First time for Nemtsov’s party to run in Duma elections
On 18 September, Russians vote to renew the lower house of their parliament. In Sergiyev Posad, also known as the Orthodox Vatican, a young candidate backed by the Parnas party challenges the local district chief who is a member of Putin’s United Russia party. Despite unequal chances, for the opposition it is important to run since it is the “only way to be known” and overcome voters’ apathy towards politics.
Moscow (AsiaNews) – Sergiyev Posad is the spiritual centre of Russia, 70 km from Moscow. Also known as the Orthodox Vatican, it is the residence of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch. Here a young opposition candidate, Andrei Shalnev, is trying to enter national politics on 18 September as a Member of the State Duma.
Andrei is the youngest candidate in the single-member constituency of Sergiyev Posad, which has 500,000 voters. Although he is running as an independent, he is backed by the Parnas party of the late former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov who was murdered in Moscow last year, and by Russia’s former richest man and Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Concessions to the opposition
This is the first time that Parnas is able to run in a federal election. This year, amendments to the legislation on political parties and election rules (now 450 Duma deputies will be chosen by a mixed system of proportional and first-past-the-post) will allow greater political competition, at least formally, though not great enough to threaten the ruling party, United Russia.
These reforms were implemented after the last elections of December 2011 triggered protests due to electoral fraud. They also came with more repressive laws to silence dissent.
Against a background of prolonged economic crisis, the Kremlin wants to run ostensibly transparent elections in order to deny the opposition the card of street protests whilst ensuring the status quo before next presidential election in 18 months-time when Putin is expected to run for a fourth term.
Still, the most dangerous opponents were left out in the cold. The Progress Party of anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny was denied registration and its leader was banned from running because of two convictions on embezzlement charges. Human rights activists say that his legal problems were politically motivated.
Unequal election campaign
Shalnev, 28, is certainly not considered a threat to the leading contender, Sergiyev Pakhomov, who heads the Sergiyev Posad district, and is running for United Russia. Their respective election campaign gives an idea of the conditions in which the race for the State Duma is being unfolding across the country.
"We have no space on TV, and we cannot afford posters in the street,” Shalnev told AsiaNews. “All that remains are personal meetings with voters."
Shalnev relies on a team of young volunteers who prepare flyers and brochures and hand them out on street corners in Sergiyev Posad and invite voters to meet Andrei in parks, barracks, or factories. He holds three or four meetings a day.
Usually, a few people show up, homemakers or pensioners, and their issues are always the same: the block of flats that does not do the necessary repair work to old pipes and facilities, the pension that is not enough, non-existent childcare, and clinics that close.
Andrei is an economist, favourable to good relations with the West, and support liberal values. He believes that Russia should be changed "from below". The election campaign in the province at a time of crisis, however, is not one of ideals and high politics for those who remain largely unknown to the general public.
By contrast, Sergiyev Pakhomov Pakhomov can afford to promise major development projects for the city. There are few of his posters in the streets, but his presence is ubiquitous in the media, with him every day at different events: the opening of a school, a road, a stadium.
Pakhomov can also rely on so-called "administrative resources": not only the public budget and the financial support that comes from United Russia, but also state employees, who usually receive precise instructions on how to vote on the eve of the polls.
Instead of meeting voters in the street, Pakhomov prefers his office, with 'extras' more or less scripted for the cameras. Despite the crisis and the drop in United Russia's approval rating in the latest surveys, Pakhomov is safe. "People trust politics again. It is true; there is a crisis, but it is a global process. United Russia has great credit of trust and people have hope."
Talking to the residents in Sergiyev Posad, nobody is optimistic about the future, but few have doubts about United Russia leading the country since the party is backed by the president. Despite the unpopularity of the incumbent government, United Russia’s strength is due to the fact that Russians automatically associated it with the Kremlin leader, who is seen as the only one capable of defending the interests of the country, surrounded by external enemies who want its destruction.
Propaganda plays an important role, according to sociologists. Russians want the opposition to have a voice, but this must be peaceful. No one wants revolutions.
Despite unequal conditions, the opposition considers the 18 September vote very important. "There is strong apathy among Russians and the means to defeat it are inadequate,” Andrei said, “but this is the only way we have to let voters know about us. In order to get to a truly democratic system, we must conduct a long-term and gradual battle; to campaign, for example, is the only way for us to be known; not to participate in elections would marginalise us."