Beglov, Big Love

Rotunda
August 31, 2019

It is eight days before the Petersburg gubernatorial election.

On Palace Square, there is a free concert by local rock group Splean, with the city footing the bill.

The winners of the creative contest Bolshaya Lyubov are also to be announced at the event.

If you reflect a bit on the elusive play of words and meanings in the contest’s name, you should easily be able to translate it into English as “Big Love.”

The contest winners are congratulated in person onstage by (drum roll, please) Alexander Beglov.

Several times, he says that all of us really love our city.

The gubernatorial candidate ushers a war veteran and singer Alexander Rosenbaum on stage.

Rosenbaum and Beglov sing “The City on the Wild and Free Neva.”

Palace Square is packed to capacity.

“The City on the Wild and Free Neva,” as performed and recorded by Valery Belyanin

Video footage courtesy of Rotunda. Translated by the Russian Reader. This is the 1,500th entry on this website. To learn how you can support my work, read this.

Bortko Jumps Overboard

bortko (gleb morev).jpgCampaign poster for Vladimir Bortko in downtown Petersburg: “Bortko: The City Has a Choice. September 8. CPRF.” Photo by Gleb Morev

Bortko Withdraws from Petersburg Gubernatorial Election, Ensuring Beglov Victory in First Round: Northern Capital’s Acting Governor Now Faces Only Two Opponents
Yelena Mukhametshina
Vedomosti
September 2, 2019

Filmmaker and Communist Party MP Vladimir Bortko has withdrawn from the governor’s race in Saint Petersburg. He announced this on Friday during a televised debate. Experts said his departure was necessary to secure a victory for acting governor Alexander Beglov in the first round of voting, scheduled for September 8.

At a press conference, Bortko said he asked the other candidates to withdraw due to possible vote-rigging after it transpired polling stations would be opened in Leningrad Region and Pskov Region.

“If I had not withdrawn, the methods for rigging the vote would have been employed to the hilt and we would have been looking at 200,000 to 250,000 extra votes. But I don’t want to get seventeen or eighteen percent and an honorable mention for second place.”

Admitting the Smolny [Petersburg city hall] had helped get him through the so-called municipal filter, Bortko said his withdrawal had been his own spontaneous decision and that the president’s first deputy chief of staff, Sergei Kiriyenko, had tried to talk him out of it.

Meanwhile, last week, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky wrote on Instagram that he and Bortko had discussed the idea for a new TV film about the 1812 war against Napoleon.

Bortko is the second parliamentary party candidate to withdraw from the Petersburg elections. Earlier, Oleg Kapitanov, an LDPR member of the Petersburg Legislative Assembly, accepted Beglov’s offer to take up a post in the city government. The acting governor now faces only two opponents: Mikhail Amosov (Civic Platform) and Nadezhda Tikhonova (A Just Russia).

Bortko said the Communist Party did not know about his decision. But our source inside the part said Bortko had informed party chair Gennady Zyuganov about his intentions early last week. The Communists had talked Bortko out of withdrawing but he changed his mind.

Our source admitted it was possible that Bortko had been used “without his knowledge” as “an emotional person,” but thought it was unlikely that Beglov could not have won in the first round without his help. He did not believe Kiriyenko had tried to talk Beglov out of it.

Zyuganov said the party would evaluate Bortko’s actions after the elections.

Earlier, a source close to the Kremlin told Vedomosti that Bortko’s support rating had climbed to nearly thirty percent and thus increased the likelihood of a second round.

Another source close to the Kremlin said Beglov did not have enough support to win in the first round: fewer than fifty percent of Petersburgers who were polled said they would vote for him.

Two other sources close to the Kremlin told us about the danger of a second round.

“The expectation is some older voters who supported Bortko could switch their support to Beglov,” one of them said.

Bortko’s name will now be manually stricken from the ballots. Dmitry Krasnyansky, a member of the Petersburg City Elections Commission, said the electronic ballot boxes set up at a quarter of polling stations provided for this option.

“However, this has to be done with maximum precision. If it’s a little crooked, it won’t read. It’s a real problem. In such cases, the electronic ballot box would simply be turned off,” Krasnyansky said.

One of our sources argued that, in this case, there would be “great opportunities for adjusting the final vote tallies.”

Political consultant Grigory Kazankov argued Bortkov’s withdrawal would not help Beglov in any way since Beglov was his own worst enemy.

“Beglov has no strong opponents. The situation is similar to the one faced by Governor Svetlana Orlova in the Vladimir Region in 2018. She lost to the LDPR candidate. Whether the election is legitimate or not will depend on whether it is run properly. So the question is whether the votes will be counted honestly or, as is usually the case in Petersburg, there are controversies,” Kazankov said.

Bortko’s withdrawal suits the powers that be since it will lower voter turnout. If the turnout was around thirty percent, the majority of Petersburgers who come to the polls would be pro-government voters, argued political consultant Valentin Bianchi.

“No matter what anyone says now, everyone will assume the government got Bortko to withdraw. This is a minus sign for the authorities, and for Beglov in particular. Although Bortko is a creative type, he’s a rational man. His meeting with Medinsky could be the piece of the puzzle that explains what happened,” Bianchi said.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The After Party, or, The Electoral Iguana

iguana

Artplay to Hold “Posh Gubernatorial Election After Party”
Sergei Feofanov
The Village
August 30, 2019

Artplay Design Center in Petersburg (Red Guard Square, 3) will hold Election Night 2019 in the wee hours of September 9, the event’s organizers have informed us. They have dubbed the event a “posh invitation-only after-party” to celebrate the city’s gubernatorial election [on September 8].

Political operatives, politicians, and celebrities [selebriti] will take part in the event. Guests will be treated to projection mapping [sic] and musical sets by Markschneider Kunst and Junkyard Storytellaz, as well as an immersive show [immersivnoe shou] involving actors “made up to look like the eye-catching residents of a communal apartment.” In addition, organizers plan to release an “electoral iguana,” which will crawl to one of four bowels representing the candidates.

Last year, Election Night was held in Moscow, and this autumn the main event will also take place in the capital, including video links with the regions. Organizers include the Russian Public Chamber, National Public Monitoring, the Russian Public Relations Association (RASO), RASO’s Political Strategists Committee, and the Russian Political Consultants Association.

Znak.com reporter Ksenia Klochkova, who writes on the Telegram channel Rotunda, told us that spin doctors working for the campaign of [acting governor and gubernatorial candidate] Alexander Beglov have their headquarters at Artplay. Activist and public figure Krasmir Vranski said that “all normal people” would be up all night contesting the elections.

The organizers claim there will be no campaigning and support for any candidate at the event. Artplay simply met certain criteria as a venue, they explained.

Earlier, the band SBPCh [“The Largest Prime Number”] canceled a concert in the infamous, political scandal-plagued municipal district of Ekateringof. The band’s musicians did not want to play at a politically charged event.

Thanks to Julia Galkina for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Newsweek. Translated by the Russian Reader

More and More Russians

hongkong.jpgAccording to organizers, at least 1.7 million people attended a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong today, August 18, 2019. Photo courtesy of HKFP

More and more Russians seem to be breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line. Increasingly, they just do what they deem important, and the authorities deal with the consequences. We are all much more used to the reverse relationship, which is why Russia’s new situation is hard to grasp. People in Russia are only now learning to peer into themselves, not into their television sets, searching for clues to what will happen next.

This does not mean that the Kremlin has suddenly become more transparent or less authoritarian. It only means that Russian society has started to realize that it may, in fact, be an originator of political and societal change, not just on the receiving end.

For how long this new situation—or an impression of it—will last is unclear. The Kremlin is at war and wants everyone in Russia to be at war too. Russians seem to be drifting away from this belligerence. The question is whose pull, the Kremlin’s or Russian society’s, is stronger. I am afraid the Kremlin’s is stronger but will be happy to be mistaken.
—Maxim Trudolyubov, “Ask Not What Will the Kremlin Do Next,” The Russia File, 16 August 2019

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What does the phrase “more and more Russians” mean, in the essay quoted above? How does Maxim Trudolyubov know they are doing anything at all, much more “breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line” and doing “what they deem important” (whatever that means)?

If its organizers are to be believed, a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong was attended by 1.7 million people today, August 18. According to Worldometers, Hong Kong’s population, as of today, was almost 7.5 million people, meaning that nearly 23% of Hong Kong’s residents marched today in support of the city’s autonomy and democratic rights.

In Moscow, “up to 60,000 people” attended an “authorized” pro-democracy rally on August 10. It was, apparently, the biggest opposition rally in Russia since the fair election protests of 2011–2012.

World Population Review estimates Moscow’s population as slightly over 12 million people.

If the figures for the August 10 rally and Moscow’s population are to be credited, then, 0.005% of the city’s populace came out for an “authorized” rally—meaning an event where they had much less reason to fear a police crackdown than at the “unauthorized” rallies at which riot police and Russian National Guardsmen detained thousands of protests over the last month or so.

When you are trying to get your collective point across to an authoritarian government, the numbers do matter, just as they matter in non-authoritarian countries.

As I have argued in many different ways many different times, the Russian opposition, especially its self-declared leaders in Moscow, is woefully bad at two things: mobilizing ordinary pro-democratic Russians to make their numbers know to the regime, and meaningfully allying itself with the grassroots pro-democracy movement beyond Moscow.

In fact, at the very same time as a tiny minority of brave, smart Muscovites have been doing battle with the Moscow City Elections Commission and the security forces to defend their constitutional right to vote and run for office, an even tinier and, perhaps, braver minority of Petersburgers have been fighting to get a small slate of independent candidates onto the ballot for elections to the city’s municipal district councils, chronically underfunded entities with almost no power to do anything more than making cosmetic improvements to the neighborhoods they represent. Just as in Moscow, the would-be candidates themselves have been harassed, beaten, and arrested, along with some of their supporters.

Typically, when the Petersburg pro-democratic opposition held an authorized rally on August 3, only two thousand people showed up. Sadly and hilariously, Deutsche Welle described it as an “event in support of candidates not allowed to run in the elections to the Moscow City Duma.” In reality, Petersburgers rallied in support of their own beleaguered opposition candidates, in solidarity with Muscovites, and against the upcoming pro forma election of acting Governor Alexander Beglov, the Kremlin’s third satrap in the city, on September 8.

But the real story was too complicated for Deutsche Welle. It was, apparently, too gnarly for the vast majority of Petersburgers as well. World Population Review estimates Petersburg’s population as nearly 5.5 million. (I suspect it is actually much higher than this, but that is another conversation.) So, proportionately, even fewer people in Russia’s “cultural capital” are worried about their rapidly vanishing constitutionally guaranteed rights than their comrades in Moscow and their Chinese frenemies in Hong Kong: 0.0003%, to be exact.

In the face of these real numbers, which he signally fails to mention, Trudolyubov cites public opinion polls, notoriously unreliable indicators in a highly manipulated authoritarian society like Russia, and his own vague “impressions.”

He also makes an assertion that is debatable and a promise he probably has no intention of keeping, to wit:

“Russian society is turning into a much more active player in Russia’s public life. Importantly, it is not limited to the political protests that have been taking place in Moscow for the past several weeks. The protests are just the most visible part of the change. There is exciting new art, there is a new wave of independent journalism, there is an entire universe of YouTube and other social media channels that are completely free of both pro-Kremlin and strictly oppositional politics (all of those trends deserve a special take, which we will provide).”

I will have been reporting on these “other Russias,” as I have dubbed them, for twelve years come this October. I know them as well any “outsider” can know them. I will keep writing about them and translating dispatches from these other Russias as long as I am able.

Despite my interest in the other Russias and Russians, however, and my endless admiration for the sheer courage, tenacity, and intelligence of many of the real-life heroines and heroes who have made appearances on this website over the years, I knew the fair elections movement of 2011–2012 was a non-starter almost as soon as it kicked off, even though it was a nationwide grassroots movement, unlike the 2019 fair elections movement, which has been practically limited to Moscow.

I knew that for two reasons. First, the numbers of anti-Putinists showing their faces in public at protest rallies, “authorized” and “unauthorized,” were also minuscule as percentages of the general populace. Second, the “movement” was managed lackadaisically, with huge gaps between “authorized” rallies.

In Moscow, at least, there does seem to be a greater sense of urgency and intensity this time around, but the numbers of people showing up for rallies have been halved. Paradoxically, however, those people have been more willing to face police crackdowns, but I am not sure this is necessarily a good thing, politically and strategically.

Like Trudolyubov, I am happy to be mistaken. Unlike Trudolyubov, I have no sense that Russian society has become a bigger player than it was seven years ago. There was also a lot of new art, independent journalism, and social media savvy on the margins then as now.

The sad truth is that, unlike countries and territories populated by people of color, such as Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, Russia gets way more credit for every tiny gesture towards democracy, autonomy, and independence made by its supposedly “white” people, even though Russian society punches way below its weight when it comes to every possible measure of official and popular support for democracy, minorities, civil and human rights, progressive environmental policies, engaged art, cutting-edge education, grassroots-driven urban planning, you name it.

What Russia does have a lot of is flag twirlers who have ensconced themselves in plum jobs at western news outlets and think thanks, places where, correspondingly, you will not find a lot of people of color and people from the formerly colonized parts of the world. So, even though the Kremlin has made xenophobia, anti-Americanism, rampant homophobia, Islamophobic, anti-westernism, anti-liberalism, Russian Orthodox obscurantism, and aggressive covert and overt interventions into the affairs of other countries planks in its unwritten ideological platform, and Russia’s opposition has said almost nothing about any of it, much less organized protests against, say, the Kremlin’s criminal military involvement in the brutal ongoing murder of Syria’s pro-democracy movement, the so-called west, at least as represented by places like the Kennan Institute and media organizations like the BBC, has way more time and sympathy for all things Russian than it has for anything happening in countries and places dominated by people of color.

It would be strange of me, of all people, to argue for less interest in grassroots politics and culture in Russia, but a genuine curiosity should also involve being able to tell the fibbers and crypto-nationalists from the truth-tellers and democrats. // TRR

Thanks to the fabulous Mark Teeter for the heads-up. I am nearly certain he would have a different take on Trudolyubov’s essay, but in my Facebook newsfeed it ended up cheek by jowl with an article about today’s truly massive protests in Hong Kong.

Vrio!

brail-1.jpg

Alexander Beglov was appointed the acting governor of Petersburg or vrio (to coin the acronym for such officials who “temporarily carry out the duties” of one office or another) on October 3, 2018.

His appointment immediately sparked speculation the Kremlin had put him in charge of Putin’s hometown not only temporarily but also so he could run for the post “legitimately” in the upcoming gubernatorial election, scheduled for September 8, 2019.

As luck would have it, the seven-year reign of his predecessor, the dull but mostly inoffensive Georgy Poltavchenko, was blessed by relatively snowless winters.

Petersburg, however, is the northernmost major city in the world and, unsurprisingly, it sometimes snows a lot there in the winter. The “anomalous winter” of 2010–11, during which the local authorities could not get a handle on cleaning relatively heavy snowfalls from streets, pavements, and roofs, spurring wild popular discontent, famously led to the dismissal of then-Governor Valentina Matviyenko and her replacement by the quieter Poltavchenko.

Like all members of Putin’s clique of made men and women, Matviyenko was not punished for her failures. Instead, she was “upmoted” (my term) to the much cushier post of speaker of the Federation Council. There she has been instrumental, I suspect, in persuading the press and the public she presides over a “senate,” peopled by “senators,” not a rubber-stamp entity filled with repellent losers too big to fail who have been rewarded generous sinecures in exchange for total loyalty.

In any case, today’s would-be Russian “senate” is a far cry from the feisty and, at times, mildly separatist Federation Council of the nineties, whose members would never have been so obnoxious as to style themselves “senators” and then get everyone else to go along with this sycophantic malarkey, including opposition activists, reporters, and academics who should know better.

The winter of 2018–19 was another “anomaly,” apparently, and vrio (interim governor) Beglov made it even worse by behaving even more brazenly and clumsily than Matviyenko had done during her own “snow apocalypse.”

You would think the Kremlin would not be so provocative as to shove Beglov, who looks remarkably like Mel Brooks in his salad days, playing the “villain” in one of his hilarious film parodies, down the throats of Petersburgers on Election Day 2019, but that is the plan. All the stops have been pulled out, including a total purge of opposition candidates attempting to run for seats on the city’s district municipal councils, although these underfunded, powerless bodies that have zero say over the Smolny, Petersburg’s city hall, where Beglov and his team call the shots.

The Kremlin is willing to make Beglov the city’s “legitimate” governor over everyone’s dead bodies, as it were, alienating even more otherwise apolitical Petersburgers from the regime.

Finally and, perhaps, apropos of nothing, has anyone ever remarked on the fact that both Beglov and Poltavchenko were born in Baku in the mid-1950s? Does it snow there in the winter?

The picture, above, was taken by Kseniya Brailovskaya in downtown Petersburg during the height of the municipal collapse this past winter. As another heat wave envelopes Europe, you will probably see more of these snapshots in the coming days, especially since I have a post or two in the works about the flagrant purges of opposition candidates in Petersburg. They have mirrored similar purges in Moscow, but without sparking spontaneous unrest of the weekend before last or the heavily attended protest rally that took place in the capital on Saturday{TRR}

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Rotunda
Telegram
July 16, 2019

A friendly meeting between the heads of over twenty Petersburg media outlets and acting Governor Alexander Beglov took place in the Smolny. The meeting was cast as a campaign event at which heated discussions were not welcome.

During the first hour, Beglov cheerfully talked about all the problems he had solved. He said his priority has been to combat depression among Petersburgers. Beglov thanked, in all seriousness, the opposition for keeping him on his toes and informing him about hotspots.

Then followed several questions from the attendees. The most pointed question was, “How can we help you?” or something like that. Despite being a candidate in the gubernatorial race, Beglov was not taken aback by this offer and spent another hour outlining his plans for the near term.

The only question that knocked the vrio off his high horse had to do with the scandals surrounding the elections to the municipal district councils. Beglov said he could not intervene since he himself was a candidate.

As the meeting drew to a close, the heads of the city’s media outlets asked whether Beglov would be willing to meet with reporters in a similar format in the future. Beglov said he would definitely talk with everyone but only after September 8.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Petersburg: Russia’s Window on the West

windy petersburg“One day windy Petersburg won’t let me light a cigarette and I’ll give up smoking on its advice.” Graffiti, Petersburg, July 19, 2018.  Photo by the Russian Reader

Rotunda
June 17, 2019

While Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and the Kremlin were trying to spearhead protests and organize their own rally in support of [the briefly arrested investigative journalist] Ivan Golunov, Petersburg’s acting governor Alexander Beglov missed the political bandwagon once again. Today, during a session of the governor’s so-called inner cabinet at the Smolny, he was told by his underlings the Vesna (Spring) Movement wanted to hold a rally against the persecution of journalists on June 23. Beglov ordered city officials to reach out to the organizers and move the rally to another date since, otherwise, it “would ruin the celebration for school leavers.”

When Beglov gave this order, he was likely unaware city officials had already taken care of the kids. The Smolny turned down Vesna’s request to approve their rally by making up literally a million excuses. For example, a source in the Smolny reported a military band would be playing on Lenin Square (one of the city’s specially designated so-called Hyde Parks, where, theoretically, protesters do not need the city’s go-ahead to hold rallies) on June 23. It also transpired that urgent repairs of heating mains, buildings, pedestrian crossings, etc., were underway at all the other venues in the city center where protest rallies could be held.

Rotunda (Rotonda) is a Telegram channel, covering city politics in Petersburg and written by reporters Maria Karpenko and Ksenia Klochkova. Translated by the Russian Reader