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Yekaterina Duntsova: The Danger of High Expectations

Andrei Pertsev sums up the week (December 18−22)

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A journalist from Rzhev and former member of the city’s municipal Duma, who has declared her intention to run for president, has given opposition-minded Russians hope for the possibility of change and a better future. Leading independent media are interviewing her, and those with an active interest in politics are busy looking her up on the Internet. Duntsova is supported by the «Our Headquarters» project, set up by members of «Kovcheg» (The Ark), an organisation that helps anti-war emigrants. Part of the Ark team has previously worked with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which is why some people have linked Ekaterina Duntsova to the opposition businessman (and why some Russian officials do as well). On Saturday, Duntsova’s support group managed to organise a meeting of a core group of 500 activists to submit the nominated candidate’s required paperwork to the Central Election Commission and collect signatures for her final registration. Few people had known about Yekaterina Duntsova before she announced that she wanted to run in presidential elections. The active journalist was somewhat visible in Tver region, but not throughout the country. She took part in meetings of independent municipalities and once was even detained by the police for that reason. At the same time, in her town, Duntsova and her media outlet interacted with prominent local «United Russia» party people, such as the mayor and the head of the municipal council. This is hardly surprising or repulsive in and of itself: at the local level, politicians and activists often form peculiar coalitions regardless of party affiliation, and these coalitions can be quite bizarre.

Yekaterina Duntsova is now perceived as a real rival to Vladimir Putin, and even a contender for victory: suffices it to look at the headlines of the YouTube streams popular with opposition-minded Russians. People recall a recent example from Belarus — Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is believed to be the real winner of the 2020 presidential elections in that country. Like Duntsova, Tikhanovskaya was hardly known by the public before her nomination. She was «a dummy candidate» running in place of her husband, the well-known blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky. He was arrested, but his wife remained on the list of the candidates. Tikhanovsky’s own rating at the start of the campaign was not very high, around 5%. But because other prominent candidates had been arrested, Tikhanovskaia managed to consolidate the entire «protest» vote. Her case is a source of hope for Russia, too, especially since we have seen unexpected candidates win elections in Russia (albeit at a lower level). In 2018, for example, Sardana Avksentyeva, largely unknown to the public, became mayor of Yakutsk, and in the Kostroma region a cleaning lady was elected head of a village. The desire to support Duntsova showed that the opposition-minded, anti-war segment of Russian society has the desire to make a public statement and act on it. Signing a petition in support of Rzhev’s candidate, or volunteering in her campaign, would be a good way to take a stand and engage in civic action. However, exaggerated hopes for Yekaterina Duntsova’s campaign can be quite dangerous, and such hopes are being raised in good faith by members of her support group. They talk a lot about the opportunities offered by her nomination, but almost never touch upon the difficulties of the registration process.

First, the process is entirely controlled by the Kremlin. It is very likely that the Central Election Commission will refuse to register her as a candidate, using various bureaucratic excuses and mistakes in her paperwork. Even if the commission decides to register Duntsova, collecting signatures will be a very difficult task. The deadline for submission is 31 January, which means that Duntsova’s team will have to collect around 10,000 signatures per day (and one of the weeks during this period falls on the New Year holidays). If this process is successful, the verification of these signatures will again be entirely controlled by the Election Commission. Election Commissions routinely reject strong candidates in elections because of allegedly invalid signatures. Moreover, it happens even during local elections, where candidates are only required to collect a few dozen signatures to be registered. Yet they are often turned down, too. People find supporters among their acquaintances and relatives who are prepared to go to the election commission or court in an emergency [if their signatures are found to be illegitimate]. However, both the commissions and the courts do not listen to the real signatories, but declare that to them the opinion of experts-graphologists carries more autority and weight. Duntsova can also be rejected at this stage. One should be aware of these difficulties in order not to be disappointed in one’s high expectations, not to be completely demoralised and not to lose hope. In fact, boosting optimism and glossing over the very real difficulties of the nomination and registration process may work to demoralise the opposition-minded segment of Russian society. Sober calculation, knowledge, awareness of the ins and outs of the system, and the ability to act within the field of law without exaggerated hopes seem to be much more preferable tactics.

Algorithm-2018

The Kremlin chose not to change the format of Vladimir Putin’s «white», facade headquarters. Actual military shades were added: Artem Zhoga, the «Chairperson of the DNR Parliament», became one of the three co-chairmen of Putin’s electoral campaign headquarters, and the list of trusted representatives should include military correspondents or war bloggers and the military itself. However, the presidential administration did not go overboard with these military references. Zhoga is balanced by other co-chairs — the «peaceful» actor Vladimir Mashkov and the medical director of a Moscow hospital, Maryana Lysenko. Back in 2018 Putin’s electoral campaign the headquarters was formed according to a similar scheme: it included people from the lines and fields of work that the government considered relevant at that time, but also public employees, actors and singers. In 2018, the «hottest» field was personified by the co-chairman of the electoral campaign headquarters, KAMAZ director Sergei Kogogin. The co-chairs were Elena Shmeleva, director of the «Sirius» educational centre, and Alexander Rumyantsev, President of the Dmitry Rogachev National Medical Research Center of Pediatric Hematology. Just as in 2018, the headquarters apparatus will be headed by Andrei Yarin, head of the Kremlin’s domestic policy department. Putin will also retain his previous financial commissioner. Even the logo of the incumbent president’s campaign is practically the same as it was six years ago, only the word «Russia» has been added. Apparently Sergei Kiriyenko’s team got their fingers burnt with all the creativity of the VDNKh Exhibition and Forum, where they wanted to announce Putin’s nomination. The meeting of the core activist group for the nomination was also held elsewhere — not at the exhibition, but in Zaryadye Park. The president has long relished familiar faces and forms, and the organisation of his «white» headquarters is the political bloc’s appeal to these habits.

The actual personalities involved in the work of this headquarters may be discussed and attract attention, but in reality no special privileges have been granted to the members of the «facade». The former co-chairs did not receive any promotions or additional powers. Kogogin and Shmeleva retained their posts, while Rumyantsev became a State Duma deputy, a position that is probably less important than his previous job (chief physician of a large medical institution in Moscow). The career of Andrei Yarin, the chief of staff of the headquarters, has not taken off either. Of course, the current co-chairs will not disappear and will remain within the power vertical, but it will be erroneous to see them as part of the new top echelon of Putin’s elite.

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