Maria Eismont: Moscow’s Municipal District Opposition

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Like other municipal district councils in Russia’s major cities, Petersburg’s Vladimirsky Municipal District Council has a meeting space and offices, and enough money to publish a newspaper and fund very minor improvements in the neighborhood, but it has virtually no political power and survives only at the mercy of city hall and the city’s legislative assembly. Photo by the Russian Reader

How Things Are Going for the Municipal District Opposition
New politicians searching for a new agenda
Maria Eismont
Vedomosti
November 23, 2017

Sergei Sokolov was the only opposition member in the previous sitting of Moscow’s Konkovo Municipal District Council.

“I could not beat pro-regime council members when things were put to a vote, but I still managed to discourage them from doing things the neighborhood did not need,” says Sokolov, recalling his preceding five-year term on the municipal district council.

In September 2017, a team of Konkovo activists, led by Sokolov, won neighborhood elections, taking eight of the fifteen seats on the municipal district council. Sokolov was named head of the district, since Konkovo’s charter stipulates a simple majority of votes by council members to elect a district head, unlike other municipal districts. In other neighborhoods where the opposition won majorities on councils, their candidates for district heads ran into problems, since they needed the backing of two thirds of council members to win the posts, but they came up short on votes.

For the first time in many years, independent candidates won majorities in several Moscow municipal districts. In several instances, they won overwhelming majorities, but the question of whether grassroots self-government is possible in Moscow remains open.

The fact that Moscow’s municipal council members have scanty means at their disposal and insufficient powers was well known before and during the campaign. Yet now the new democratic politicians, who have taken power at the lowest level of Russia’s political totem pole, must show themselves and their voters that this is, in fact, the beginning of big and important changes in Russia.

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin, now head of the Krasnoselsky Municipal District, has already gone public with the new council’s first legislative undertaking. They have suggested eliminating the current system of so-called golden parachutes for outgoing municipal district council members and municipal district heads.

Konkovo’s independent council members have gone further. Within ten days of taking office, Sokolov sent the Moscow City Duma a request for 19 million rubles [approx. 275,000 euros] in additional funds for Konkovo’s budget, paid for with an increase in the allocation of personal income tax revenues.

“There are no rational explanations for the inexplicably low, discriminatory amount of personal income tax revenues allocated to the Konkovo Municipal District’s budget,” Sokolov wrote.

Council members have proposed spending the money on neighborhood improvements, accessible legal aid for low-income people, and a Southwest Moscow History Museum.

Last week, Konkovo council members came out with a legislative initiative to amend the Moscow City Law “On the Budget’s Structure and the Budgetary Process in the City of Moscow,” proposing to set the amount of allocations to municipal district budgets from personal income tax revenues at five percent. (It is currently set at 0.96%.) Economist Vladimir Milov helped draft the bill.

“I had been thinking about this initiative for a long time, and our team was organized for this purpose,” says Sokolov.

There are traces of picture frames that once held photographs of the president and prime minister on the wall in Sokolov’s office. They have been replaced by a hand-drawn portrait of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

“I have no illusions about the bill. United Russia still has a majority in the Moscow City Duma,” says Sokolov. “I don’t yet know how we are going to lobby the bill, but we will  be employing our usual methods: media outreach, rallies, and similar public things.”

It is difficult to imagine the circumstances in which Moscow city officials would meet the opposition municipal districts halfway, voluntarily giving up some of their money and authority. But it seems extremely important the reform of local self-government continues to be discussed and elaborated.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“I Will Find You and Kill You”: How Petersburg Celebrated “Democracy Day”

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“Whatever anybody says, especially our foes from abroad, both you and I know that we live in the most democratic country, in Russia.”

— Georgy Poltavchenko

This past Sunday, September 14, was declared “Democracy Day” in Petersburg, Europe’s fourth largest city. What this meant on paper was that the city’s Kremlin-appointed governor, Georgy Poltavchenko, swept to an overwhelming victory in his first “real” gubernatorial race, while ruling United Party crushed the opposition in elections to the city’s neighborhood councils. Then the victors celebrated “democracy” with a pop concert on Palace Square.

What this meant in practice was that Poltavchenko’s only real challenger had been peremptorily “filtered” from the race two months ago, and the melancholic KGB nonentity was left to face a quartet of stick-figure opponents almost no one had heard of before; the United Russia machine pulled out all the stops doing what it loves best—brazenly rigging elections and just as flagrantly cracking down on anyone who challenges its right to do that; and a band of foreign fascists, ultra-right-wingers, and Stalinist clowns, masquerading as “international monitors,” showed up to rubber stamp this bloody farce. No wonder Robert Mugabe backs Russia.

I received the following letter from a friend whose son celebrated “Democracy Day” by serving as a member of the electoral commission at a polling station in central Petersburg. I have translated the letter and published it here with her permission, but I have changed the names of people and places to protect “Dmitry,” “Lyuba,” and the author from further persecution and harassment.

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I don’t know whether you are aware of yesterday’s elections in Petersburg. They were completely hellish.

[Our son] Dmitry was a voting member of the electoral commission at Polling Station No. 86, on Austerlitz Street. His girlfriend Lyuba had the same status at Polling Station No. 85, which was in the same building. A bunch of Dmitry’s friends worked in the same capacity at various other polling stations.

The chairs of the commissions hid from them all the time. On Saturday, the day before the elections, Dmitry went to his polling station, where he immediately faced aggression and intimidation: “We’ll have you removed from the polling station,” “Don’t you dare photograph anything,” “We’ll settle your hash later,” and so on. Dmitry demanded to be shown the certificate for receipt of the envelopes containing the absentee ballots. The chairwoman started screaming that this was a provocation. Saturday ended with the chairwoman turning Dmitry over to the police for allegedly photographing the voter lists.

Dmitry was taken to the eighty-third police precinct on the Old Barge Channel, where he was immediately released because the arrest had been illegal. I went to the precinct to get him.

Then came Sunday [election day]. Right away in the morning, Dmitry wrote to us that there had been a bunch of violations; he was again being threatened, and so forth. He was sent out with a mobile ballot box to make the rounds of the old women [pensioners confined to their homes], and while he was out, the chairwoman sent someone with two unregistered ballot boxes to a hospital. At the end of the day, the ballot boxes came back with twenty additional votes that had appeared out of nowhere, as if people had been admitted to the hospital the day before and were immediately registered as voters at this polling station. It was like this with the ballot boxes at nearly every polling station: two hundred votes apiece, cast by completely unknown people, ended up in them.

In the afternoon, I brought Dmitry coffee, because he was afraid to leave the polling station. Lyuba went out to have tea, and while she was out, two ballot boxes were carried away from her polling station: she was informed of this after the fact.

When I arrived at the polling station, they also made as if they were going to arrest me: “Who the hell are you? His mama?” and so on. I snapped at them and told them they were shameless. Dmitry and I went out onto the porch. Some security guards—not cops—came out after us, as if they were keeping track of us. They smoked and swore. We remarked to them that both smoking and swearing were administrative violations. They cussed us out. When Dmitry started filming them with his telephone, they began pushing us down the stairs, trying to snatch the telephone from Dmitry. They got the telephone from him, and Dmitry hurt his hand. (Also, one of the guards got doused with coffee, meaning that Dmitry was left without coffee.) We called the police. When they heard us doing that, the guard cooled their heels and gave back the telephone, but they had erased the video.

Then a polizei came, and Dmitry and I filed an assault complaint. The polizei said he would charge the men with an administrative violation for smoking.

I told the chairwoman that hopefully she was being well paid for everything, because otherwise I saw no point to this mayhem. To which she replied that she was glad I was concerned about her welfare.

But it got really gnarly after the polls closed. We got reports from everywhere about [opposition electoral commission members and observers] being removed from polling stations during the counting of the votes. When Lyuba’s turn came and she refused to leave the polling station voluntarily, the police were summoned and told that she had spit on a local cop. Lyuba was taken away, and like Dmitry the day before, she was just released. She has filed a bunch of complaints against everyone.

At Dmitry’s polling station, on the contrary, they didn’t start counting the votes for four hours: they were supposedly verifying the voter lists. However, the chair of the Shostakovich Municipal District Electoral Commission, a man who weighs over a hundred kilograms, would come up to Dmitry and whisper in his ear, “I will find you and kill you.” He did this several times. Dmitry was alone against twenty gangsters who insulted and threatened him.

Dmitry called us and said he was being threatened, that they were trying to remove him from the polling station for videotaping and interfering with the commission’s work. I telephoned GOLOS (in general, I spent all of Saturday and Sunday phoning and writing everywhere). The people at GOLOS [a Russian electoral rights NGO] told me I should go to the polling station. At one in the morning, Grigory [her husband] and I ran to Austerlitz Street.

Just as we got there, Dmitry rang to say he was being forcibly dragged from the polling station. A police jeep was already parked outside. Dmitry had also called the police and told them he was being unlawfully removed, but they hadn’t shown up, or rather, they showed up to arrest him.

I was talking to Dmitry on the phone, and he was yelling, “Don’t you dare arrest me, you’re breaking the law.”

The door opened, and Grigory and I saw a cop dragging Dmitry from the polling station. I ran up to the cop and told him he was breaking the law and so on. To make a long story short, Dmitry was again being taken to the eighty-third police precinct. We headed there.

Before leaving, I asked the cop a question.

“Look me straight in the eyes and tell me you aren’t ashamed.”

“I am just doing my job,” he said.

“But what about the law?” Grigory asked.

The cop began to walk away.

“Do you believe in God?” Grigory shouted to him as he walked away.

“Yes,” the cop firmly replied.

Well, then we arrived at the police station. Dmitry was almost immediately released. He also dashed off a bunch of complaints.

We got home at four in the morning. Dmitry ate and drank for the first time in a twenty-hour hellish day. Then we were online until six in the morning watching as his electoral commission kept putting stuff up and erasing and rearranging it. They didn’t even have the obligatory large summary vote tally.

Dmitry’s friends were practically removed from all the polling stations [where they served as electoral commission members and observers]. One friend, Eduard Dubinsky, who was a candidate for the municipal council in the Kamenka district, was arrested for allegedly resisting the police. He spent the night in jail, and the next day a court sentenced him to a five hundred ruble fine. So Dmitry got off lightly. But we are waiting for responses to all his complaints.

P.S. We also found out that there were around two hundred ballots in the unaccounted ballot boxes at Dmitry’s polling station that were secretly sent out and brought back from the hospital, but it is impossible to verify who filled them out and how. Twenty-one of these ballots were allegedly filled out by people who had been admitted to the hospital the day before. It is unclear how they could be entered onto the voter lists. In fact, it couldn’t have been done legally. Plus, now Dmitry has checked and spotted the fact that another one hundred additional voters appeared up out of nowhere. He found this while looking over the final report. Meaning that approximately three hundred fake votes were added to the tally at his polling station. That is roughly fifty percent added to the total. Now I understand why the commission was so aggressive and didn’t allow the results to be known, and whey they were looking for an excuse to kick Dmitry out.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of academichelp.net

The Shipping Forecast

While Manifesta 10’s “public” program sets all that is left of progressive humanity (i.e., the contemporary art world) on fire with its overly provocative metallic Xmas tree, actual public and political life stubbornly and unattractively creaks on in the city that progress and progressive humanity have forgotten, Saint Petersburg, former capital of All the Russias.

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This life is of no interest to almost anyone, practically, even in Petersburg itself, so take what follows the way I and many other radio listeners the world over consume the beloved “Shipping Forecast” on BBC Radio 4: as a series of pleasant but ultimately meaningless vocables that have absolutely nothing to do with the way we self-satisfied landlubbers lead our rich, perfectly dry lives.

Gubernatorial and municipal district council elections are scheduled for September 14 in Saint Petersburg. However, even before the pretenders began formally declaring their candidacies this month, many observers, including liberal journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, argued the fix was in, and the Smolny would never allow any serious opposition to the incumbent (the unelected Kremlin appointee Georgy Poltavchenko) or whatever other candidate the Kremlin might suddenly choose to run for the job.

And indeed that is what has happened. Perhaps the only (mildly) oppositional candidate with the popularity and support to make the race real, Oksana Dmitrieva of A Just Russia party, was nixed before she got to the starting blocks. She did not pass the so-called municipal filter: formal approval of her candidacy by a minimum of 156 district council deputies.

I could not find any report about any of this monkey business in English, but hilariously I did find a badly translated statement from the ruling United Russia party angrily denouncing Dmitrieva for having the temerity to suggest there was something fishy about her failing to get through the filter and demanding an apology from her.

Well, sayonara, fair Oksana. We, the enlightened Petersburg “public,” barely knew who you were anyway, so we won’t miss you.

However, really serious candidates, like Takhir Bikbayev of the “Greens Ecological Party,” a man whose name is synonymous in the minds of Petersburg voters with all things environmental and progressive, (that’s a joke: I really have never heard of him before nor, I gather, has anyone else), easily passed through the dreaded filter.

Meanwhile, opposition candidates are being purged right and left from the district council races or otherwise prevented from registering. One such victim of Putinist vigilance is Fyodor Gorozhanko, a well-known local grassroots housing rights advocate, who was dismissed from the elections after United Russia complained he had “misled” voters who signed a petition supporting his candidacy. A court has upheld the complaint.

How exactly did Gorozhanko “mislead” voters? On the standard-issue petition sheets voters sign to get candidates on the ballot, there is a blank where the candidate has to state whether he or she is “employed” and where. Since Gorozhanko works as a volunteer aide to Petersburg Legislative Assembly deputy Maxim Reznik, he crossed out the word “employed” and pencilled in what he does now in lieu of gainful employment. This is how he “misled” voters. Gorozhanko plans to appeal the court’s decision…

Man, this local politics shit is so, so boring. I am going to switch on the “Shipping Forecast” and wait for a contemporary artist to make another provocative statement in public space about public space and history. Now that will be something to talk about.

P.S. While I was gussying up this post, incumbent Georgy Poltavchenko officially declared his candidacy. He will face stiff competition on September 14 from Irina Ivanova (CPRF), Konstantin Sukhenko (LDPR), Takhir Bikbayev (Greens), and Andrei Petrov (Motherland). I think it’s safe to say the vast majority of Petersburg will have never heard of any of these candidates except for Poltavchenko, of course, although Ivanova and Sukhenko are deputies in the city’s legislative assembly.

Oksana Dmitrieva (A Just Russia) and Anatoly Golov (Yabloko) were refused registration. Dmitrieva has claimed that Poltavchenko pressured municipal deputies into not supporting her candidacy and has filed complaints with the prosecutor general’s office and the central electoral commission.