey Pertsev / Meduza

During the 2020 Tomsk City Duma election, candidates endorsed by Team Navalny’s “Smart Vote” initiative won unequivocally. Despite the fact that most of them were previously little-known, Smart Vote-backed candidates won 19 out of the 27 single-mandate constituencies, while candidates from the ruling party, United Russia, won 11 out of 37 seats in the Tomsk City Duma overall. For comparison, in the same electoral race in 2015, United Russia won in 25 constituencies and received 30 seats in the Duma. On the eve of the 2021 elections to the Tomsk City and Regional Dumas, Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev traveled to Tomsk to see how the results of last year’s election changed the city’s political situation. There, he discovered that the Communist Party had begun using bolder slogans and nominating younger candidates, while United Russia took a new approach, interacting more with voters and even venturing into social media. Meanwhile, the opposition candidates ultimately failed to coordinate on any joint action.

“Change without revolution” reads a billboard advertising the political party A Just Russia (SR) in the Tomsk region. Campaign materials from the Party of Growth come in both bright communist red and a red-and-white theme that evokes the Belarusian protest movement, and their slogan is short and sweet: “Change!” Meanwhile, Communist Party (KPRF) billboards call the party the “leader of the protest,” adding that “there’s no alternative.”

Right across from the Tomsk Regional Administration building, the Communists have put up a giant poster depicting a syringe labeled “KPRF” piercing the rear of the bear from United Russia’s party logo. “Vaccination against unpatriotic laws,” it reads.

In the 2020 municipal elections, United Russia proved unable to reach a majority in the City Duma: the ruling party won only 11 out of 37 seats, losing most constituencies to candidates backed by Smart Vote. During this year’s elections, voters chose not only State Duma deputies but also regional parliamentarians.

Heading into the elections, the opposition was hoping for a repeat of 2020. The Communist Party seemed to be the most active campaigner in Tomsk. The city was full of KPRF billboards and signs; in addition to the aforementioned slogans and bear with a syringe, they also used the phrase “Young and strong.”

The Tomsk Communists differed from their KPRF colleagues from other regions both in their edgy protest rhetoric and in the types of candidates they put forward. Among them were City Duma deputy Maxim Zabelin, a popular housing rights activist; business owner Maxim Luchshev; and city bus service owner Yelena Pul.

The KPRF’s Tomsk headquarters is led by young Tomsk City Duma deputy Vladimir Cholakhyan, who defeated one of United Russia’s most high-status candidates, Tomsk water utility director Kirill Novozhilov, in 2020.

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‘All it took was one reasonable candidate’

The Communist line up took a hit before the elections even began: the city electoral commission forced Maxim Zabelin to withdraw from the race over his alleged ties to Alexey Navalny’s team.

“Purely bureaucratically speaking, I had no connection to the organization, but I do know the coordinators, and I’ve been in touch with [former Team Navalny staffer, City Duma deputy, and self-nominated candidate] Ksenia Fadeyeva for more than 10 years. They read through my interviews and found that I supported her, that I wrote on her social media pages in 2018 and 2019, and they put it all together, and…” Zabelin said, throwing up his hands.

Zabelin is confident he could’ve beat his main opponent in his constituency, United Russia candidate and factory director Daniil Ryabchenko, who’s new in town. “From simple sociology, you can tell I was winning the constituency — I have direct access to 2,000 voters through chats, and 4,500 is enough to win,” Zabelin explained. According to him, the area used to be considered United Russia territory, but “as soon as one reasonable candidate appeared, that was all she wrote.”

Despite being forced to withdraw from the race, Zabelin continued campaigning for the KPRF and promised to put his support behind one of the remaining candidates, although he admitted there weren’t any great choices. “The parties saw that me and Ryabchenko were both running, so they didn’t run any of their strong candidates. Other than the New People party, nobody [was] running a campaign,” he said.

Zabelin was one of the beneficiaries of the Smart Vote system in Tomsk’s 2020 City Duma election. In that race, United Russia only captured 24.5 percent of the vote, winning eight out of 27 single-mandate constituencies (while Smart Vote-backed candidates, who were either self-nominated or from various non-United Russia parties, took 19 constituencies).

One of that election’s most striking moments was when 25-year-old KPRF candidate Vladimir Cholakhyan beat high-status United Russia candidate Kirill Novozhilov, director of the city’s water utility.

“This is my home district. Kashtak. At first, everyone laughed at me: ‘Running against Novozhilov as a 25-year-old is suicide!’ But I knew I didn’t have any other option — this is where my relatives live, my friends, my classmates. The first thought I had was that I needed to go to every apartment, ideally multiple times. The party helped me out: we printed a booklet and headed out. It was physically and emotionally tiring — you’re introducing yourself to voters, and you just graduated college,” Cholakhyan told Meduza.

He considered Smart Vote’s support “significant.” “It was a big risk they took. A young guy, no name recognition — and to be frank, when you’re Armenian, your last name alone can lose you votes,” he said.

Even United Russia has acknowledged the influence of Smart Vote on the 2020 election.

“As far as the Tomsk City Duma election results, it [Smart Vote] probably did partially work, but in that election cycle in the country overall, in other regions, of course, it didn’t work. The opposition has simply added Tomsk to its flag,” said Tomsk City Duma deputy and State Duma candidate Ilya Leontyev, who represents United Russia. “But is it smart? Emotional? Yes! Rebellious? Without a doubt! In some places, you might call it ‘communist’; in others, ‘Yabloko-like’.”

According to Leontyev, the voting initiative’s success in the Tomsk City Duma election can be explained by several factors. “The questions people had for the majority party had been accumulating, and the party either didn’t have answers or wasn’t communicating them. Now, the deputies have social media accounts, and not every answer has to be beaten out of them. It’s a trend of the times, although I was already saying it was necessary five years ago. Our candidates just weren’t reaching their voters. If you take a look at the results, you can identify two or three unconditional victories [for the opposition], while in all other cases, there was a difference of 20-70 votes. In other words, it would have been possible to get to those voters and change their minds,” he explained.

From Maxim Zabelin’s perspective, the city’s anti-authority streak at that time also played a large role: taxes were increasing, and they were only being spent on the city center, not the suburbs or rural areas, making it difficult to keep the budget in order. “It’s a mess — all the utilities, the roads. It’s impossible to make the city’s economy function on this budget, and while some of the money returns in the form of national projects, it’s only pennies. The city is constantly being dug up because of accidents and the monopoly of the companies managing things. This kind of fiscal code, this spending that only helps the center, that’s what makes people vote against United Russia,” said Zabelin.

Ksenia Fadeyeva, the former leader of Navalny’s Tomsk campaign office, is confident that Alexey Navalny’s visit to the city was an important factor behind Smart Vote’s success in 2020 — the same year Navalny was poisoned, and the same year his investigative video about United Russia’s representatives in Tomsk was released.

“Absolutely everyone in Tomsk watched the film. I would see people watching it on the trolleybus. The film was in every building’s group chat, where people usually discuss where to buy strollers and what sports clubs to send their kids to. They discussed the investigation, which included a message about registering for Smart Vote. After the video came out, registration went up 100 percent. After that, Navalny’s poisoning mobilized the part of the protest electorate that usually stays home,” she recalled.

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“At that moment, after the poisoning, things were supercharged,” said KPRF State Duma candidate and journalist Vasily Shipilov of the reasons for Smart Vote’s success in 2020.

Igor Lyutayev, another opposition candidate to the City Duma (previously self-nominated, he ran on the Yabloko ticket despite not being a member himself), called the 2020 municipal campaign results a “people’s victory.” “Some voted for a communist, some voted for Yabloko, and some voted for United Russia, and the real winner was not the opposition but pluralism,” he said.

“For several years, voter turnout was declining. People were writing on social media, saying, ‘Vote or don’t vote, it doesn’t matter! Everything is already decided.” But people came from the other side and voted — some of them according to Smart Vote, others not according to Smart Vote, but they voted,” said Lyutayev.

A source from United Russia’s federal office named several factors that, in his opinion, contributed to Smart Vote’s success: “The effect of Navalny’s poisoning, weak administrative resources in the area, and low voter turnout among the regional administration.”

An open-door Duma

Despite the opposition’s obviously stronger numbers — 11 United Russia candidates against 26 candidates from other parties — United Russia candidate Chingis Akatayev was elected Regional Duma deputy in the 2020 election. KPRF candidate Andrey Petrov was assumed to have majority support among the deputies, but he withdrew from the race the day before the vote.

“From what we understand, he was pressured,” said deputy Ksenia Fadeyeva. After Petrov withdrew, the other opposition deputies agreed to support Fadeyev, but she didn’t have enough votes to win: Akatayev drew support from members of the LDPR, the Party of Growth, New People, and some KPRF members.

City Duma deputy and opposition supporter Igor Lyutayeva was extremely disappointed by the KPRF deputies’ votes in support of Akatayev. “After everything with the speaker elections, I’m not sure about the KPRF anymore — and I don’t know what it will take for them to gain my trust again,” he said.

The Duma’s new members were able to make some changes to the body, according to several of Meduza’s sources. “All of the Duma’s decisions have been made in a collegial manner — for example, we decreased the operations budget from 18 million [rubles] [$248,000] to 10 million [rubles] [$137,000] and redirected the money to school renovations. We allocated money for road repair to the second category. Plus, the Duma became open to Tomsk residents — every deputy has social media, you can write to deputies on Telegram, even the United Russia deputies have it,” said Maxim Zabelin.

According to Ksenia Fadeyeva, United Russia members really did start behaving differently. “Many of them started Telegram channels, Instagram accounts, and they’re trying to be more accountable for their work. They don’t want to be caught with their pants down by the opposition,” she said.

At the same time, members of the opposition have good things to say about speaker Chingis Akatayev. KPRF deputy Vladimir Cholakhyan voted for Fadeyeva, but now praises her victorious opponent. “He’s definitely not an establishment guy, he’s a clear thinker — he always gives good ideas a fair shake. If Fadeyeva’s suggestion is better than a United Russia deputy’s, he’ll support her. Akatayev behaves as a speaker ought to,” he said.

In addition to being a city deputy, Cholakhyan led the KPRF’s electoral headquarters — but he didn’t run in the elections himself. But in his home constituency, which includes the Kashtak district, his brother Vard had his name on the ballot. Vladimir himself had no desire to leave the City Duma, because he intends to fulfill the promises he made to voters.

“The people who voted for me don’t ask anything of me — they support me in conversation and on social media and that’s it. The requests come from people who voted and continue to vote for United Russia, and then I hear that, after something gets resolved by means of their message, there’s something else they don’t like,” said Cholyakhin.

KPRF candidates also used his method — personally going door-to-door. One such candidate was Vasily Shipilov, a locally famous journalist and blogger who ran for the State Duma in constituency No. 181. At the beginning of his interview with Meduza, Shipilov emphasized his non-partisanship, adding that there were a lot of non-partisan candidates running on the Communist ticket in this election.

The situation in constituency No. 181 was a bit unusual: in last year’s campaign, United Russia didn’t nominate a candidate, so LDPR State Duma deputy Alexey Didenko was considered the pro-government candidate; Didenko’s father is the head of the closed city Seversk and belongs to United Russia. In this year’s race, the party ran its own a candidate: City Duma deputy Ilya Leontyev.

According to Vasily Shipilov, local United Russia officials initially wanted to nominate Tomsk regional senator Boris Kravchenko, an extremely well-known figure. But at the last minute, he made an announcement telling people not to vote for him. Leontyev is a less famous figure, but in the run-up to the elections he led a strong and far-reaching campaign. A source close to United Russia told Meduza that Leontyev has strong connections to the party’s executive committee. In his campaign materials, Leontyev doesn’t hide his affiliation with the “party of power.”

“I don’t hide anything — I tell people I was nominated by the party organization, I tell them why they did it. I explain that it helped me achieve what I couldn’t achieve on my own. It’s also important to talk about why certain things don’t work out. Last year, the regional administration earmarked 4.5 billion rubles ($62 million) for fighting coronavirus, and this money didn’t come out of thin air — it meant less infrastructure maintenance, fewer roads. I tell people: ‘Let’s talk about it, what would you do in this situation?’,” said Leontyev.

One of the main parts of Leontyev’s platform is the redistribution of budget revenue to the suburbs, not the federal center. Meduza’s correspondent didn’t hear the candidate criticize the communists specifically, but there’s a popular clip on social media that shows Leontyev asking Pavel Grudinin why he didn’t lay flowers at the cross in honor of the victims of political repression in Kashtak district. Grudinin is silent, and then KPRF member and State Duma deputy Yuri Afonin answers in his place. The video has been played countless times on pro-government media outlets.

“I had a question for him and I asked it — some people like that, some people don’t. It’s good to ask politicians uncomfortable questions sometimes. You don’t think they ask me hard questions, too? I answer them,” Ilya Leontyev told Meduza.

Vasily Shipilov believed he had a shot at victory due to the competition between two effectively pro-government candidates [Leontyev and Didenko], who were vying for the same electorate. “But it’s not my electorate — my voters are protesters and Communists, and here the party is giving me more than I’m giving it,” he told Meduza.

‘Miracles aren’t going to happen again’

Igor Lyutayev, a City Duma deputy who was running for both the Tomsk Regional Duma and the State Duma on the Yabloko ticket, had some qualms with the Smart Vote approach, which entails supporting whatever candidate has the most active supporters.

“In my view, Smart Vote is a powerful force, and its weight is massive. Last year showed us that it can be a positive thing. But on the other hand, last year, there were offices [Navalny’s regional headquarters] that could evaluate the most active and popular candidates. But how will they do that now — how visible is the situation to them from the sidelines? How will they choose — by the amount of money a candidate has, or what? In that case, they won’t have the same success they had last year, because it’s not the same thing, just to choose the candidates that spend more on campaigning,” said Lyutayev.

According to him, Yabloko spent a total of 300,000 rubles ($4,110) on campaigning for the entire region.

Meanwhile, there was a serious competition underway in constituency No. 3. In addition to Lyutayev and United Russia’s candidate, both Galina Nemtseva (A Just Russia) and Yelena Pul (KPRF) conducted dynamic campaigns. The situation looked similar in many other constituencies, too: acting city deputies elected last year with Smart Vote’s help competed against candidates from the Communist Party and others. For example, in constituency No. 9, a Smart Vote-backed incumbent deputy ran against self-nominated candidate Denis Yarmosh, KPRF candidate Pavel Yudenko, and locally-famous activist Konstantin Cherenkov (Party of Growth).

“Nobody has come to any agreements, that wouldn’t be possible — there are a bunch of stories and contradictions floating around,” said City Duma deputy Ksenia Fadeyeva.

In her personal opinion, it’s vital to take into account the costs of running an election campaign. “A City Duma constituency contains 10,000 to 12,000 people; Regional Duma constituencies contain about 40,000 people on average; and State Duma constituencies contain hundreds of thousands. Miracles like last year’s election — when a local activist could knock on doors, put up some campaign posters, and win — aren’t going to happen again. Basically, you can’t win a regional campaign without money. People might view United Russia candidates negatively, but they’re not stupid either, they’re conducting campaigns and they’re well-funded,” said Fadeyeva.

Anna Yudina from the election monitoring movement Golos told Meduza that in the lead-up to the vote, election observers began to receive signals that officials were pushing for at-home voting. “They’re suggesting that loyal United Russian voters vote at home. It’s a new technology — we didn’t do this kind of thing [in Tomsk] before,” she said.

Another reason opposition members were expecting vote rigging was that regional electoral commission chairman Elman Yusubov, about whom all of Meduza’s sources spoke positively, had been dismissed from his post. Yusubov himself named Deputy Governor for Domestic Policy Sergey Ilyinykh as the initiator of his dismissal. Ilyinykh’s former subordinate, Rostislav Radzivill, was subsequently tapped to fill the position.

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Nevertheless, in days before the vote, Tomsk’s opposition candidates expected to defeat United Russia. “Our electorate is made up of voters who really weren’t going to the polls before. Many of them went for the first time and then said, ‘Cool, I voted for a candidate I know, and then he won,’” said Maxim Zabelin. He also believes his removal from the election will ultimately increase KPRF’s share of the vote.

Igor Lyutayev, while less of an optimist, also expected a healthy protest vote. “Thinking people don’t have any inspiration right now — they’re prepared to vote for anyone, just not United Russia,” he said ahead of the elections. “But it’s not that they’re inspired, it’s just that they’re [feeling] put down.” 

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

Story by Andrey Pertsev, reporting from Tomsk

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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