In St. Petersburg Election, Russias Political Rot Is on Full Display – The New York Times

In St. Petersburg Election, Russias Political Rot Is on Full Display - The New York Times
Putins Party Braces for Verdict of Angry Voters in Russia Polls
In St. Petersburg Election, Russias Political Rot Is on Full DisplayImageAleksandr D. Beglov, acting governor of St. Petersburg, Russia, at a ceremony for a metro station whose opening was postponed. He is the favorite to win the governors race in Russias second-largest city this weekend.CreditCreditJames Hill for The New York TimesBy Andrew Higgins

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Struggling to shake his image as a bumbling dolt before local elections on Sunday, the acting governor of St. Petersburg made a rare public appearance this past week to open three new subway stations that had taken six years and cost more than $500 million to build.

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Residents, promised they would finally get a cheap and reliable way to reach the center of Russias second-largest city, crowded outside long-sealed subway entrances waiting for the governor, Aleksandr D. Beglov, to show up and the doors to open.

Instead of providing a triumphant finale to the election campaign of Mr. Beglov, a longtime associate of Russias president, Vladimir V. Putin, the opening ceremony pointed to the slow unraveling of Russias social contract of authoritarian rule in exchange for efficiency, predictability and growing prosperity.

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With 10 television camera crews controlled by the governor or his supporters and dozens of other, mostly tame, journalists on hand to record the event, the governor turned up late to announce that, because of unspecified flaws, it was not yet safe to open the new stations for passengers.

The second concern is generated by anxiety about the durability of some of Putins trademark “successes,” especially in the field of foreign policy. To be sure, he seems to have gotten away with annexing not only the Crimean Peninsula but also South Ossetia and Abkhazia, chunks of Georgian territory captured in 2008. He has also managed to prevent Kosovo, the latest Muslim-majority nation to gain independence, from becoming a member of the United Nations. Putin has also succeeded in establishing Russia as the key player in war-torn Syria by marginalizing not only Iran but also Turkey and the United States. Putin adulators are especially proud of his success in playing the Iran card against the United States while squeezing the Tehran mullahs for unprecedented concessions.

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The last-minute upset added a rare off-message note to a carefully scripted election campaign that had at first seemed little more than a formality to confirm Mr. Beglovs role as leader of Mr. Putins hometown.

The third cause of anxiety in Moscow these days is related to the lethargic performance of the Russian economy. After declining between 2012 and 2016, the number of households in poverty has risen to around 18%, a three-point increase since 2010. Worse still, according to the latest World Bank report, the Russian economy has almost ceased creating new jobs. Sanctions imposed by Western powers are also beginning to bite, reducing Russian access to global capital markets at a time massive investment is needed to keep the vital energy industry, the nations main source of foreign income, going.

Heavily backed by loyal news outlets and powerful tycoons like Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, known as Putins cook, Mr. Beglov is still expected to win the St. Petersburg poll, part of a nationwide series of municipal and regional votes on Sunday.

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But political foes of the Kremlin — who were mostly barred from competing in the elections, spurring the first widespread protests in Moscow since Mr. Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 — took comfort from the governors subway agonies as a sign that not everything in Russia is going Mr. Putins way.

Dmitri Vishnevsky, a longtime Kremlin critic excluded from the ballot in St. Petersburg, said subway construction crews had been ordered to work night and day to get the stations ready for what he described as a big campaign advertisement for the governor as a can-do manager who gets things done.

The poll has led to the largest protests in Russia in years, after more than 30 opposition candidates were banned from running.

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Instead, Mr. Vishnevsky said, the event showed that Russias system, a rigid hierarchy of power built around Mr. Putin and loyal underlings like Mr. Beglov, does not work — at least not as described by fawning media outlets that constantly hail Russias revival as a great power after the weakness and chaos of the 1990s.

People are starting to say more and more: Things are not right, said Alexander Gorshkov, the chief editor of Fontanka, an independent news site in St. Petersburg. This sentiment, he added, is not limited to opposition activists, but is now extending to some residents of the city who generally support the authorities.

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Elections wont change anything, he said. Real change needs to happen in peoples heads. And in the last few months, this has been happening.

As the clock runs down on what is supposed to be the end of Mr. Putins final term in office, in 2024, the Kremlin has increasingly tried to bottle up public discontent by displaying the vast powers of repression at its disposal and vesting power in trusted loyalists like Mr. Beglov, who was appointed last year by Mr. Putin to govern St. Petersburg.

While presenting himself to voters as an efficient and apolitical manger above the hubbub of carping politicians, the 63-year-old construction engineer has had trouble erasing memories of his governments failure last winter to clear streets of snow and buildings of dangerous icicles, the most basic duties of all municipal authorities in Russia.

In St. Petersburg, there were reports that independent election monitors had been harassed. One affiliated with anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny said she had had a green liquid splashed on her after being accosted by men outside her home who warned her not to interfere with the vote count. The citys acting governor, Aleksandr Beglov, is seeking to win his first full term in office, after being appointed to his post last year by Putin. But Beglovs tenure so far has been plagued by gaffes and questions of competence in running the liberal-minded city.

As the piles of snow grew higher, the governor — whose name sounds like Big Love — gave his officials shovels, which quickly became known as Beglov shovels, and told them to start digging.

In the Russian capital, liberal activists and political experts were closely watching the vote for city council, following a summer of protests sparked by Moscow election officials decision to bar independent candidates from running. Including Moscow and Russias second-largest city, St. Petersburg, elections were being held on some level in all 83 regions and cities of Russia and also in Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

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That fiasco prompted Meduza, an independent online news service that tilts toward the opposition, to describe Mr. Beglov as a gaffe machine who just might be the Kremlins worst candidate in this falls elections.

RFE/RL journalists report the news in 26 languages in 22 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. We provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.

In trying to damp down on disruptive political quarrels in favor of bland rule by sometimes incompetent but always loyal functionaries, the Kremlin is reviving a model that Lev Lurye, a St. Petersburg historian and writer, compared to the system under Leonid Brezhnev.

Roskomnadzor, the state communications regulator, said on September 6 that it had sent a letter to the companies reminding them to "take all measures" to stop the distribution of political ads during the so-called "quiet period."

That Soviet leader ruled from 1964 to 1982, a period now remembered as the era of stagnation. It was two years shorter than Mr. Putins time at the pinnacle of power.

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A back-room functionary for decades who dislikes speaking in public, Mr. Beglov has appalled the intellectual elite of Russias cultural capital — a city that gave the world Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Pushkin and other giants of Russian literature — by mangling the Russian language.

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Prone to bizarre malapropisms, he has described his citys residents as actively yucky people and their multiple religious faiths as multi-confectionarism.

The result of Sunday's vote will help shape the country's political future, as Putin enters his third decade in power. The ruling party was not fielding candidates in Sunday's elections. Party members were instead running as independent candidates, apparently to distance themselves from United Russia's plunging approval ratings.

Whatever his shortcomings, Mr. Beglov has one undeniable asset — the trust of Mr. Putin. The Russian president worked with Mr. Beglov in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, later employed him in the Kremlin and last year named him as acting governor, the equivalent of mayor.

Putin demands 100 percent loyalty, and he knows that with Beglov there will be no surprises: Better to have a fool than a traitor, Mr. Lurye said. He might be a cretin but he is not a psychopath, a pedophile or an alcoholic.

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In its push to squeeze out politics, the Kremlin seems to have all but given up on even its own political party, United Russia, which is now so unpopular that many of its members competing in Sundays elections, including Mr. Beglov, deny any connection to the party of crooks and thieves.

The Moscow vote is considered a test of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny's ability to mobilize the opposition ahead of parliamentary elections in 2021 and following a major police crackdown.

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That tag was first applied by the anticorruption campaigner Aleksei A. Navalny, who last month released a video accusing Mr. Beglov of buying a large apartment in Moscow in 2013 that cost five times his total declared income over the previous five years.

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The governors election in St. Petersburg has been somewhat more open than the vote in Moscow. Mikhail Amosov, a veteran opposition figure who has been allowed to run against Mr. Beglov, said the governors race in St. Petersburg is a real step forward and predicted that next time will be even freer.

He complained, nonetheless, that the playing field was far from even, with most news outlets beholden to the governor and the administrative resources of the state tilted exclusively in Mr. Beglovs favor.

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Vladimir Bortko, the Communist Partys candidate for governor in St. Petersburg and a celebrated film director, last week dropped out of the race, declaring the elections a farce and the whole system rotten and in need of change.

In a blistering statement explaining his withdrawal, he said: Let the authorities take away the fig leaf of democracy and present themselves as they are: an authoritarian and undemocratic order that has usurped power for a clan of big bourgeoisie that has no connection with the interests and views of the working people.

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Mr. Vishnevsky, the excluded liberal candidate, said he agreed with much of that but doubted the directors sincerity, saying he had almost certainly pulled out of the race as part of a deal with the authorities, who worried that his presence on the ballot would make it more difficult for Mr. Beglov to win in the first round.

Three days before he withdrew, the film director met with Russias culture minister and discussed a new television series he would like to make, presumably with money from the state.

Posted in St. Petersburg