SAMARA, Russia -- The CIA has Russia’s Samara Oblast in its crosshairs. At least that is what the governor, Nikolai Merkushkin, wants voters to think.
In the run-up to September 18 elections to the State Duma, Merkushkin has been working hard to portray the vote as a stark choice between the ruling United Russia party and a U.S. intelligence agency that is bent on tearing Russia apart.
“In April, the U.S. ambassador to Russia -- he’s the main specialist in organizing Orange Revolutions – came here and he studied the situation,” Merkushkin told voters on August 10. “And they have one goal -- to undermine confidence in the authorities. In this regard, we must all take the elections with the utmost seriousness.”
Two days later, Merkushkin targeted U.S. Ambassador John Tefft again, claiming that the envoy examined Tolyatti, an industrial city in the region, but “saw that no sparks could come from here in order to spread the conflagration to the whole country.”
“That is why the CIA decided to go after all of Samara Oblast,” he concluded.
But Merkushkin’s electioneering assertions come at a time of particularly strained relations between Moscow and Washington, with tensions mounting since Russia’s seizure of Crimea in March 2014 and the start of its active military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
On August 30, the governor said opposition politician and anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny “was trained in the United States” and is “devoted to Uncle Sam” -- something Russian officials and pro-Kremlin pundits have been telling the people for years.
Merkushkin took it a step further by saying that Navalny is attempting to carry out the “Dulles Plan,” apparently a reference to a 1993 book ascribing to Cold War-era CIA chief Allen Dulles an alleged scheme to use agents within the Soviet Union to break it up into many small nations. That fictional plot has been presented as reality by numerous Russian politicians and public figures in recent years, including Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leftist presidential economic adviser Sergei Glazyev, and filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov.
On August 17, Merkushkin made the most detailed presentation of his claims so far, asserting that the CIA had hacked Samara Oblast’s e-mail system in order to distribute false information to voters and undermine their confidence in the authorities. He also claimed that the CIA is keeping global energy prices low so that the Russian government will not have enough money to pay pensions.
“Why did they come to us?” Merkushkin asked, referring to the region on the Volga River. “Why not Moscow or St. Petersburg or Kazan or Yekaterinburg? We believe the main reason is that for many years we have been the main testing ground for Western experiments. The main testing ground.”
Merkushkin, 61, previously served five terms as the authoritarian leader of the nearby Mordovia region. In the early 2000s, he made the mistake of developing ties with oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. After Khodorkovsky was arrested, imprisoned, and dispossessed, Merkushkin had to work hard to demonstrate his loyalty to President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
In a way, Merkushkin’s claims make him Putin writ small. In power as president or prime minister since 2000, Putin has persistently sought to boost his popularity and consolidate power by portraying Russia as a defiant country resisting U.S. efforts to bring it to its knees.
Merkushkin is renowned within Russia for his endurance-testing appearances before the press, often lecturing journalists for as long as five hours.
His gruff style came out during a meeting with voters earlier this month in which a woman complained that she hadn’t received wages in more than a year and asked when the money would come.
“Well, I want to tell you,” Merkushkin said abruptly. “If you are going to speak in such a tone, [the answer is] never. Never! Go ask the people who are inciting you.”
In 2012, Putin moved Merkushkin to Samara following United Russia’s poor performance in the region in the 2011 elections to the Duma, Russia’s lower parliament house. In that race, turnout in Samara was just 52.9 percent and only 39.1 percent voted for United Russia. (Nationally, turnout was officially 60 percent and United Russia was credited with 49.3 percent of the vote.)
Meanwhile, the Communist Party made one of its strongest showings in Samara Oblast, winning over 23 percent of the vote in 2011.
By comparison, in Merkushkin’s Mordovia, official turnout was 94.2 percent, with 91.6 percent endorsing the ruling party. Only Chechnya produced more Kremlin-friendly results.
Merkushkin seems to have brought his election magic -- or methods -- to Samara. In 2014, he ran for election as governor and managed to poll 91.4 percent.
Samara regional legislator Mikhail Matveyev ran against Merkushkin in 2014 and has bitter memories of the experience.
“The last election campaign showed that you can’t consider Merkushkin a sincere person,” Matveyev told RFE/RL. “When the voting came and they began stealing votes from the other candidates, it was clear that the governor had set himself the goal of getting 90 percent, even though his polling was about 70 percent. I would guess that he converted that 70 percent into 90 percent just out of pure egotism.”
But there is evidence that Merkushkin is under pressure from the Kremlin to produce the right result without outright violations. Vyacheslav Volodin, a powerful first deputy chief of staff to Putin, and Central Election Commission (CEC) head Ella Pamfilova have both repeatedly promised a fair and transparent vote.
Pamfilova told a Moscow press conference that about one-seventh of all the election complaints received by the CEC to date have come from Samara Oblast, including many from United Russia candidates who allege Merkushkin promoted “his” people during the party’s primary.
“I see this as the clash of two different points of view at the top,” Anton Rubin, who is running for the Duma from the liberal Yabloko party, told RFE/RL. “Pamfilova is fighting for fair elections and [Merkushkin] is absolutely ignoring her. The human rights commission and the CEC have sent delegation after delegation down here, but they have had no effect. Merkushkin still appears five times a day at state enterprises. He still uses Samara state television like his personal channel, despite all the election laws. It is an interesting case to see who will beat whom, but for now it is clear that [Merkushkin] is winning.”
And if the stick of alleged CIA plots is not enough to bring out the vote, Merkushkin has been trying a carrot, as well. He frequently tells voters that “in the near future we will have to fight for every ruble from the federal budget and that will be very difficult without convincing arguments.”
If the region gives “97 percent” to United Russia, he said on August 24, the Kremlin will listen to him.
And if not?
“I will be justified for not doing anything for the people," he said. "You yourselves will have made it so that we aren’t doing anything for the people.”