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A casting call for opportunists The Kremlin is gearing up for local and parliamentary ‘elections’ in the annexed Ukrainian regions
Across the regions it annexed last year in Ukraine, the Putin administration and its domestic politics team are busy laying the groundwork to “elect” parliamentary and local officials. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev spoke with several Kremlin insiders about the preparations and who is in charge of forming collaborationist governments in occupied Ukraine.
Last fall, when conducting the “referendums on joining Russia” in the annexed parts of Ukraine, the Kremlin was forced to reschedule, again and again, as the Ukrainian army advanced at the front, repeatedly foiling the annexation plans. Postponing the referendums did not, however, save the situation for Russia. Shortly after the formal annexation of the Kherson region, the Russian army retreated from the one regional center it had managed to capture since the start of the invasion.
In September 2023, the Kremlin hopes to hold city council and parliamentary “elections” in the annexed regions. Sources close to Putin’s team informed Meduza that the administration is not currently entertaining scenarios that would render the vote impossible — like the possibility that, by fall, the Ukrainian army might be able to retake the now-occupied eastern territories. Nor does the Kremlin appear to be concerned about protests in these areas, believing (without hard data, it seems) that pro-Russian people now comprise most of the population.
As part of the early campaign, say Meduza’s sources, the Kremlin has decided to fortify the Russian-backed occupation governments by assigning each a “deputy governor of local politics” responsible for elections in the region. And so, a former deputy governor of Sevastopol, Sergey Tolmachev, who distinguished himself by championing the “referendums of joining Russia,” has been made “deputy governor of the Zaporizhzhia region.” Similarly, Alexander Kostomarov, a former deputy governor of the Ulyanovsk, Arkhangelsk, Lipetsk, and Chelyabinsk regions, has now been sent to help administer the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.”
A source close to the President’s Office told Meduza that the Kremlin is in the midst of a “casting call” for similar positions in the “LNR” and the Russian-occupied part of the Kherson region (that is, just over 80 percent of its territory). The administration is also looking for political consultants to run the local elections (if they do take place).
In the words of a Kremlin insider:
There are plenty of interested candidates. Everyone realizes that this is a good steppingstone for career advancement and for lucrative contracts in future campaigns.
Sources in the administration suggest that both “career bureaucrats” and “opportunist spinmeisters” are interested in the opportunities presented by the annexations.
Insiders who spoke with Meduza also claim that the Kremlin has already settled on a candidate to supervise local elections in the occupied areas: supposedly, Vyacheslav Smirnov, who’s now employed in the Presidential Directorate for Supporting the State Council’s Activities. Earlier, Smirnov took part in organizing the annexation “referendums” in Ukraine. (Smirnov himself did not reply to Meduza’s queries.)
Smirnov’s new assignment merits a brief recap of his past achievements. Before joining the President’s Office in 2019, he worked as a political consultant, specializing in “problematic” gubernatorial elections. In 2018, for example, he managed the campaign of Andrey Travnikov, then-acting governor of the Novosibirsk region, whose main opponent was Novosibirsk Mayor Anatoly Lokot, a Communist backed by the region’s former head, Victor Tolokonsky. According to media reports, the Kremlin and its political managers “persuaded” Mayor Lokot not to run, and Travnikov won the election with a 64.5-percent majority vote.
Smirnov is also a close associate of Andrey Bogdanov, the political manager behind the Democratic Party of Russia, or “DPR.” Bogdanov garnered 1.3 percent of the vote in Russia’s 2008 presidential election. Six years later, he took the helm of the Communist Party for Social Justice — a spoiler group conceived to leach votes away from the mainstream Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). Apart from this, Bogdanov is a Freemason and the head of the Grand Lodge of Russia. (Incidentally, Smirnov has been Bogdanov’s assistant at the Masonic lodge).
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Three different sources with ties to the Kremlin suggested that opinion polls will be conducted in the annexed regions by Insomar, a market research company that’s worked with the Putin administration for several years. (Insomar’s website even advertises its polling work conducted last year in annexed parts of Ukraine.) When Meduza contacted Victor Poturemsky, Insomar’s director for political analysis, his only response was “No comment.”
According to Meduza’s sources with knowledge of the Kremlin’s plans, United Russia candidates will win in most parliamentary and municipal races, while other parties can take “a seat or two” each, as a reward for supporting the “special military operation,” explains one of the insiders. As for the candidates themselves, Putin’s team will reportedly look to local “high-status, public-sector workers” like physicians, university provosts, schoolmasters, and members of pro-Russian “militias.”
Sources note that Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik, the Moscow-backed heads of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “republics,” may also influence the selection of candidates in their regions. While their clout seemed to be waning until recently, both men have apparently enjoyed Putin’s favor since the September annexations and may use it to resist an incoming flood of bureaucrats from Russia’s regional governments.
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