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'People With Initiative': Across Russia, Elected Officials From Opposition Say Ruling Party Is Playing Hardball

Okulovka is a small town of some 12,000 people in the Novgorod region in northwestern Russia that has gained prominence recently because of medical workers unhappy with the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Okulovka is a small town of some 12,000 people in the Novgorod region in northwestern Russia that has gained prominence recently because of medical workers unhappy with the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Those in power don't like people with initiative -- particularly if they are honest and independent," said Vyacheslav Galinov, an independent member of the local council in Guryevsk, a city of some 25,000 people in southwestern Siberia.

"Anyone who intends to be an independent politician in Russia must understand all the risks and be ready for them."

Galinov is one of hundreds of local officials across Russia who were elected under the "smart voting" strategy developed by opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and used effectively in elections held in September 2019 and September 2020.

The strategy identifies candidates most likely to defeat rivals from the ruling United Russia party and seeks to drive votes toward them. Navalny's supporters believe that gaining representation at the local level will help opposition politicians monitor future elections and expose fraud.

"First there is smart voting, then we get access to power at the regional level, and then people will come out into the streets to defend that power," Navalny associate Vladimir Milov told RFE/RL in September.

United Russia has had a stranglehold on political power in Russia from the local level to the national parliament, functioning as an essential part of President Vladimir Putin's authoritarian "power vertical" system.

Now the opposition, United Russia, and the Kremlin are focused on the 2021 elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

'Starting To Ask Questions'

In the meantime, activists like Galinov are trying to hold their own against United Russia colleagues and officials they say seem bent on preventing them from doing the jobs that they fought so hard to win.

Vyacheslav Galinov
Vyacheslav Galinov

Galinov works at a steel mill, like many of his constituents. He considers himself a libertarian, but notes that Guryevsk residents aren't interested in a politician's ideology.

"What I do is more important to them," Galinov told Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "We have a small city and everyone knows everyone else. They know me as an honest, educated, capable person."

He is the only independent member of the Guryevsk city council. Since his election in September, he has focused on housing issues -- maintenance, keeping courtyards clean and safe, helping to organize residents' groups.

"All the bureaucrats know about Deputy Galinov," he boasted. "And they generally try to do what I ask them to do. If I don't get what I need, they know the problems are just starting."

Galinov focuses on the positive and prefers not to discuss the problems he has encountered. The city administration, he said, "hates" him and tries to hinder him "in small ways." For instance, he has not been given the required office space to hold meetings with his constituents. None of his legislative initiatives has made it to the discussion stage, he added.

"But being on the city council, I am aware of what is going on," he said. "For instance, I know about a proposed increase in the property tax that the administration wanted to pass quietly. But thanks to me, they haven't been able to. Now even some United Russia deputies are following my example and starting to ask questions."

'Opposition Activity Is A Problem'

Late in the evening of November 17, an accident on a natural-gas pipeline left the city of Yeisk in southern Russia without heating. About 20 minutes before local media reported the problem, city council deputy Aleksandr Korovainy wrote about it on social media, emphasizing the dire situation at a local orphanage.

About seven hours later, at 6 a.m. on November 18, the police came to search his residence. The pretext was an investigation of a local retiree for involvement in a "undesirable organization" -- Open Russia, an opposition group financed by former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Kremlin foe who was jailed for a decade in Russia and lives in Europe.

Korovainy has been involved in the case as a witness, but police nonetheless used the occasion to confiscate all the telephones, tablets, computers, and other information technology in the house.

Aleksei Korovainy
Aleksei Korovainy

"My opposition activity is a problem for the local administration, the local police, and some business people who have good connections," Korovainy said. "These searches are an opportunity that can be used against any activist to seize their property."

Yeisk is a resort city of some 80,000 people on the shores of the Sea of Azov. It is an unusual place for Russia because in local elections in 2017, before Navalny's "smart voting" strategy was a thing, the city elected five independent deputies, including Korovainy, to its 30-member council. In 2019, independents won nine of the 13 contested mandates, thanks in large part to Korovainy's active campaigning.

A former teacher, Korovainy became active in politics and environmental activism in 2011 as the region was preparing to host the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Earlier this year, he spent 10 days in jail for participating in a demonstration against a Kremlin-organized package of constitutional amendments that, among other things, gave Putin the opportunity to seek two additional terms as president.

Korovainy said that he had "very difficult" relations with the local and regional executive organs. "The head of the region is very offended by my activity and my public statements," he said. "He doesn't understand a lot of issues.... Another deputy and I stopped several of his projects, including some that seemed corrupt."

'Shut Up And Do As You're Told'

Okulovka is a small town of some 12,000 people in the Novgorod region in northwestern Russia. It has become prominent in recent months, however, as a hub of the Alliance of Doctors medical professional organization, which has given visibility to medical workers who are unhappy with the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the 2020 local elections, voters sent four candidates from the liberal Yabloko party, one candidate from the Alliance of Doctors, and one independent candidate to the city's 15-seat local council.

During the campaign, Yabloko leader Svetlana Finageyeva was fined 20,000 rubles ($265) for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration when she laid a wreath at a monument to Soviet-era rock star Viktor Tsoi on the anniversary of his death.

She said the authorities were trying to intimidate her, but the effort backfired. "The fine increased my visibility," she said. "The Internet publication Your News interviewed me and that link was shared on social media. A lot of people who didn't know what we were doing found out about me."

Svetlana Finageyeva
Svetlana Finageyeva

The fine was paid off through crowdfunding and now Finageyeva is chairwoman of the city council's Budget and Finance Committee. The main issue facing her committee now, she said, is improving public transportation, especially to areas located far from schools.

"Most of the deputies are completely blank," she said. "I can see that when the Yabloko members raise topics, sometimes one school director from United Russia or one of the Communists will say something. But the rest are just an obedient majority that votes as instructed. Do they understand the issues we discuss? I don't know."

Finageyeva said that local officials have not forgotten the 20,000-ruble fine she paid and bring it up with her from time to time.

"'Shut up,'" she said they tell her. "'And don't get yourself into any more situations like that.'"

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Aleksei Sabelsky of Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA

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