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22 July 2015

The most interesting elections of the year

Why attention should be drawn to the Novosibirsk elections 

When I was first elected as an MP representing Novosibirsk in 2007, the then governor Viktor Tolokonsky, while congratulating me, asked to repeat the name of the city wherever possible and invite visitors. 

Novosibirsk was probably the most underrated city in Russia. The third largest city in the country (every Russian is surprised when they hear that) and at the same time, the largest municipality; the capital of Siberia, an immensely important center for Russian science and culture – and it was as if the city was not on the map at all.

In recent years, everything started to change dramatically, and the reason for this lies, oddly enough, in politics itself. News started to arrive each month – a series of defeats for the ruling party, victory for the mayor from the opposition, and a riot over the right of the Opera House to decide upon its repertoire (it is true that the rioters failed to get their own way, but where else in Russia would thousands of people take to the streets for such a reason?). The annual May-Day artistic and political action ‘Monstration’ has spread to encompass even the ‘patriotic’ Sevastopol. ‘Total Dictation’, born in Novosibirsk, is organized across the entire country; academpark – the antecedent of Skolkovo – operates successfully. One can recite a long list of developments whereby Novosibirsk has been at the frontline of the nationwide agenda.

It is not surprising that the upcoming regional elections in September 2015 are prompting unprecedented excitement. The federal media try to make sense of the situation and Moscow politicians from Alexei Navalny to Leonid Brezhnev’s grandson have become frequent visitors to the capital of Siberia.

The most oppositional region

Novosibirsk has always been a challenging region for the authorities, especially in recent years. On the whole, this region has always amazed: there have been three cores to it dating back to the Soviet days: the science-and-technology one in Academgorodok; the defense-industrial one in Novosibirsk ‘proper’; and the agro-industrial one around it. As the headquarters of the Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences, the city used to be a dream for scientists from all over the country, which, inevitably, made the region the center of the Fronde: the Clubs of Amateur Song (or KSP), the Sixtiers, the onset of the career of Galich and many other opinion shapers from among the intelligentsia of the late USSR started here. However, this oppositional challenge has always had a counterweight in the form of local cadres: agrarians and industrialists, strong patriots and executives.

After the collapse of the USSR, there were no sites in the region which were interesting from the point of view of federal financial industrial groups (FIGs), there were no natural resources, while the defense, agriculture and science industries turned out to be surplus to requirements. Against this backdrop, the academic Fronde remained the Fronde, but literally within a few years it transformed from being right-wing liberal to being a left-wing patriotic one – and with that, its views coincided with the views of the other two social groups. The region quickly became known as one of the major capitals of ‘the Red Belt’ and moderate elites took the anti-Moscow and anti-reformist defense stance. An alliance of apparent adversaries, but in fact, tactical opponents has been formed between the regional, municipal and district authorities, the SB RAS (Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences) and major opposition parties: the CPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation) and the Agrarian Party of Russia. Even the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in the region Metropolitan Tikhon is one of the main opponents of the Moscow Patriarch. As one of the eldest and most respected members of the church hierarchy, he maintains good relations with all of the major political forces in the region.

Such unity only served to curb internal political struggle: the situation of approximate equality of those in opposition and in power (although without claims to really seize the controls on the part of the CPRF) and an emphasis on local patriotism and refusing to allow outsiders into the region have formed the basis for regional political practice. After the last attempt to rock the boat in 2004 by the local media mogul Yakov London, the governor muzzled all media in the region including his own – just in case –save for broadcasts by Moscow media.

How did United Russia lose Novosibirsk

There were two blows that changed the setting. First of all, the then leaders of the region and city Viktor Tolokonsky and Vladimir Gorodetsky were forced to (they resisted to the bitter end) join United Russia in 2006 and 2005, respectively. Secondly, in 2010, the unexpected promotion of Tolokonsky to the position of the presidential representative (in order to dismiss general Kvashin who fell out with Medvedev) and the appointment of the – harsh and politically one-dimensional - Yurchenko to replace him prompted the breakup of the consensus among elites and the flare up of a number of conflicts. Yurchenko was eventually removed from his post, Tolokonsky was moved to Krasnoyarsk Krai, Gorodetsky was first sent packing, but then later installed in the role of the governor; this time in an attempt to stop the disintegration of the system, but it was already too late: the Novosibirsk region has probably become the most politically agile region in contemporary Russia.

A wake-up call for the authorities sounded during the previous regional elections in 2010: United Russia won 44% of the vote (and this was in the days when anything below 60% was considered a shameful defeat) versus 25% for the CPRF and 16% for A Just Russia. The majority in the regional council was maintained only thanks to single-mandate holders, although a few opposition activists were among the winners, too. In 2011, the situation got even worse from the point of view of power elites: 33% - United Russia versus 31% - the CPRF and 13% - A Just Russia. In Novosibirsk, let’s say, United Russia lost outright to the CPRF whereas the CPRF and A Just Russia combined received more than 50% of votes, confirming the leftist tendencies of the electorate. Elections of a mayor of the city in 2014 turned out to be a Waterloo for the regional authorities. Despite the enormous concentration of all the resources and despite the annexation of Crimea which strengthened the ‘systemic’ sentiments, the opposition unexpectedly united and snatched a victory (39% of votes were cast for the candidate of United Russia and 43% - for Anatoly Lokot). 

As a result, all of the regional, district, party and municipal officials including all the heads of law enforcement agencies lost their posts. This is unprecedented in today’s Russia. And although wary CPRF members decided not to aggravate the situation against the backdrop of the large-scale economic and budgetary crisis that had broken out, and refused to fight for the post of the governor and even torpedoed attempts of other participants of the election coalition to do so (alas, the CPRF has always exhibited absolute political egoism and no less extreme pragmatism), nevertheless, the taste of victory appeared on the lips of all of the regional politicians and some of the federal politicians. Suddenly, the Novosibirsk region became interesting for everyone – both radical democrats and radical patriots. And this is how we have arrived at the present campaign.

What should we expect in the short term?

I think that United Russia’s first place and the CPRF’s second place are beyond doubt. That being said, the communists stand a good chance of taking first place in the city, even though this would only have symbolic significance: merely a quarter of the seats in the city council are occupied by party members. Obviously, the final results are not easy to predict yet; I guess, United Russia will get between 40 and 50% of the votes, while the CPRF – around 30-35%. Although the Crimean factor combined with the meagre September turnout may serve to booster the count for United Russia. Most likely, a few independent single-mandate holders will get through – which is untypical of today’s Russia - the results of several constituencies are very difficult to predict. In any case, I believe, that, in the end, the regional authorities will be able to maintain control over the Legislative Assembly while the Mayor’s office will be allowed to strengthen its influence in the city council, up to the point that they will enjoy control over it.

As regards the lie of the land in the remainder of the field, the situation remains unclear. The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia will definitely make it. History has taught us that in Siberia, they enjoy stable support although their regional branch is not currently in the best shape. A Just Russia as a party has practically ceased to exist in the Novosibirsk region: some time ago we (A Just Russia) seized the vote of the Agrarian Party in the countryside and of Yabloko in the city. Now, the former moved to the CPRF and the latter returned to Yabloko. Nevertheless, through the use of the popularity of the brand and given the significant financial influxes, members of A Just Russia might just get over the line. It will also depend on whether Rodina (‘motherland’) and the Patriots of Russia are registered or not – both parties will take a chunk out of the vote for A Just Russia. 

Unfortunately, from the very beginning, the democratic coalition has failed to understand regional politics and the need to take the specificity of each region into account. This is what happened in Kaluga, and this is what happens in Novosibirsk, too. To begin with, a robust campaign in the city is counter-balanced by the complete absence of a campaign in the countryside – half of the electorate, in fact. Moreover, contrary to the statements made by Lokot as regards ‘millions from the State Dept’ (which, I guess, has resulted from a banal parochial conspiracy theory and not a carefully laid out plan), the lack of elite connections and strong financial backing that we have seen in reality as regards this party can only partially be overcome by several hundreds of volunteers heading out onto the streets.

To pass to the Legislative Assembly in the region, a 5% threshold has to be overcome: 2.1 million voters – 30% turnout = approximately 30 thousand votes. Nearly 160 thousand people voted for Lokot, and about 110 thousand voted for me when I was atop of the list of A Just Russia. The primaries were attended by a little over 1 thousand people, despite the possibility to vote via the Internet, and a similar number of people attending the rally with Navalny. Five thousand people attended the ‘Monstration’ in its most popular year; 7 thousand attended a rally in support of fair elections, and no more than 5 thousand – a rally in support of Tannhauser. Taking into account that the democratic coalition holds positions on the right in the deeply leftist city – 30 thousand is absolutely out of question. Thus, hopes are scarce.

On the other hand, after a long break, Yabloko, the eldest democratic party, stands a good chance of success. By selecting one of the most prominent regional politicians and a prominent agrarian, Ivan Starikov, to head the list, this party has made a great leap towards success, especially given the dissolution of A Just Russia. During previous elections to the Duma its support exceeded 5% in the city, which cost A Just Russia a second seat in parliament. This time, however, if the democratic coalition does not operate as a spoiler and if there are no problems with financing, almost undoubtedly, Yabloko will make it to the city council and – in all likelihood – to the regional council. That said, Starikov himself stands a good chance of success in his rural single-mandate constituency in Maslyanino. A scenario is possible when real democratic coalition will indeed be formed around Yabloko, as happened in Voronezh, for example.

No matter how the election campaign unfolds in Novosibirsk, its outcome, without a doubt, will greatly affect the balance of power prior to the elections to the Duma across the entire country in 2016. 

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