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 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.