Fake Candidates, Queues and a Very Important Deputy. The Petrogradsky Plot.

July 11, 2019

Summertime in St Petersburg is renowned for the long, seemingly eternal days – known as “white nights” – where the sun sets for merely a blink and residents are granted few, if any, hours of true darkness.

Long after the white nights will have drawn to a close, in September, residents of Russia’s second-biggest city will go to the ballot to elect over 1500 municipal deputies in 111 districts as part of the ‘Single Voting Day’. What unites St Petersburg’s white nights with its upcoming municipal elections is the story of Pavel Chuprunov — an ecologist and civil activist who wants to stand for election in his local electoral district, Chernaya Rechka.

On his journey to register as a candidate, Pavel encountered a new form of Kremlin political technology – employing fake candidates to stand in line to try (and fail) to prevent real candidates from registering in September’s municipal elections.

What makes Pavel’s story special is that it sheds a new light onto the techniques and strategies employed by powerful parliamentarians seeking to maintain their monopoly over the political process, even at the lowest levels.

We spoke with Pavel to find out more about the story.

Pavel is 26 years old and was nominated by the For A Just Russia Party under an alliance with a non-partisan project called the United Democrats, which supports independent candidates in elections in Russia. 

Khodorkovsky.com, J. Richardson (KhJ): How did you first become interested in politics in Russia?

Pavel Chuprunov (PC): I have had an interest in politics since my childhood. I used to talk about [Boris] Berezovsky, [Eduard] Limonov, [Alexei] Navalny and the Dissenters’ March with my friends at school. But I got into politics by accident, really. In 2011 I moved to Saint Petersburg and started university. It was autumn. After university I’d usually take the metro home from Gostiny Dvor. Riot police grabbed me and stuffed me into the back of a police van without explaining why. Once I arrived at the police station where I met some local opposition figures, I realised that a ‘Strategy-31’ demonstration had been taking place. Actually, since that point, I have been interested in elections and political events in my country. I was an observer during the 2011 city duma elections and the 2012 presidential elections.

KhJ: Are you a member of any political or civic organisations?

PC: I currently sit on the Open Russia Council in St Petersburg and am a member of the control and auditing commission in the youth movement Vesna.

KhJ: What do you have to do to become a candidate in this election?

PC: You need to work out which district you want to run in. I am going to run where I live. Next it is worth deciding, whether you are going to run on behalf of a party or as an independent candidate. If you are nominated by a party that has a deputy in the Petersburg parliament, then you don’t have to collect signatures. This makes the registration process easier. Next you need to prepare the first set of documents: your confirmation that you want to stand, your passport, proof of qualifications and information about where you work, your outgoings and assets.

KhJ: What do you want to achieve through standing in these elections?

PC: My goal is to free, let’s say, Chernaya Rechka from the influence of [Vyacheslav] Makarov and [Kremlin party] United Russia, because all of our municipal deputies are under Makarov’s control. They aren’t changing anything and do exactly what he says. I would like for there to be real competition between deputies and discussion in the municipal council about how to develop Chernaya Rechka. 

Vyacheslav Makaraov is the chairman of the Legislative Assembly in St Petersburg. Mr Makarov, who started his political career 19 years as a municipal deputy, is a member of the United Russia party. Alexei Navalny’s Foundation Against Corruption (FBK) published a fascinating investigation into Makarov’s web of connections that spans across, as alleged by FBK, at least three municipal electoral districts. Interestingly, Pavel’s region, Chernaya Rechka, was not included in the investigation. Yet as we will discover, there is evidence that the long reach — and deep pockets — of this high-ranking nepotist have worked their magic in Chernaya Rechka.

KhJ: Did you have any difficulties with the nomination process?

PC: It seemed everything would be easy. There is a current municipal council, which should announce the date of the elections for the next session. Their decision is published on their website and in a local paper, and a notice should be displayed in the library. None of that happened! [The announcement] is important for us, as we can only submit our registration documents within 20 days after the decision is announced. They intentionally hid their decision. We tried to attend their meeting, but they blocked us from going in. After this I started my [Twitter] thread.

KhJ: Why didn’t they let you into the meeting? What reason did they give?

PC: There was no reason. They lied and said there was no one [in the room].

KhJ: Did you think you’d have issues submitting the documents?

PC: In the previous elections in 2014, I also tried to register as a candidate. It failed. This year I expected that they’d think something new up. They purposely reduced the working hours [of the electoral commission], making up excuses about how they had had to leave the office urgently and couldn’t accept documents today. You’d come the next day and there’d be another important task. They were trying to hide and keep the door shut.

KhJ: What happened next?

PC: After that they thought up a fake queue. We arrived at nine in the morning, an hour before the commission opened. The so-called ‘candidates’ were already standing in line. We decided to wait in the queue. At the start we didn’t realise who these people were. “We should have time to submit our documents after them”, we thought. It turned out the commission spent an hour with each candidate. We didn’t make it in the end. The commission closed. Those six people submitted their documents, but we didn’t. We arrived on the second day this time at eight, but they were already standing there.

KhJ: Was it the same people in the queue?

PC: It was. I started asking for their names while filming, and why they had been to the commission every day. We found their photos [online] from United Russia events. We realised they were fake candidates.

Head of Chernaya Rechka Electoral Commission M. Dobrokhotov (third from left) posing with fake candidates in United Russia aprons.

KhJ: What was your reaction when you realised they were fake candidates?

PC: I was interested in what their motives to do this were. While in the queue, I tried to get them talking and find the reason. Was it possible that they were being paid or had been offered a high-ranking job after the election? Then an article on Zakc.ru came out in which a journalist had proved that many fake candidates had been paid to stand in queues. I then tried to buy their place in the queue for 2000 and 3000 rubles and they’d then go home. They declined and then forced me out of the queue. Obviously, they are being offered something more than just money.

On the fourth day I arrived at six in the morning, but they were already there. The earliest I went was at four AM. But again, they were already standing in a queue.

KhJ: How did you feel at that point?

PC: I think that to live in Russia under Putin and be involved in politics, you have to be able to laugh at yourself and in general about everything that happens. Otherwise it would be difficult to stay sane. But I was in a good mood because I understood the entire absurdity [of the situation].

KhJ: Who do you think is responsible for all of this?

PC: We worked out that most of [the fake candidates] are part of the Youth Council at the Administration of the Petrogradsky Region. The exact same region where several relatives of Vyacheslav Makarov, the chair of the Petersburg parliament, work as government officials.

So why exactly were members of the electoral commission posing as fake candidates and preventing legitimate candidates from submitting documents for registration?

The tactics, if somewhat crude, are indicative of interference from above. Despite the absence of a smoking gun, Pavel’s story, coupled with some additional research, uncover a sly scheme centered around keeping Chernaya Rechka under the control of Vyacheslav Makarov.

What should raise suspicions, first and foremost, is the fact that the deputy head of the Chernaya Rechka council is Vasiliy Makarov, the brother of Vyacheslav Makarov. Judging by the FBK investigation, those with personal ties to Vyacheslav Makarov receive preferential treatment when government tenders are awarded. Brotherly love may serve as a compelling argument for Vyacheslav Makarov to pay special attention to Chernaya Rechka

Yet Mr Makarov’s interest in Chernaya Rechka may be better explained by the fact that it lies within electoral district number three — the district that Makarov represents in the Legislative Assembly (which he chairs). A loss in the municipal elections would not undermine Makarov’s mandate in the Legislative Assembly. However, municipal councillors are able to select members of the local electoral commissions from those nominated by members of the public, political parties represented at the federal level, and the city electoral commission. Electoral commissioners are notorious for their discrimination against genuine opposition candidates in the registration process and typically serve to ensure that votes are counted “correctly” during elections.

The head of the electoral commission responsible for Chernaya Rechka — and thus lies at the heart of this electoral mischief — is Mikhail Dobrokhotov. Dobrokhotov is also a member of the Youth Council at the Administration of the Petrogradsky Region of St Petersburg. Pavel described the Youth Council as a way to “pull young politicians away from real politics”. According to an unverified source, Dobrokhotov works at the Council as an “aid to the chair of the Legislative Assembly V.S. Makarov”. Pavel also found pictures of those making up the “fake queue” on the Chernaya Rechka council website with Dobrokhotov, all sporting United Russia overalls.

Inside the office of Chernaya Rechka Electoral Commission. Makarov posters (top left), United Russia clock (middle), Putin calendar (bottom right).

If there was any more evidence needed to underline the ties between Makarov and Chernaya Rechka, then we can simply point to the moment Pavel was called in to the electoral administration office to submit his registration documents. Upon entering, Pavel noticed the office was decked out with a United Russia clock, a Vladimir Putin calendar and election posters for Vyacheslav Makarov.

Interestingly, the Chernaya Rechka electoral commission initially ignored an order from the district electoral commission, which stated that the commission must not close until all candidates had submitted their documents. There are several conclusions which can be drawn from this. First, that the district electoral commission cannot implement any rulings or orders it makes. Second, subordinate electoral commissions are willing to disregard orders from above due to the influence of third parties that operate outside of the bureaucratic structure of the commissions themselves. In this instance, that third party is probably the head of the Legislative Assembly.

Though none of this proves that these fake candidates were paid out of the pocket of Vyacheslav Makarov, there are numerous reasons to suspect such. As Pavel himself explained: that the fake candidates would not accept his bribes, they were probably motivated by something other than cash — a job in regional administration.

This well-thought-out and deliberate monopolisation of the political process by United Russia seeps through to the grassroots level. It is trying to kill off whatever passion and hope people in Russia still have in achieving political change. Yet, so long as brave and determined citizens like Pavel continue to endeavour and fight for change, then we know not all hope is lost.

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