A man in a hoodie and mask runs into the headquarters of the Novosibirsk opposition coalition and throws a bottle of yellow liquid on the floor. The CCTV recording shows the latest attack on allies of the poisoned opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Three volunteers for the campaign in the Siberian city had to seek medical help after the attack with what police said was a disinfectant.
The Novosibirsk coalition is made up of 31 independent opposition candidates who are running for seats in the city council. On Sunday, voters in dozens of regions and cities across Russia are going to the ballot box to vote for new governors and regional parliaments — including in Novosibirsk.
Sergei Boiko is heading the opposition coalition there. The politician likes to zoom around the city on an electric unicycle. He has a weekly live YouTube show, in which he often rails about the corruption of local politicians. Boiko ran Navalny’s presidential campaign office in Novosibirsk in 2018 and came second in the city’s mayoral race last year. Now he and his coalition want to push United Russia out of the city council, where the party currently has a majority.
The campaign office is buzzing with activity after the latest recording of Boiko’s show. Volunteers are stacking turquoise leaflets and stickers, along with posters that read “It’s time for regime change.” The headquarters is based in what was a Siberian branch of Navalny’s offices. The politician’s face and name peaks out at visitors from around the space, and his slogans about United Russia being the party of “crooks and thieves” echo through the campaign.
According to Boiko, opposition to Vladimir Putin’s party is key to all the candidates. “We have a big, detailed program about how to change the budget of the city and how to clean up the streets, clear the snow in the winter and fix the roads. But our key message today is that we are against United Russia,” he says. “These are people who have essentially destroyed Novosibirsk in the past 20 years. No one takes care of our city.”
Boiko says whenever he puts up campaign posters, they are taken down almost immediately, which is why he is focusing on campaigning on social media. He adds that several of his coalition’s candidates have been barred from running.”Of course they are afraid,” he says of the Kremlin. “Because we can inspire other cities. If we can break United Russia’s majority, that will set an example for the rest of the country that that is possible. If you consolidate forces and go to the ballot box you can destroy their monopoly.”
Testing the waters
Observers also see the upcoming ballot as a litmus test for elections to the Russian Duma next year, both for the Kremlin and for the opposition. For Navalny’s allies, it’s a test for what the politician is calling “smart voting,” a strategy to kick out the ruling party by voting for the candidate most likely to beat United Russia in each constituency. Navalny’s allies say the strategy already cost the ruling party a third of its seats in the Moscow city council last year.
Navalny was poisoned on August 20, just after filming a series of YouTube investigations into United Russia candidates in Siberian cities including Novosibirsk. Sergei Boiko joined Navalny on screen to expose alleged corruption schemes by politicians from Vladimir Putin’s party. But Navalny also uses the investigations, which have garnered millions of views, as an emphatic call to vote strategically in Sunday’s ballot.
“Alexei was poisoned in the run-up to these elections,” says Boiko. “And we know why. Because ‘smart voting’ is the most effective way to fight against Putin’s party.”
Political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov argues that the regional elections are ultimately just an undercurrent to Moscow’s centralized politics ahead of Duma elections in 2021. “Questions of power are often decided outside of elections in Russia,” Vinogradov says. And the researcher on Russian regional politics believes Navalny’s “smart voting” strategy is “is usually only effective where the government is obviously already weak and has made mistakes.”
Ilya Graschenkov, the head of the Center for the Development of Regional Politics, agrees that Navalny’s “smart voting” is not as much of a concern for the authorities as the timing of these local elections. Candidates who plan to run in the Duma elections “are currently wrangling for support in their region,” Graschenkov explains, adding that several recent anti-government demonstrations in Russia have shown how important regional support is for the Kremlin.
Last month there were environmental protests over the protection of Kushtau mountain in Bashkortostan, in the Southern Ural region. And there’s also an unprecedented wave of ongoing protests in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk, with thousands taking to the streets since July to defend their local governor Sergei Furgal, after he was removed from office over a criminal case his supporters say was politically motivated. Graschenkov believes this mix of factors has now made the Russian authorities willing to “harshly suppress any political campaign that they find unpredictable, even if it isn’t ultimately a real threat.”
The United Russia candidates in Novosibirsk did not comment on their election campaign or on corruption accusations in time for the publication of this article. Mamvel Agayan, a member of the local youth parliament, told DW that voters should pick the ruling party at the ballot box because “United Russia is the party of the president, of the government, it is the party of respect and care. We work in the interest of the citizens of the Russian Federation.”
But volunteers and candidates of the Novosibirsk coalition want change. Vyacheslav Yakimenko, one of several young politicians running for a seat in the city council campaign, says Russian politics needs new faces. “I am 19. I have lived my whole life under Vladimir Putin. I don’t want to see the same person at the head of the government anymore,” he says.
“You can say that the political playing field in Russia is like scorched earth. And it’s only now that some little shoots are sprouting up, new political alliances and politicians with different views. I hope eventually, we will have a whole political jungle.”
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