Back with a vengeance After failing to meet goals in the 2019 Moscow municipal elections, Russia’s ruling establishment has ramped up efforts in 2021, but success in the State Duma is far from guaranteed

An electoral campaign in Moscow’s constituency’s No. 198Irina Buzhor / Kommersant

In the 2019 Moscow City Duma elections, pro-government candidates lost in 20 out of 45 single-mandate constituencies. Now, officials in the capital are hoping to make a comeback in the State Duma elections slated for September 2021. Their goal is to win in all of the city’s 15 districts, which determines the deputies of the federal parliament’s lower house. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev has learned that Moscow City Hall currently considers three of the 15 districts “problematic.” At the same time, they’re counting on infighting among opposition figures to lead to a victory for pro-government candidates. Here’s what we know about the Moscow government’s goals for the upcoming elections — and how they plan to achieve them.

The “problem constituencies”

According to a source close to Moscow City Hall, the city government only foresees three out of Moscow’s 15 single-mandate constituencies, which will hold elections for State Duma deputies in September, being “problematic” for the “party of power” (or for government-affiliated candidates). Their concerns are based on sociological survey data and from a general analysis of the pro-government candidates’ campaigns so far, the source said.

This information was confirmed by a source from United Russia who also cited survey data. “You can’t argue with sociology,” he said.

The first “problem constituency” is constituency No. 208, which encompasses both the Central Administrative District and the Lefortovo (or Southwestern) District. The authorities have always considered this troublesome, as it’s traditionally been home to a large protest contingent, according to a source close to City Hall.

In this constituency, the authorities are backing Oleg Leonov, a self-nominated candidate who also serves as the coordinator of the search-and-rescue operation LizaAlert. His opponents include Sergey Mitrokhin (from the opposition party Yabloko), Nina Ostanina (from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation), journalist Maxim Shevchenko (from the Russian Party of Freedom and Justice), and municipal deputy Ketevan Kharaidze (from the Green Party), who was detained on fraud charges and placed under house arrest soon after he declared his candidacy.

The second “problem constituency” is No. 201, which includes the Pechatniki, Yuzhnoportovy, Kotlovka, Danilovsky, Donskoy, Moskvorechye-Saburovo, Nagatinsky Zaton, Nagorny, Chertanovo Severnoye, and Nagatino-Sadovniki districts. The United Russia candidate in this constituency is All-Russia People’s Front activist Svetlana Razvorotneva. Her main opponent is opposition politician Anastasia Udaltsova, the wife of Sergey Udaltsov, coordinator of the Left Front movement; Udaltsova is running on the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) ticket.

“The constituency is heterogeneous — you have both center-leaning districts, with electorates you might call ‘liberal,’ and working-class suburbs. Neither group was a huge fan of Razvorotneva; her campaign talks a lot about The Center for the Protection of Muscovites’ Rights, which people aren’t really familiar with. Udaltsova is doing pretty well in the suburbs, and in the center, she might get some help from Smart Vote,” said a source from City Hall (Smart Vote waits until a few days before elections to announce its endorsements).

The authorities’ third “problem constituency” is No. 210, which comprises the North and South Butovo, Yasenevo, Chertanovo Tsentralnoye, and Chertanovo Yuzhnoye districts. The United Russia candidate here is cosmonaut Roman Romanenko. Until recently, his main challenger was self-nominated candidate Roman Yuneman; just this month, however, Yuneman was barred from running when the Electoral Commission accused him of forging the signatures necessary to register as a candidate. Yuneman announced he would appeal the decision in the Moscow City Court, adding that the Interior Ministry base that verifies signatures “contains numerous mistakes” (though the odds of Yuneman’s candidacy being reinstated are slim to none). As a result, the constituency’s main opposition candidate is former Volgograd Regional Duma deputy Mikhail Tarantsov, who’s running on the KPRF ticket.

“Before his nomination, Romanenko had nothing to do with this constituency — he was representing a different territory in the State Duma. When his campaign was launched, problems immediately arose: it’s not quite clear what the constituency needs a lawyer for,” said a source close to City Hall.

Romanenko is also running an unconventional campaign. For example, he once used an angle grinder to cut down a barrier at the entrance to a private parking lot and declared that parking “was now free.” After that, posters started appearing around the constituency with pictures of Romanenko holding the tool over the words “The deputy with an angle grinder.”

Romanenko cuts down a parking barrier

It’s notable that in the previous State Duma elections, in 2016, all of the constituencies now considered “problematic” were won by United Russia candidates. Back then, pro-government candidates captured 14 of Moscow’s 15 single-mandate constituencies. That campaign took place in conditions that were much more favorable for United Russia: pension reform, which tanked the party’s approval ratings, hadn’t yet passed — and Alexey Navalny hadn’t yet launched his Smart Vote initiative.

The only 2016 election winner not from United Russia was communist Denis Parfenov. Of course, this was only after the “party of power’s” candidate, Moscow City Hall Social Protection Department deputy head Tatyana Barsukova, was forced to withdraw from the race when 14 Moscow schoolchildren died at a camp in Karelia and it came out that Barsukova had signed off on the trip.

Udalova vs. Udaltsova

Meduza’s source in Moscow City Hall was adamant that, despite concerns about “problematic” areas, the Moscow authorities are anticipating victories in all 15 constituencies. A source from United Russia said the party has the same expectation.

In fact, the authorities are using time-tested methods to make sure of it.

In the aforementioned constituencies No. 201 and No. 210, each KPRF candidate on the ballot will have a “double”: Anna Udalova will run against Anastasia Udaltsova, while Leonid Tarashchansky will run against Mikhail Tarantsov. Both “doubles” are from the party Communists of Russia, which analysts consider a “spoiler” party, or a party created solely to dilute the KPRF electoral base.

Even the less-promising KPRF candidates are getting this treatment. In constituency No. 203, KPRF candidate Vitaly Petrov is running against Vasily Petrov. In constituency No. 207, KPRF candidate Ivan Ulyanchenko will have not one but two doppelganger opponents: Ivan Ulyanov from the Communists of Russia and Sergey Ulyanov from the Party of Pensioners.

In constituency No. 199, where former secretary of the Moscow city committee and popular KPRF candidate Valery Rashkin ran for the Duma in 2016, the Communists of Russia nominated a candidate with the exact same name: Valery Rashkin. This year, however, KPRF’s Rashkin is running in constituency No. 196 instead.

Emin Djafarov / Kommersant

The difference with the current elections is a bloated candidate list in every constituency. On the whole, there are 165 registered candidates across 15 constituencies, which means that in September, Moscow voters will receive ballots that list 10-14 names each (the ballots at the same stage of the 2019 Moscow City Duma elections listed 3-7 names each).

By using these doubles, according to political scientist Alexander Pozhalov, the Moscow government is trying to kill several birds with one stone. Their first goal is to mitigate the effects of Alexey Navalny’s Smart Vote technology, which aims to help consolidate the opposition vote by determining which independent candidate in each constituency is most likely to win.

“When there are multiple active candidates in the same race, it becomes difficult for Smart Vote to determine the ‘strongest.’ The result is that not all voters are happy with the endorsement, and many start to criticize Smart Vote, weakening its power as a call to action for opposition voters,” said Pozhalov.

The second purpose of City Hall’s doppelganger strategy is “to create a quantifiable competition and clear themselves of any accusations regarding election integrity,” according to Pazhalov.

Pazhalov added, however, that many opposite candidates were barred from running back at the nomination stage (another one of the authorities’ traditional tactics). In several cases, the opposition parties themselves encouraged this: Yabloko, for example, refused to nominate Alexey Minyailo and former head of Alexey Navalny’s Moscow office Oleg Stepanov, both of whom were involved in the “Moscow Case.” (This decision, along with Grigory Yavlinsky’s statement that Navalny supporters shouldn’t vote for Yabloko, sparked a flurry of criticism among the opposition community.)

On the other hand, both in Moscow and throughout the country, Russia’s Electoral Commission has started blocking candidates associated with the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), which was declared an “extremist” organization. (The law that provides the framework for this designation was passed shortly before this year’s elections; it’s commonly referred to as the “anti-FBK law.”)

“From a technology standpoint, having a large number of ‘managed opposition’ candidates allows the authorities to use them to espouse counterpropaganda against the government’s real opponents, as well as to put legal pressure on opponents — to file complaints and so on. Meanwhile, the pro-government candidate is unaffected by all of these squabbles among the opposition and smaller candidates.”

“They drag each other down”

In many of Moscow’s constituencies, opposition candidates won’t just be running against pro-government candidates — they’ll also be running against each other.

These standoffs are most pronounced in two constituencies in particular: No. 198, which encompasses the Aeroport, Begovoy, Beskudnikovsky, Zapadnoye and Vostochnoye Degunino, Dmitrovsky, Koptevo, Sokol, Savelovsky, and Khoroshevsky Timiryazevsky districts, and No. 205, which encompasses the Vostochnoye Izmailovo, Izmailovo, Golyanovo, Vostochny, Ivanovskoye, Metrogorodok, Preobrazhenskoye, Severnoye Izmailovo, and Sokolinaya Gora districts.

In constituency No. 198, United Russia isn’t running a candidate. Like in previous elections, the constituency is “reserved” for incumbent candidate Galina Khovanskaya (from A Just Russia) per an agreement with United Russia. Human rights activist and political scientist Marina Litvinovich, who’s endorsed by Timiryazevsky district’s popular former deputy Yulia Galyamina, is running on the Yabloko ticket. One of her opponents will be City Projects employee and Shchukino district municipal deputy Anastasia Bryukhanova, who is self-nominated.

In order to avoid splitting the protest vote, Litvinovich approached Bryukhanova and KPRF candidate Pyotr Zvyagintsev about following Smart Vote’s nomination. “Here’s what I suggested: whoever wasn’t supported by Smart Vote would withdraw from the race on the last possible day (by law, this is September 11, five days before voting begins). I’m confident that Smart Vote’s organizers can tell the three of us who they’ll be endorsing a bit ahead of time. I promise that if Smart Vote supports Anastasia Bryukhanova or Pyotr Zvyagintsev, I’ll withdraw from the election,” Litvinovich wrote on Facebook.

Shortly after, however, City Projects director and head of Bryukhanova’s campaign Maxim Kats claimed to have proposed another strategy to Litvinovich multiple times and received no response. “We suggested making a deal by which we would help Litvinovich run if they refused to let Bryukhanova, and, in return, Litvinovich would drop out if Bryukhanova registered. But she refused to even consider it because she didn’t know “whether we’d be registered.” Our dear colleagues expected us to be barred from the race, making negotiation unnecessary. But they didn’t bar us,” Kats wrote on Telegram.

He added that Bryukhanova had no plans to drop out — even if she doesn’t get Smart Vote’s endorsement. “So far, Bryukhanova has received more than 24 million rubles ($325,000) from 6,000 people, and more than a thousand supporters have joined the campaign. 17,500 constituents supported Anastasia’s nomination. That’s a third of the votes the winner of the previous election received,” wrote Kats. “Given these circumstances, we’re not going to discuss the possibility of voluntary withdrawal.”

A source close to City Hall told Meduza that the dispute between Litvinovich and Bryukhanova was one of the reasons constituency No. 198 didn’t make the list of “problem constituencies,” saying it’s sure to “demotivate protest voters.”

A similar situation is unfolding in electorate No. 205, where the authorities’ obvious favorite is a self-nominated candidate and quiz show champion Anatoly Vasserman. Meanwhile, the KPRF nominated former State Duma deputy Sergey Obukhov, while human rights advocate Alyona Popova is running on the Yabloko ticket. In her campaign, however, Popova has criticized not just Vasserman, but Obukhov as well — she enumerated the laws the communist has supported, which include laws against “insulting the feelings of believers” and the Dima Yakovlev law.

Strong, well-known opposition candidates are facing off in other constituencies, as well. Constituency No. 197, where 60 Minutes host Yevgeny Popov is running on the United Russia ticket, is known for having a strong protest vote: its residents have a history of actively opposing infill development projects.

Soon after Popov announced his candidacy, Navalny supporters released a film about Popov and his wife Olga Skabeyeva’s propaganda work. Both of them work for the state news network Rossiya 1.

The film also discusses the family’s luxury real estate, claiming that Popov and Skabeyeva own two apartments and one non-residential property, which altogether cost 300 million rubles ($4 million) (all located in north Moscow). According to Rosreestr data, this property does belong to the Popov and Skabeyeva family, and its total value is impressive — but, according to documents obtained by Meduza, the properties are worth about 155 million rubles ($2.1 million). In addition, Popov and Skabeyeva have mortgages on their non-residential property and on one of their apartments.

The film talks about a 170-meter (560-foot) apartment and a 180-square-meter (590-square-foot) non-residential property in a residential complex called VTB Arena Park next to Dynamo stadium, as well as a 105-square-meter (1,130-square-foot) apartment on Verkhnyaya Maslovka. Navalny’s associates valued the VTB Arena Park property at 260 million rubles ($3.5 million) and the Verkhnyaya Maslovka apartment at 45 million rubles ($610,000).

As proof of the valuation, Maria Pevchikh, the head of FBK’s investigative unit, posted a screenshot of the developer’s website on Twitter, noting that “analogous apartments” cost 150 million rubles ($3.5 million). In the replies, Popov objected, claiming that the property Pevchikh was referring to was “apartments that are decorated and maintained by Hyatt,” and not “apartments that are analogous” to the one he had bought.

The site Pevchikh had linked to lists the prices of apartments in VTB Arena Park’s 38th building. According to VTB Arena Park’s sales manager, this particular building is a premium one, and thus more expensive than other buildings due to the “hotel-standard” decoration and maintenance. Popov and Skabeyeva’s apartments are located in the 39th building, according to Rosreestr. On the secondary market, apartments in this building are indeed cheaper than in the “premium” building: you can get a 130-meter apartment here for 45 million rubles ($610 thousand).

Meduza also analyzed the sale agreement for an apartment and a non-residential property in Yevgeny Popov’s name; the host himself provided us with the documents. According to them, the apartment in the VTB Arena Park residential complex cost 44 million rubles in 2020; Popov and Skabeyeva made a down payment of nine million rubles ($122,000) and took out a loan of $35 million rubles ($474,000) at 8 percent annually.

The 180-square-meter (590-square-feet) non-residential property in the same building cost the family 66 million rubles ($895,000) in 2017, including a seven million ruble ($95,000) down payment; Popov and Skabeyeva also took out a 15-year loan of 59 million rubles ($80,000) at 10 percent annually.

According to Rosreestr, the 105-square-meter (1130-square-foot) apartment on Verkhnyaya Maslovka belongs solely to Popov and Skabeyeva — they don’t currently have a mortgage on it.

Thus, we can calculate the total cost of the TV host’s property: 45 million rubles ($610,000) (Verkhnyaya Maslovka) + 44 million roubles ($597,000) (the VTB Arena Park) + 66 million rubles ($895,000) (the VTB Arena Park non-residential property) = 155 million rubles ($2.1 million).

According to the declaration Yevgeny Popov made when he launched his State Duma campaign, his income in 2020 was 11.4 million rubles ($154.6). If we assume that most of Popov’s income comes from his salary, and his wife, Olga Skabeyeva (who performs the same job at Rossiya 1 as Popov), makes about the same amount, their total yearly income should be about 20-22 million rubles ($271,000-$298,000).

Pevchikh on the discrepancy between Meduza’s calculations and the film’s numbers

Meduza asked Maria Pevchikh to comment on why the property values listed in the sales agreement contradicts the valuations given in the FBK film. At Pevchikh’s request, we’re publishing her answers unabridged. Pevchikh did not comment on the information about the commercial space purchased by the Popovs.

Meduza analyzed the documents after the FBK film was released and sent Maria Pevchikh information about the property’s price, yearly interest rates, and down payment.

Are there inaccuracies in your calculations? Why does the actual price differ from your estimate?

Because the actual price Popov paid was not the market price.

When we estimated the market price, we used the values of analogous properties on [real estate website], as well as the estimated value of any finishing and remodeling, if there’s reason to believe any was done. It’s also not difficult to go to the original source, the seller, and take a look at a preserved copy of the builder’s site. In September 2020, the minimum price of a square meter was 502,584 rubles ($6,800). At that same time, Popov was sold an apartment for half the price: 258,000 rubles ($3,500) per square meter. The deal wouldn’t have made any commercial sense if there weren’t some other conditions we don’t know about.

I’m disappointed there weren’t any other documents; if there had been, we would have sent them along with our investigation to VTB and asked them to conduct a review. The state bank and the builder were clearly damaged. This deal was conducted under conditions so disadvantageous to VTB that it must have seriously hurt the interests of the stakeholders, which include the government.

Finally, we must not lose sight of the most important thing. Even the monthly mortgage payment indicated in the documents is almost a million rubles ($13,500) — that’s a huge amount of money. It’s no wonder that Yevgeny Popov doesn’t brag about it to everyone on air, and just shyly submits his paperwork. I’d bet voters in Fili and Kuntsevo wouldn’t feel a strong connection to a candidate with that kind of money.

Did you know the properties were bought on a mortgage? Why didn’t you mention it in your investigation?

In our investigations, including this one, we provide properties’ market prices. The amount a specific asset can be sold for. The existence of a mortgage in no way affects a property’s market price.

In this investigation, we didn’t address the topic of where Yevgeny Popov’s money came from (there’s no doubt he’s paid generously from the government budget for his shameful propaganda work), so we didn’t consider the conditions under which he acquired his real estate to be relevant. 

In the same constituency, the KPRF nominated MSU professor Mikhail Lobanova — an activist who works to defend the Sparrow Hills and the Setun river valley. Yabloka nominated well-known activist Kirill Goncharov (another opponent of infill development), while the Russian Party of Freedom and Justice nominated well-known businessman and blogger Dmitry Potapenko. City Hall is hoping the protest vote will be split here, as well.

The 2016 elections presented a similar picture: opposition candidates rushed for nominations in constituency No. 208, which was considered the most protest-minded constituency then as now. Navalny supporter Lyubov Sobol, historian Andrey Zubov (from the Parnas party), and self-nominated candidate and activist Maria Baronova (who worked for Open Russia at the time, but now works for RT) all tried to run. Sobol ended her run after both Yabloko and Parnas both refused to nominate her, resulting in Zubov and Baronova competing for the protest vote. The election was ultimately won by United Russia candidate Nikolay Gonchar.

“This is nothing new, they’re diluting the protest electorate and splitting the vote. All the authorities have to do is create the conditions, play on people’s hopes, not even interfere with registration. The people involved in the disputes themselves aren’t capable of negotiating,” said political scientist Konstantin Kalachev. “They don’t even have to push them. It’s like the old joke about demons and cauldrons: it’s their own who drag them back down by the legs and prevent them from getting free.”

Political scientist Alexander Pozhalov, however, believes the opposition candidates might have a chance yet. He pointed out that pro-government candidates are conducting “essentially depoliticized campaigns” that feel more like campaigns for local office than for the State Duma — and it might not be what voters are looking for.

“In the last few years, there’s been a demand for campaigns that are political, for candidates that are actually engaging in politics,” said Pozhalov. “As a result, if the share of Moscow voters who want real politicians grows between now and mid-September, the pro-government candidates will have nothing to offer swing voters: most of them just look like servants to the executive branch, extensions of the current bureaucracy.”

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Story by Andrey Pertsev, with additional reporting by Anastasia Yakoreva

Translation by Sam Breazeale


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