RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – September 10, 2020 (Local Elections Preview)

Sunday’s local elections: “Something similar to real politics is happening in some regions” – We take a look at the most interesting regions for Sunday’s elections: Novosibirk, Arkhangelsk, Irkutsk, the Komi Republic, and Tatarstan.

On September, Russia will hold regional elections. 18 regions will elect governors, and 11 more will elect deputies of local parliaments, as well as 22 city council elections. Meduza wrote [in Russian] that these elections are not to be written off, as “something similar to real politics” is happening in some regions – in other words, United Russia has formidable challengers.

Instead of a run-down of the daily Russia headlines, today’s News Blast will take a look at some of those regions that are worth watching. After all, as Henry Foy of the Financial Times wrote yesterday, “Sunday’s regional elections represent the most important test of the popularity of Mr Putin’s party ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.”

Novosibirsk. As we noted in yesterday’s News Blast, Alexei Navalny’s offices in Novosibirsk – which form the campaign headquarters for the Navalny-backed opposition “Novosibirsk 2020” coalition – were attacked with an unknown, foul-smelling acid-based chemical. Novosibirsk will hold legislative assembly and city council elections, and both Novosibirsk 2020 and the Communist Party are mounting a serious challenge to United Russia rule. The Novosibirsk 2020 coalition features an unusually disparate cast of characters, including some who have clashed with Navalny in the past. The mayor of Novosibirsk is Communist Anatoly Lokot, and the Communists and United Russia are supposed to have “divided the districts: in the territories where strong United Russia members have nominated, the Communist Party has nominated little-known candidates, and vice versa.” But this not seem to have gone to plan, and the city council elections are known for fairly counting votes. It should be an interesting Sunday in Novosibirsk, as Meduza has been reminding us [in Russian] since July.

Arkhangelsk. The far northern region was supposed to get a lot bigger this year after fully absorbing the neighboring Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO), which is currently a “matryoshka region,” meaning it is formally part of Arkhangelsk, but has its own local government and budget. This controversial move came with much politicking behind the scenes, as we noted in our May 13 News Blast. The current Arkhangelsk governor Alexander Tsybulsky was previously head of the NAO until April, when then-Arkhangelsk governor Igor Orlov resigned his position. Orlov was very unpopular, largely due to the proposed construction of a landfill to house waste from Moscow. Tsubulsky was shifted from NAO to Arkhangelsk, and Yuri Bezdudny was appointed interim governor of NAO. Protests erupted in NAO [in Russian] on the merger proposal, and the central government was forced to step in and cancel the September 13 referendum on the merger of NAO and Arkhangelsk.

Tsubulsky now faces a tough challenger for Arkhangelsk governor in a region that was a protest hot spot even before the battle over Moscow’s trash and the NAO merger. Irina Chirkova of the A Just Russia party is mounting a challenge, and she is a high-profile name in the region. Importantly, NAO residents get a vote in the Arkhangelsk governor race, and to say that they are angry about the attempt to dissolve their region is an understatement – they even voted 54 percent against [in Russian] Putin’s constitutional referendum earlier this summer. Some are talking of a boycott of elections in the region after a prominent candidate was disqualified. Meduza wrote [in Russian] that Tsubulsky may ironically be saved by low turnout as a result.

Komi Republic. The Communists have a good shot at taking the Komi State Council, a region just south of the NAO. The Communists organized protests against the Arkhangelsk landfill, as it was very close to the border with Komi. The authorities are so worried they’ve registered two “red spoiler” communist parties – the “Communist Party of Russia,” and the “Communist Party of the Soviet Union” to combat the strength of the actual Communist party, the “Communist Part of the Russian Federation.”

Irkutsk. Irkutsk, a city ranking high on your Russia News Blast author’s list of most pleasant cities he has visited in all of the Russian Federation, is also one of the country’s most opposition-friendly, protest-happy regions. The Economist wrote of “[t]he elegant classical architecture of 19th-century Irkutsk” as a legacy of the former serfs who were encouraged to migrate to Siberia in the 1860s as the Trans-Siberian railway was being built. Irkutsk’s 19th century buildings and pleasant center are “testament to the tastes, money and energy that turned frontier forts into prosperous and cultured cities.”

More recently, Irkutsk saw protests in support of deposed Khabarovsk governor which were larger than those in Moscow or St Petersburg, and in 2018 a plurality of the region’s legislative seats were held not by United Russia members but by Communists – not an every day occurrence in a country where most elections are carefully stage-managed to avoid such outcomes.

The race for governor is likely to go to the second round. In 2015, the official choice Sergei Eroshchenko lost in a run-off to the Communist Sergei Levchenko, who himself was forced to resign in December last year – “by his own free will,” according to a Kremlin statement. Last summer, Irkutsk suffered from devastating floods and the Kremlin was not at all pleased with the government’s handling of the aftermath. Perhaps more importantly, the Kremlin was even less pleased [in Russian] that a Communist was at the helm in Irkutsk, against the wishes of the Kremlin and United Russia. Igor Kobzev, who fittingly served before as deputy emergencies minister, was brought in to replace Levchenko. Kobzev hails from the western Voronezh region, and Irkutsk residents have been less than pleased by his militant style of leadership as well as harboring a long-held suspicion of outsiders. Former FSB officer and Communist State Duma deputy Mikhail Shchapov is shaping up as formidable opposition to Kobzev.

Tatarstan. The Tatar Republic will hold elections for its president. Rustem Minnikhanov has been president since 2010, and prime minister of the Republic from 1998-2010. But Alexei Navalny’s foundation has found that relatives of the president have many multi-million dollar properties, among other questionable financial dealings. Navalny’s team came under attack recently in Tatarstan, presumably for their investigations. In 2015, Minnikhanov, according to the Tatar Republic’s election commission, received 94% of the votes in the election of the head. United Russia won 72% of the vote in the State Council elections last year.

PHOTO: Arkhangelsk saw a wave of protests against a proposed rubbish landfill featuring trash from Moscow. It forced the resignation of the region’s governor. Elections this Sunday are sure to be interesting in Arkhangelsk as well as in other select regions with strong discontent and a strong opposition (Alexey Lipnitsky / ТАSS / Scanpix / LETA).