Com­mu­nist election suc­cess ex­poses cracks in Putin’s power

An un­ex­pected vic­tory for an op­po­si­tion can­di­date pan­icked an un­pop­u­lar govern­ment into can­celling the con­test al­to­gether, finds An­drew Roth in Abakan, Rus­sia

The Observer - - Worlcdhallenge -

The Com­mu­nist wun­derkind Valentin Kono­valov should al­ready be Siberia’s youngest gov­er­nor, but the elec­tions he is sup­posed to win are can­celled ev­ery other week.

The vir­tu­ally un­known 30-year-old rode a wave of protest to win a firstround bal­lot in Khakas­sia, a repub­lic in south­ern Siberia, last month. The re­sults were an em­bar­rass­ment for the rul­ing United Rus­sia party and the Krem­lin, which backed the in­cum­bent. But his op­po­nents have found an easy way to keep him from win­ning the run-off: don’t hold it.

“It’s ab­surd,” said the can­di­date, who names Lenin as a po­lit­i­cal in­spi­ra­tion, over a cup of tea on Thurs­day. So far, two of Kono­valov’s op­po­nents have dropped out, de­lay­ing the vote by two weeks each, and now an elec­tions com­mis­sion claims he mis­filed his pa­per­work. Kono­valov is likely to be dis­qual­i­fied.

“We should have won the elec­tions out­right,” he said. “Now they’re try­ing to keep power il­le­gally.”

With Rus­sia’s rul­ing party fac­ing a sharp de­cline in sup­port, lo­cal of­fi­cials have had to scram­ble in some re­gions to main­tain con­trol. In the far east, an­other Com­mu­nist can­di­date looked set for vic­tory un­til a sus­pi­cious burst of votes for the pro-govern­ment can­di­date. Moscow can­celled the election whole­sale for bal­lot-stuff­ing, the first time that has hap­pened since the 1990s.

United Rus­sia’s sup­port has fallen to 31%, the party’s low­est ever. Many Rus­sians are frus­trated. A slow econ­omy and cor­rupt lo­cal of­fi­cials are com­mon com­plaints in the re­gions. One se­nior of­fi­cial in Khakas­sia is nick­named “Hun­gry” be­cause of his re­port­edly bot­tom­less ap­petite for kick­backs.

An­other fac­tor this year has been a new pen­sions re­form that will de­lay re­tire­ment for all Rus­sians by five years. Men must work un­til 65 and women un­til 60, mak­ing peo­ple feel years have been stolen from them. Signed into law by Vladimir Putin last month be­cause of a need to bal­ance the bud­get, the de­ci­sion has fu­elled a fiery election sea­son that al­ready looked rough for Moscow.

“It felt like a slap in the face,” said Svet­lana Makhova, a 32-year-old ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant on ma­ter­nity leave, who moved to Khakas­sia’s cap­i­tal, Abakan, six years ago. She didn’t at­tend protests against the pen­sion re­forms, she said, be­cause she didn’t sup­port the Com­mu­nists. But she said the lo­cal govern­ment, led for nine years by a man named Vik­tor Zimin, had it com­ing. “Let Putin come and live here,” she said, point­ing to a run­down apart­ment block. “Rather than tak­ing money from us, why doesn’t he stop them from steal­ing it?”

Rus­sia has op­er­ated for more than a decade un­der a pol­icy of “man­aged democ­racy”, where elec­tions are held but the can­di­dates are fil­tered and the re­sults are pre­or­dained. Lately there’s been some trou­ble man­ag­ing this. “Let me put it this way: when I was work­ing, I was in con­trol of 100% of pol­i­tics in Khakas­sia,” said Vladislav Nikonov, the for­mer chief of staff for Zimin.

Kono­valov was widely seen as a “tech­ni­cal can­di­date”, one who is nom­i­nated just to lose, and the Com­mu­nist party is of­ten called “pocket op­po­si­tion”. But some­where along the line this turned into a real election, which the au­thor­i­ties have tried to can­cel. “The peo­ple man­ag­ing pol­i­tics in Khakas­sia now have fouled this up,” Nikonov said.

The pen­sions is­sue fur­ther de­pressed sup­port from vot­ers who usu­ally rally be­hind the govern­ment, in­clud­ing so-called budzhet­niki,

‘We should have won out­right. Now they’re try­ing to keep power il­le­gally’ Valentin Kono­valov, Com­mu­nist can­di­date

whose jobs are sup­plied by the state. “The pen­sions did play an im­por­tant role, but pol­i­tics is al­ways a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors,” said Alexan­der Kynev, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst who stud­ies Rus­sian elec­tions. “When things are al­ready bad, peo­ple’s in­comes are not in­creas­ing, and then there’s more bad news about the pen­sions, the re­sults be­come much, much worse.”

Khakas­sia, a poor re­gion with both breath­tak­ing coun­try­side and min­ing and smelt­ing op­er­a­tions, is not well known even to Rus­sians. So the at­ten­tion it has re­ceived over a sur­prise protest vote, and then fum­bling at­tempts to can­cel the re­sults, have made the elec­tions some­thing of a laugh­ing stock.

Over cheap draught beer near the state univer­sity, sev­eral stu­dents lashed out at the elec­tions. “The rule is this: if they win, it’s OK, and if they lose, then we start over,” one said.

For­eign at­ten­tion con­cern­ing Rus­sia has fo­cused on ma­jor in­ter­na­tional in­ci­dents, in­clud­ing the Sal­is­bury nerve agent at­tack or in­ter­fer­ence in US elec­tions. But at home many Rus­sians are sym­pa­thetic to a pres­i­dent seen as un­der at­tack from the west. Far more im­por­tant to Putin’s rat­ings, which have fallen pre­cip­i­tously this year, is the econ­omy and the bud­get. So to get out the vote, the Krem­lin dis­patched heavy­weight po­lit­i­cal ad­vis­ers, mu­si­cal per­for­mances and even an air show to Khakas­sia be­fore the elec­tions to raise pub­lic sup­port. A fa­mous mil­i­tary choir per­formed. The gov­er­nor sang on stage. And pub­lic fo­rums were held un­der the hash­tag #What’sNotRight? None of it worked. “Peo­ple were ready to vote for any­one other than [Zimin],” said Valentina Ustyakhina, the di­rec­tor of an in­de­pen­dent lo­cal news site called In­for­ma­tion Agency Khakas­sia, which has been crit­i­cal of the govern­ment and faced clo­sure as a re­sult. “Of course, the pen­sion re­form riled peo­ple up and you saw protests. But there was al­ready a lot of anger.”

It is now an un­usual mo­ment here for lo­cal pol­i­tics. Kono­valov sees an op­por­tu­nity. He is a dyed-in-the­wool Com­mu­nist, born to engi­neer par­ents in the fac­tory town of No­rilsk, who joined the party in his sec­ond year of col­lege. He called Lenin his per­sonal idol in an in­ter­view, de­scrib­ing him as “a man who could unite peo­ple of dif­fer­ent views”. He had also spo­ken pos­i­tively of Joseph Stalin in a pre­vi­ous in­ter­view with a Rus­sian out­let, call­ing him a “great state ac­tor” who “had made mis­takes as a leader”.

It might be the Com­mu­nists’ big chance, he said. “I think this is the be­gin­ning of the era of change. We’re go­ing to see United Rus­sia’s hege­mony col­lapse soon.”

Oth­ers are more crit­i­cal. By threat­en­ing to dis­qual­ify Kono­valov, whom he said was too in­ex­pe­ri­enced to gov­ern, the state risked “mak­ing a hero out of him”, said Nikonov. The govern­ment had ended up in a cri­sis of its own mak­ing. “If you don’t know how to hold on to power, then you shouldn’t be in pol­i­tics,” Nikonov said.


LEFT Pres­i­dent Putin takes a break dur­ing a rid­ing trip in foothills near Abakan. ABOVE An in­for­ma­tion poster with the can­di­dates for the gov­er­nor’s post. Kono­valov is sec­ond left.


RIGHTThe steppe north of Abakan in Khakas­sia; few Rus­sians have heard of this re­mote re­gion of Siberia.

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