Up-and-coming Communist Valentin Konovalov would have rightfully won governorship in Siberia if Vladimir Putin’s Russia were not a managed democracy — but as it stands, Konovalov can’t get a fair shake as the elections he would readily win continue being canceled.
His experience is par for the course under Putin and the United Russia party, which despite losing support continues shady practices to ensure its corrupt politicians maintain power.
> The virtually unknown 30-year-old rode a wave of protest to win a first-round ballot in Khakassia, a republic in eastern Siberia, last month. The results were an embarrassment for the ruling United Russia party and the Kremlin, which backed the incumbent. But his opponents have found an easy way to keep him from winning the run-off: don’t hold it.
> “It’s absurd,” said the candidate, who names Lenin as a political inspiration, over a cup of tea. So far, two of Konovalov’s opponents have dropped out, delaying the vote by two weeks each, and now an elections commission claims he misfiled his paperwork. Konovalov is likely to be disqualified.
> “We should have won the elections outright,” he said. “Now they’re trying to keep power illegally.”
United Russia’s support has sunk to a record low — just 31 percent — as economic hardship and widespread corruption within the party’s ranks has disenchanted many Russian voters.
The Guardian reported that one senior official in Khakassia earned the nickname “Hungry” for his “reportedly bottomless appetite for kickbacks.”
Putin’s recent decision to raise the retirement age by five years for both men and women — to 65 and 60, respectively — also sparked outrage among the public.
> Signed into law by Vladimir Putin last month because of a need to balance the budget, the decision has fuelled a fiery election season that already looked rough for Moscow.
> “It felt like a slap in the face,” said Svetlana Makhova, a 32-year-old administrative assistant on maternity leave, who moved to the Khakassia’s capital, Abakan, six years ago. She didn’t attend protests against the pension reforms, she said, because she didn’t support the Communists. But she said the local government, led for nine years by a man named Viktor Zimin, had it coming.
> “Let Putin come and live here,” she said, pointing to a rundown block of apartments. “Rather than taking money from us, why doesn’t he stop them from stealing it?”
As public opinion has soured on United Russia, Putin’s officials are struggling to manage the outcomes of the country’s so-called democratic elections.
> Russia has operated for more than a decade under a policy of “managed democracy”, where elections are held, but the candidates are filtered and the results are preordained. Lately, there’s been some trouble managing this. “Let me put it this way: when I was working, I was in control of 100% of politics in Khakassia,” said Vladislav Nikonov, the former chief of staff for Zimin.
> Konovalov was widely seen as a “technical candidate”, one who is nominated just to lose, and the Communist party is often called “pocket opposition”. But somewhere along the line, this turned into a real election, which the authorities have tried to cancel. “The people managing politics in Khakassia now have fouled this up,” Nikonov said.
In Khakassia, none of Putin’s efforts to swing public opinion worked:
> “People were ready to vote for anyone other than [Zimin],” said Valentina Ustyakhina, the director of an independent local news site called Information Agency Khakassia, which has been critical of the government and faced closure as a result. “Of course, the pension reform riled people up and you saw protests. But there was already a lot of anger.”
Konovalov sees the current situation as a significant opportunity for Communists in the country — “the beginning of the era of change,” as he put it.
Nikonov believes the government has made a mistake and will reap what it has sown in Khakassia:
> By threatening to disqualify Konovalov, whom he said was too inexperienced to govern, the state risked “making a hero out of him,” said Nikonov. The government had ended up in a crisis of its own making. If you don’t know how to hold on to power, then you shouldn’t be in politics,” Nikonov said.