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How Russian Villagers Can Terrify the Kremlin

RuNet Echo This post is part of RuNet Echo, a Global Voices project to interpret the Russian language internet. All Posts · Learn more

Russia’s leading political party, United Russia, continues to face declining popularity and mounting evidence that Vladimir Putin is slowly but surely migrating away to a newer coalition movement, the All-Russia People’s Front. In recent weeks, the country’s chattering classes have even resuscitated buzz that the Kremlin might dissolve the federal parliament, sacrificing United Russia to appease the nation’s malcontents. This week, with the “party of power” more vulnerable than at any time since its infancy, a small group of citizens in Russia’s Krasnoyarsk province briefly succeeded in seizing the moment to grab national headlines for their crusade against the head of a small district.

The ploy was simple: Andrei Turinov, a town councilman [ru] from Novouspenskii, posted to the Internet an open letter [ru] addressing Dmitri Medvedev, declaring the exit of 60 United Russia members from the party. Initially, there was much confusion about whether or not Turinov meant that all signatories to this mass exodus were office-holding councilmen or run-of-the-mill citizens. As the Aban district is home to roughly 21 thousand people and has only 100 United Russia local deputies in total [ru], this was an important detail. The document, published on March 18, 2013, on open-letter.ru, explains that this action was to protest the fact that United Russia increasingly welcomes “scammers, thieves, slicksters, and embezzlers.” The proclamation very clearly adapts a meme popularized by anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny, whose “party of crooks and thieves” epithet for United Russia has entered the common lexicon of Russian political discourse.

Around the same time that Turinov’s letter appeared on open-letter.ru, the regional news portal Sibinfo.su obtained scans [ru] of the signatures, though many of the names are printed illegibly. United Russia’s leadership was quick to respond [ru], with Krasnoyarsk district Duma deputy Viktor Zubarev immediately calling the move a “provocation.” Another party figure, Valery Semenov, hurried to Aban, where he seems to have confirmed Zubarev’s hunch: there was no mass exodus of members in the district—it was a ruse. Indeed, Turinov and his entourage capitalized gloriously on United Russia’s hypersensitivity to possible dissension in the ranks, inflating a story about a collapse of rural party confidence, in order to highlight corruption allegations against a local political enemy, Aban district head [ru] Mikhail Krivitskii.

Semenov’s discovery borders on comedy. The “list of sixty” names actually contains only fifty-nine. (Whoever did the counting skipped “#26” on page two.) When Semenov sat down to question signatories in person, most of them had no idea [ru] that they’d signed a document promising to quit United Russia unless Krivitskii was fired. At least three of the people who signed the letter were already out of the party, having been booted out eight years ago. At least one was never a member. In comments to another online portal, press-line.ru, Semenov claimed [ru] that the open letter was the work of a certain “seven deputies.” According to the Krasnoyarsk district’s website [ru], the Novouspenskii local council (where Turinov serves) has exactly seven councilmen.

The open letter itself complains of rampant corruption in Aban, highlighting the embezzlement conviction of Sergei Pronin [ru], a rumored friend of Krivitskii, as well as mafia control over the area’s logging industry. The authors even allege that Aban’s support for United Russia in recent elections was sustained by illegal administrative tactics.

Political cartoon from local online newsletter, Namedni, 4 February 2013, screen capture.

Political cartoon depicting Krivitskii's “stubborn refusal” to leave office, from local online newsletter, Namedni, 4 February 2013, screen capture.

Just days before the open letter hit the Internet, local newspaper Krasnoyarskii Rabochii published an op-ed [ru] by Viktor Resheten, chastising a group of Aban district councilmen who have been stonewalling district proceedings for months now, in an attempt to force the body’s dissolution [ru], along with Krivitskii’s ouster, by judicial decree. (Resheten points out that, in this scenario, Krivitskii would actually remain in office until by-elections later in the year.) The campaign against Krivitskii is indeed well organized. In fact, there is a whole newsletter distributed locally and available online, called Namedni (“The Other Day”). The most recent issue [ru] (from February) contains multiple attack pieces against Krivitskii, in addition to a long open letter by a local man named Viktor Gerasimov, announcing his exit from United Russia in language almost identical to Turinov’s March 18 open letter. (Gerasimov’s name appears on Turinov’s list, too, just below his.)

In comments [ru] to Gazeta.ru, former Kremlin ideologist Alexey Chadaev surmised that the Aban district is characteristic of United Russia’s municipal branches. “Any local branch,” he explained, “is [composed of] a few warring clans or a few warring financial groups, crammed into one party when the [power] vertical was being set up. But the conflicts between them didn’t go anywhere.” In a tweet [ru] the next day, Chadaev was even more cryptic:

В Абанском районе Красноярского края, по слухам, живет коррупция. Больше там никто не живет.

In Krasnoyarsk province’s Aban district, rumor has it that corruption lives there. Nobody else does.

United Russia functionaries like Semenov have promised to investigate the corruption allegations raised in Turinov’s open letter. Even if the party also decides to discipline the Novouspenskii councilman (or whomever was behind this “provocation”), it seems clear that Russia’s political center is severely weakened these days. That means copycat stunts are likely in the future, as other rural and regional schemers—often neglected in a large, centralized country—get wise [ru] to the fact that the iron is hot, the sun is shining, and the wind is fair. As that realization dawns, the RuNet will undoubtedly host a new wave of similar revelations, leaks, and denunciations.

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