State Duma elections 2016: the Open Russia candidates

March 1, 2016

Open Russia has announced the third candidate in their list for the upcoming State Duma elections. She is Natalya Gryaznevich, co-chair of the St Petersburg region RPR-Parnas party. Fontanka.ru, the St Petersburg online news group, spoke with Timur Valeyev, head of the ‘Open Elections’ project, about the candidates and election campaign techniques.

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The third Open Russia candidate has been announced today.

Yes, the first was Maria Baronova, who will run for Moscow Central constituency; the second was Yegor Savin from the Iskhitimsk constituency in the Novosibirsk region; the latest addition to our team is Natalya Gryaznevich, who is planning to stand for the Northern Constituency No. 213 in St Petersburg (Vyborg and Kalinin districts).

Why these three particular people and these constituencies?

All our candidates had already decided to take part in the elections, and they made their own decisions about which constituencies. Yegor has already been a candidate for the local parliament in his; Maria thinks that Central is a flagship constituency, which will enable her to reach out to a maximum number of people. She wants to concentrate on laws, which would reduce criminality in Russia; and her constituency is an ideal choice from the point of view of publicity. Natalya also made her own choice, having discussed it with her colleagues in ‘Parnas,’ some of whom we shall be supporting in St Petersburg. This city is one of the chief democratic platforms in Russia; the turnout for democratic candidates is high here.

What criteria does Open Russia use to select its candidates?

We have two criteria. The first is that we already know the candidate. We were already working with Maria, for instance; Yegor Savin had already stood in an election with Open Russia support; and Natalya is the Open Russia coordinator in St Petersburg. By last week we had received 230 applications, 30% of which are really good people with whom we can start negotiations.

Our main task is to understand what the candidate is aiming for, to be sure that he/she will have the stamina to persist, to go on, and to keep working. We want to concentrate on the regions. We want 4-5 candidates in Moscow, maximum 4 in St Petersburg, and the rest in the regions. Incidentally, most of the applications come from the Urals, Siberia and the Volga region. They are really strong candidates with a determination to address the problems of their region.

Secondly, we have to assess the risks because candidates are put under very considerable pressure. Some of them (with whom we have not yet come to an agreement) have already had visits from tax inspectors and other government departments. On the other hand, we also have to check that the candidate has a clean record, and cannot be disqualified for something that happened ten years ago.

Among the 230 hopefuls there are several dozen members of parliamentary and non-parliamentary parties, whose organisations have already spoken out against support from Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Open Russia. What is the point of those candidates taking part in ‘Open Elections’ if they are already elsewhere politically committed? And why is ‘Open Elections’ supporting them?

Well, firstly, this is a crisis year and many regional politicians have changed their opinions. Politicians and parties have been voting for unjust laws and adopting rules, which make life impossible. The central State Duma makes no effort to do anything about the crisis, but the recession makes itself felt first and foremost in the regions.

People may not have changed their stance, but simply had their eyes opened. Secondly, they do not have the resources to take part in the elections: parliamentary parties allocate the minimum to their candidates, and some give them nothing at all.  There are two parties in the latter category – can you imagine being the leader of a regional party branch and getting absolutely no money whatsoever from the centre?

“People may not have changed their stance, but simply had their eyes opened”

Which parties?

I can’t say, but we shall be announcing the candidates a bit later on. We are ready to offer them the funds for a victory, but the candidate has to take the decision whether to take the Open Russia shilling, as it were, and, perhaps, collect enough signatures to be able to leave his or her party; or to stay in his party and have absolutely no money. In this case the candidate will be a ‘spoiler’ (that is to say, the parliamentary parties have agreed between themselves to avoid direct competition i.e. if one party has a candidate in a constituency, the others keep away) and will end up in an area where, without resources, he can’t win. The other possibility is for the candidate to avail himself of our support or to take part in the Parnas primaries.

What support do you offer the candidates?

We don’t finance their campaigns. They do their own fundraising and find sponsors.  We offer technical help: setting up headquarters, support at federal level, and legal aid. Plus training for campaigners and observers. Our job is to teach the regional teams what has to be done in an election, and no other political party will do this. This doesn’t mean that Moscow strategists will come to St Petersburg. The candidates choose their own team, while we bring in PR specialists from all over Russia, and even elocution specialists. We are aiming to build a new political elite throughout the country.

“We are aiming to build a new political elite throughout the country.”

What point is there for a candidate from a political party to go with you when neither you nor his party will give any money for the campaign? The parties have their own lawyers and PR people.

At most they have lawyers. We are often approached by leaders of regional party branches who tell us that ‘election strategists from Moscow are suggesting we abandon our regional agenda, stop talking about prices in our shops, tariffs and buildings falling down, and start talking about federal topics like Ukraine and Syria.’  Will these candidates be elected? No, never. Our candidates know the regional agenda: the first thing we ask them to do before we bring them to Moscow for a meeting is to send us 10 points relating to regional problems and their ideas for addressing them.

We offer training to those people who could bring about a change of government (and we know that, sooner or later, it will change). None of the political parties are preparing the successor generation – we don’t know who will come after Zhirinovsky or Zyuganov, who keep going, and will not allow anyone possibly capable of replacing them to come anywhere near, though elections are a good opportunity to teach people how to engage with politics.

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Do the Open Russia candidates have a chance of winning? Several political parties have already given the idea of support from Open Russia a black mark, and Khodorkovsky isn’t exactly the most popular politician in Russia.

True, but there is always facial recognition. If you went out in the street with a portrait of Khodorkovsky, 99% of people would be able to say who it was, and this is a federal media achievement. Only Putin is more recognisable in Russia. In a crisis there is a rule which kicks in: the more you are criticised by federal media, the more popular you will be with people who don’t support what’s going on in Russia at the moment.

And there’s something else. We have heard from many regions that they need support, mostly northern regions where YUKOS used to operate. People say they remember that time, the salaries and the social guarantees given by the company. They remember Khodorkovsky as someone who brought stability to their regions.  This can only be to the advantage of a candidate in one of these regions. Politics is a story: either you are known or you aren’t, but any negative publicity can always be overcome – after all, it’s the candidate who makes his or her name.

“Politics is a story: either you are known or you aren’t”

When Khodorkovsky was introducing ‘Open Elections,’ he said his intention was to demonstrate that elections in Russia are not free and fair. So his aim is not to win, but first and foremost to prove that falsification takes place?

There are two stories here.  Each candidate will be in the election to win in a constituency, and to ensure that he is not robbed of his victory. Our job is not to allow victory to be stolen from our candidates, and to demonstrate how elections are run in Russia today. When you are in several places throughout the country, you have the chance to say exactly what happened at the elections, which of our candidates were robbed of their victory, and how.

How can we talk of a battle, when you say that elections are a priori neither free nor fair?

We didn’t make them like that. There have been no free and fair elections in Russia since 2003, when elections for regional heads were abolished, as were single mandate constituencies. Elections were not free or fair before that either, but there have been none since 2003 because candidates are agreed by list. Now we have to take part in these elections to show that we have to fight, and not to allow rigging. If you are not part of the elections, then you cannot have any influence on the internal or the foreign policy agenda in Russia.

What will happen if people Open Russia has supported get into the Duma? What will they owe Khodorkovsky? Yabloko has suggested that the former YUKOS owner is using the Open Election project to buy up candidates and deputies.

Nobody has to promise us anything. If people want to set up a party, it’s their decision. But we understand that one or two seats are not enough to defend anyone’s interests. The project goal is different. If Mikhail Borisovich had wanted to buy up the Duma, he would probably have gone about it another way. We are prepared to support candidates from the democratic party Yabloko too, but if the party leader says he will disqualify candidates simply because they asked for outside help, what kind of democracy is that? And, bear in mind, Yabloko gives its people nothing.

Will Open Russia support candidates standing for the Legislative Assembly in Petersburg and in other regions?

We are currently holding meetings with candidates. I have already spoken to five. We shall not have many such candidates, because we are not in a financial position to support them. We don’t have the administrative resources either: we work as hard as we can with each one, so the more candidates there are, the more difficult it is to achieve a good result with each one. We have candidates standing for the legislatures in Irkutsk, Yaroslavl and Ivanovo regions.

You came to Open Russia from Moscow-24, where you were dealing with elections. You also played on the side of the Navalny opponents. Now you’ve gone over to the other side, will you be using the experience you gained at that state TV channel?

I shall use my experience of setting up a project correctly and logically, and conveying the information to the voters. But there will be no spin. That would only be necessary if we were going to engage in dirty tricks, but my job is to see that our candidates are well known. We’ll leave the mudslinging to state media.

Kseniya Klochkova, Fontanka.ru

Background Information

The ‘Open Elections’ project was launched by the Open Russia movement in 2015, to help young politicians during the campaign for the 2016 State Duma elections. Open Russia is planning to assist a total of 20 candidates. The final list of candidates who will receive Open Russia support will be announced in March 2016.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky has explained why he felt compelled to act: “When I was released from prison, I didn’t want to engage in politics: after 10 years in prison, far away from my family and the usual joys and delights of life, I had no desire to take on another burden. I came out of jail at the end of 2013, and in the beginning of 2014, events kicked off in Ukraine. Then, more and more started unravelling, and Russia veered off in the direction of self-isolation, and the “Fifth Column” witch-hunt happened so quickly that I couldn’t just stand by and watch.”

This is not the first time Khodorkovsky has supported candidates in a State Duma election: he had lists in the 1999 and 2003 elections, which included people from Yabloko, Union of Right Forces and, some say, the Russian Communist Party.

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