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Analysis & Opinion
24.08.10 Autumnal Discontent
By Roland Oliphant

As the blazing summer of 2010 crashes in a premature autumn, politicians are adding up the likely impact at the ballot box in October’s regional elections, with United Russia said to be changing tactics to cope with a popularity deficit. Meanwhile, an estimated 3,000 rallied in Kaliningrad to call for Vladimir Putin’s ouster Saturday, while another 3,000 demonstrated in central Moscow in defense of the Khimki forest. Is discontent making the “vlast” change its strategy?

Under threatening grey skies and the watchful eyes of a heavy police presence, some 3,000 people gathered in Moscow’s Pushkin Square for an impromptu acoustic set by DDT’s Yuri Shevchuk. But it was difficult to tell how many of the estimated 3,000 on Pushkin Square early Sunday evening were there purely to defend the Khimki forest, and how many had other political sympathies. “I’m here because this is a problem facing all of Moscow’s suburbs,” said Tatiana, a middle-aged woman who said the quality of life at her dacha in the Moscow Region was constantly deteriorating because of deforestation for development. “What’s happening to the Khimki forest has been happening all over the countryside around Moscow, and its time it stopped,” she said.

Shevchuk, who played a barely audible set into a crackly loudhailer, seemed to have similar ideas, telling the crowd that he wanted to defend not only the Khimki forest, but “nature, the fields, forests, and Lake Baikal.” But others seem to have taken up the Khimki forest not as a symbol of Russia’s much-abused natural beauty, but of political discontent. Amongst the green ribbons of the forest defenders were the red flags of the left front, several orange Solidarnost banners were unfurled, and at least one flag emblazoned with a large “31” – the symbol of the “Strategy 31” protests in defense of freedom of assembly that have been repeatedly broken up over the past year – flew over the crowd. And while the crowd put a good effort into the chant “hands off the Khimki forest!” they really belted out “Russia without Putin!” “The main thing is to kick out our prime minister,” said one protestor who gave his name only as Grigory when asked why he came to the demonstration.

An overtly anti-Putin demonstration drew another 3,000 people in Kaliningrad the previous day, including opposition veterans like Boris Nemtsov. The theme of that gathering was meant to be the resignation of the region’s unpopular Governor Georgy Boos – but it was preempted when Boos was effectively dismissed by the Kremlin last week (President Dmitry Medvedev announced his replacement on Monday: Nikolai Tsuganov, a prefect of Kaliningrad’s Gusev District and the secretary of the local branch of United Russia).

It’s unclear whether Boos’ removal had affected the numbers on the street on Saturday – Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political scientist and a United Russia member, insists that tales of Boos’s unpopularity have been exaggerated and he was simply removed because he was “not a very successful governor.” But independent analysts see if not a bending with the winds of local opinion, then at least an aversion to boat rocking of any kind. “Boos’ popularity may not have been the lowest, but it’s clear that Medvedev decided that the conflict in Kaliningrad was too strong,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, an expert at the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank.

The “conflict” in Kaliningrad is reputed to have been as much about rivalry between Boos and the Deputy Head of the Northwestern Federal District Alexander Datsishin as about grassroots opposition. But even though the latest figures from the state-owned VTsIOM pollster put United Russia at a comfortable 51 percent, down from 56 percent last August, the Russian press has been speculating that elsewhere United Russia is having to respond to a very real lack of popularity.

Independent observers say the party of power will face an unusually difficult day at the ballot box on October 10, when voters in the Novosibirsk, Tuva, Magadan, Belgorod, Kostroma and Chelyabinsk Regions will elect their regional Parliaments and several cities will elect municipal councils, including Saratov and Nizhny Novgorod – both of which were seriously affected by this summer’s fires.

The Vedomosti business daily reported earlier this month that party officials in the Siberian Republic of Tuva had decided to drop campaign references to Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, as well as the party slogan “a Strong Russia is a United Russia,” in the run-up to the October elections to the republic’s Great Khural, or Parliament. The move came after an opinion poll found that “the phrases ‘United Russia’ and ‘Putin’s team’ are not regarded very positively by Tuvans,” the deputy chairman of the party’s executive committee told the paper. (United Russia later denied the Vedomosti report of a ban on Putin and Medvedev in Tuva, and the head of the local party’s political department told that the campaign program contained “nothing of the sort”).

Meanwhile, for the first time the Governor of the Novosibirsk Region Viktor Tolokonsky will not head the party list, United Russia secretary Vyacheslav Voronin said in a statement on the party’s Web site, apparently in a bid to counter opposition complaints that the party relies on “administrative resources” to garner votes. “Even though Tolokonsky is the most popular politician in the region and having him head the list could make our task easier,” said Voronin.

Nikonov insists that this is business as usual. “That has never been a new tactic because in every elections campaign where you have party lists United Russia measured public opinion, and in quite a few instance governors are not heading the lists,” he said. “Every election in Russia, and elsewhere, is the same. It’s a normal strategy to take over the opposition’s slogans,” he said.

Stanovaya agreed that reports of giving up on Putin’s reputation were exaggerated. “It is true that there are local players with their own local agendas who know what people want and will use their charm to get out the vote,” she said. “But in every region they use administrative resources. That includes Putin’s name, and its pure fantasy to think that’s going to change,” she said.

As for kicking out the prime minister, Grigory on Pushkin Square will probably have to wait. As Stanovaya’s colleague at the Center for Political technologies, Boris Makarenko, wrote in an op-ed for the RBK business daily last week, there is no danger of United Russia losing its regional majorities. “That just doesn’t happen,” he wrote. But since the authorities place an “exaggerated importance” on the poll ratings, “we can expect heightened anxiety and increased administrative anxiety,” he added.
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