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People in Russian provinces protest not on the streets but at the polls

March 22, 2012, 16:56 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

While the mass street protest movement, which manifested itself in many Russian cities late last year, has developed a downtrend, in hitherto dormant provincial towns the protest sentiment has made itself felt strongly enough in local elections. Oppositional figures have begun to outplay the ruling party in mayoral elections. Incidentally, the municipal elections in Moscow have proved far less successful for the authorities than before.

United Russia, which showed a not very impressive result in the general election in December, is now confronted with problems in contesting the posts of mayors. In Togliatti, United Russia’s candidate lost the mayoral election to a self-nominee. And in Yaroslavl, candidate Yakov Yakushev, of the United Russia party, was appointed first deputy mayor on the eve of the runoff for the sole purpose of making his victory certain. In the meantime, in Astrakhan, a group of representatives of the Opposition, defiant of the victory of United Russia’s candidate in the mayoral election, has been on a hunger strike for a week now.

In Togliatti, a city on the Volga River with a population of more than 700,000, the mayor’s seat went to the leader of the oppositional movement December, former member of the Right Cause party, self-nominee Sergei Andreyev. In the runoff he was supported by 56.94% of the votes, while the candidate from the authorities, Alexander Shakhov, got 40.06%.

Andreyev is a Baptist, for a while he even worked at the Baptist church New Life in St. Petersburg, where he was trained to be a preacher. Experts say that in this situation the winner – Andreyev – embodies the opposition, an alternative to the current city authorities, which have lost popularity.

In Yarovslavl, the March 4 voting identified two participants in the runoff – Yevgeny Urlashov (40.25%), who was backed by the regional branches of the CPRF, A Just Russia, Yabloko, and the non-governmental organization Democratic Choice, and regional Duma member, Yakov Yakushev, of the United Russia party (27.12%). The second round is scheduled for April 1. Experts believe the victory of the oppositional candidate is very likely.

In the meantime, in Astrakhan a hunger-strike is continuing by supporters of the former State Duma member, A Just Russia member Oleg Shein, who lost the election. Eleven protesters have been refusing to take food. The supporters of A Just Russia, the CPRF, and representatives of the non-parliamentary opposition went on hunger strike on March 16, on the day of the inauguration of the new mayor, Mikhail Stolyarov, of the United Russia (60% of the votes). They warned they would be fasting until the election returns were declared void.

The public and political activists of the city made a decision to launch the protest action when the regional election committee refused to study video evidence of election abuse. According to Oleg Shein, election commission members committed many violations in vote-counting.

In Arkhangelsk, too, far from everything is calm and bright. Candidate Rauf Gabidullin, who had been refused registration, asked the prosecutor’s office to cancel the results of the elections, in which the incumbent mayor emerged the winner. Gabidullin said Viktor Pavlenko had violated election laws and used the administrative resource to the maximum extent in his election campaign.

Support for the representatives of the ruling party at the local level has been dwindling. Communist candidate for the Mayor of Naryan-Mar, Tatyana Fyodorova, comfortably outplayed the then chief of the city administration, Yuri Rodionovsky.

The electorate is far more active these days, says the chief of the Laboratory of Politics and Law, Sergei Rumyantsev, who is quoted by the Daily Novyie Izvestia. However, the administrative resource in some regions is still strong, and overpowering it is very difficult. “At the municipal elections the administrative resource works only there where there is a strong mayor, who has been in office for a long time,” the expert explained. “For instance, in Togliatti there was no such thing, the administrative resource is feeble, but there are cities where it is harsh and firm.”

The oppositional and pseudo-oppositional candidates and self-nominees will now find it far easier to participate in and win municipal elections, Sergei Rumyantsev said with certainty.

The vice-president of the Institute of Modern Politics, Alexander Tochenov, believes that United Russia has certainly begun to lose ground. “It has achieved its election rating plateau, but whether that will begin to crumble down or not will depend on many factors. The municipal election has shown that there are strong personalities not just inside United Russia.

“The success of oppositional candidates in the elections of mayors in several cities stems from the demand for renewal and for an alternative to the local bureaucracy,” says the deputy president of the Center for Political Technologies, Alexei Makarkin, on the website “But there should be no revolutionaries or casual people.”

The opinion to the effect the Russian protest sentiment is concentrated in Moscow is wrong, says the political scientist. Street protests are not so popular in other cities and towns. People there are less radically minded. Besides, taking to the streets is far harder for them from the psychological standpoint – everybody knows one’s neighbor. In the regions different forms of protest work. For instance, in those cities which have retained the mayoral elections independent candidates have been winning elections ever more often.

Besides, the elections have one more special feature. The oppositional candidates are not radical, says Makarkin. There is demand for new personalities, for an alternative to local bureaucracy, and not for revolutionaries. It must be a constructive and moderate opposition. Quite often this role is played by local legislators, who have already joined the establishment, but are confronted with the local elites.

In this respect, quite remarkable were municipal elections in Moscow, held on March 4 simultaneously with the Russian presidential election. One-third of the mandates in the municipal elections in Moscow went to the Opposition – candidates from the Communist Party, A Just Russia and Yabloko and to independent self-nominees. United Russia did not nominate any candidates officially, but it has retained a majority.

As the newspaper Moi Rayon (My Neighborhood) has said, candidates from the oppositional parties and self-nominees won about 500 of the 1,555 vacancies in all districts. In 2008 the independent candidates got a mere 150 seats, while all the rest went to candidates in this or that way linked with the local authorities or United Russia.

As Gazeta.Ru has said, a political crisis has developed in a number of municipalities in Moscow – oppositional municipal deputies have blocked attempts to secure the election of chairpersons backed by the current city authorities and United Russia.

MOSCOW, March 22