The Oct. 14 elections were the first gubernatorial vote Russia had seen in nine years, ever since President Vladimir Putin banned them as a menace to national security. They happened to fall on a holiday. In Russian Orthodox tradition, Oct. 14 is the day the Virgin Mary appeared in Constantinople in the year 910. So Sergei Mitin, the incumbent governor of the region of Novgorod, did not have much time to waste on electioneering. “Hurry up,” he told me after voting for himself at a music school in Veliky Novgorod, the regional capital. “We have to go see the priest.” A brusque man with the political style of a drill sergeant — or in the proud words of one adviser, “tough to the point of despotism” — Mitin spent all of five minutes at the polling station before hopping back into the front seat of his Land Cruiser. A suite of several advisers followed him on a tour of the local cathedrals.
Sitting in the back of the car beside me was his campaign strategist, Sergei Markelov, who figures prominently in the only scandal to come anywhere close to jolting the placid trot of these elections. On Oct. 4, 10 days before the vote, the governor’s confidential campaign strategy was leaked on a local blogging site called The Smart People’s Forum. A remarkable document, it appears to lay out the kind of micromanaged democracy that Russians have long suspected lies at the core of their political system, all spelled out in 43 pages of step-by-step alleged insider instructions.
Of particular interest to the opposition parties was the section titled “Tactical Sketch of the Campaign,” which described how the incumbent (who belongs to Putin’s United Russia party) would shape the battlefield. “The optimal number of candidates,” the section begins, would only allow two other parties onto the ballot — a nationalist from the misleadingly titled Liberal Democratic Party, and what the strategy calls a “spoiler” from Patriots of Russia, a tiny party with no seats in either the federal or the regional parliaments. “Consultations with these parties have been carried out as to their possible candidates; the presumptive candidates are controllable,” the document states. “The main instrument for ensuring the necessary results for candidate S. Mitin is to create a group of controllable (‘understandable’) candidate-opponents with the use of the ‘municipal filter.'”
The “filter” evolved after the Kremlin decided last winter to give Russians back the right to elect their own governors. That right had been revoked in 2004 in the wake of a terrorist attack at a provincial school; Putin at the time argued that the elections were an opportunity for “criminal elements” to gain control of Russia’s regions. In December 2011, however, that decision was reversed as a concession to the hundreds of thousands of Russians who had come out to protest for democratic reform. In announcing the decision live on television, Putin said that for reasons of security, there should still be a “presidential filter” that would allow him to vet the gubernatorial candidates. After much debate with opposition parties, the state decided that a “municipal filter” would suffice. That meant that every candidate would need the support of 10% of the hundreds if not thousands of the local elected officials in their respective regions — councillors, mayors, local lawmakers — in order to get onto the ballot. It sounded easy enough. But in practice, this handed incumbent governors a huge advantage in manipulating who got on the ballot.
In Novgorod, the governor’s staff simply fanned out across the region and told the local officials whom to support. And so Patriots of Russia, which does not hold a single elected office anywhere in the region, sailed right onto the ballot as an official opposition party. “We could not have done it without help from the governor’s office,” says Yulia Boronenko, the party’s strategist in these elections.
Other parties had no such luck. “Two days into the race, everyone we spoke to started telling us, ‘Sorry, the governor’s people got here first,'” says Olga Efimova, the would-be candidate from the Communist Party. “They had been pressured, and we didn’t have the resources to keep up,” she told me on election day. As a result, Efimova failed to pass the filter, as did the candidate from Fair Russia, a leftist party, even though they jointly hold 10 of the 26 seats in the regional parliament.
In comparison, Patriots of Russia had hardly any staff in the region. The local branch has no website, its phone number is disconnected, and no one answered the door at its listed address, which is in an apartment block. The only way to reach them, it turned out, was through the office of the governor, which gave me Boronenko’s phone number.
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About an hour before the polls closed, she invited me to meet her at the Crown Pub, a basement dive bar in the regional capital. She turned out to be a middle-aged former television executive who introduced herself as a “freelance political technologist” and sported a bright orange buzz cut that matched her long, glue-on fingernails. When I arrived, she had a tall glass of whiskey in front of her. “You’ve been meeting officials all day,” she told me. “Now it’s time for you to see the underbelly.” The first thing she wanted to get on the record was the following: yes, she was managing the campaign of the Patriots of Russia candidate, but she had been hired to do this by the governor’s office. When I asked what this meant for her candidate’s independence, she gave me an incredulous look and said, “This is Russia. Forget independence. There is no independence here.”
Sure enough, the governor’s adviser, Alexander Zhukovsky, soon arrived at the Crown Pub and exchanged a loud and smoochy greeting with his rival. Zhukovsky, a rumpled intellectual with a pair of spectacles forever perched on the tip of his nose, is the governor’s full-time pollster, and he made no secret of the fact that he co-authored the leaked election strategy. “You mean the thing that got on the Internet? I wrote that strategy along with [Mitin’s campaign strategist] Markelov,” he told me earlier that morning. (The governor was less forthright. When I asked him about the document, he said he does not comment “on things printed out from somewhere.”)
It had been the Kremlin’s decision, Zhukovsky claimed, to play the elections according to what the strategy describes as “the uncompetitive scenario.” The alternative would have been to allow all of the opposition parties to run against the governor, including the Communist Party and Fair Russia. The governor would still have won — he has the highest rating of any politician in the region by far — but the Kremlin decided not to take the risk. “They wanted a resounding victory, I guess,” Zhukovsky told me.
Around February, he explained, the governor sent his representative to the federal government’s chief of staff in Moscow, Vyacheslav Volodin, who oversees domestic politics and propaganda nationwide. (Volodin did not respond to requests for comment.) “The governor was asking for competition,” Zhukovsky told me. That would have allowed him to trounce all his rivals and ensure a greater air of legitimacy for his next term in office. But Moscow nixed that idea, instructing the governor’s staff to keep his most popular opponents off the ballot with the help of the municipal filter, Zhukovsky said.
The governor’s closest opponent thus ended up being Viktor Mikhailov of the Liberal Democrats. In the afternoon of the elections, Mikhailov invited me to meet him at his campaign headquarters, a cluttered apartment with green walls and peeling linoleum floors. He was decked out in a bluish iridescent suit when I found him there in the company of two of his “political technologists,” who did nearly all of the talking. The first one, Konstantin Simonov, sat in the corner of the room in a tracksuit beside a makeshift bar of vodka, whiskey, juice boxes and paper cups. I produced a copy of the governor’s strategy and asked how they felt about being called “controllable.” At this Simonov shifted his weight onto a pair of crutches, which he was using for a broken leg, and shouted, “Everything is controllable! You’re controllable! In some way we’re all controllable!”
Mikhailov, the candidate, then appeared to have something to say, and he looked up at his other technologist, Alexei Pochernin, who stood in the doorway the entire time. “May I speak?” asked the candidate. Pochernin nodded. “It’s monstrous,” said Mikhailov, referring to the leaked strategy. “It’s inhuman.” He seemed to be genuinely hurt. “It’s manipulative.” But how did they manage to pass the filter without the benefit of these manipulations? The candidate looked to his adviser, who said, “We started early and we worked hard.” Bizarrely, though, all of them wished there had never been an election in the first place. “The Kremlin, that’s who should hire and fire governors, not the people,” Pochernin said from the doorway. “Same with mayors. How else can they be held to account?”
Driving from the polling station to the church that morning, the governor seemed to agree. When I asked him how he felt about Putin’s decision to let the people vote, he stared straight ahead at the road and said, “I only implement the laws. I do not write them.” And by the letter of the law, nothing in his strategy is illegal. It may be underhanded to use the municipal filter to pare down his list of opponents, but that filter is written into Russia’s legislation. “It is a lever put directly in the hands of the incumbent governors,” says Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional elections at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “If they decide to use it to block a rival candidate, they can.” And the results were apparent when the voting tallies came in on Monday morning. In all five regions where gubernatorial elections were held, the incumbents from the United Russia party, Putin’s base of support, won the votes in a landslide. Governor Mitin got 76% in the Novgorod region, while the two “controllable” candidates both got slightly more than 10% each.
There was, however, a downside to choosing the uncompetitive scenario. The voter turnout was low in Novgorod — a dismal 36% — because without a real alternative, voters simply saw no point in going to the polls, says Zhukovsky, the co-author of the governor’s strategy. “That is really going to hurt legitimacy,” he told me as the returns came in. “For the next five years we’re going to have to deal with people claiming that the czar is a fraud.”
For now, those claims in Novgorod are fairly muted. Even the leak of the governor’s strategy, with all its blatant references to spoilers and controllable candidates, did not cause a public stir. Petrov, the elections expert in Moscow, said he could not recall a leak so detailed. “Sometimes you see a couple of pages, some specific tactics, but nothing like this,” he said. Yet none of the local television channels and newspapers reported it; nearly all of them are government-controlled. And online, the region’s bloggers had a hard enough time keeping their websites afloat. The forum where the document was leaked got hit with hacker attacks so massive that it was inaccessible for most of last week. Vasily Nikitenko, the forum’s administrator, told me that he was twice approached with offers of money to take the document down. “When I told them to f— off, the attacks peaked,” he says. “We’re just hoping it will stop after the elections.”
So it was no surprise that none of the voters I spoke to in Novgorod had even seen the strategy, or cared. At the Pokrovsky Cathedral, they seemed more concerned with the way Governor Mitin had behaved himself in church. With his campaign strategist in tow, he elbowed through the crowd and climbed up to the altar in the middle of the service. Father Igor, a young priest with a thin red beard, then made the sign of the cross over the governor before walking him back toward the door, where they kissed each other on both cheeks. “Doesn’t he know that’s a sin?!” hissed Nina Mikhailova, one of the parishioners. In Orthodox custom, laymen are not allowed onto the altar, especially not in the middle of a service. But however annoyed she might have been about this, it didn’t seem to change her electoral preference. “I guess I’ll vote for Mitin,” she said. “Why? I don’t know. Who else is there?”