Running for Office in Siberia: Next Generation
Part II in a series on the District #35 Election for Novosibirsk City Council
A generation can be as much about a state of mind as years. In this way Natalia Pinus, the focus of this series, reflects what could be the next generation of candidates in Russia in three important ways:
• As the only representative of the non-profit sector, a predominantly female sector in Russia, and the only woman in the #35 District field (currently only 3 of the 39 sitting Council deputies are women) her candidacy demonstrates a new way for women to gain the experience and public profile necessary to be a viable candidate.
• Her status, Director of the Community Foundation for the Development of Akademgorodok, a grassroots NGO, brings with it a constituency base that includes all stakeholder groups. This is another departure from the norm where candidates tend to represent the interests of a particular power base. In post- perestroika Akademgorodok there were two of these, the Siberian Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Siberian Division) and a group of local businessmen who somehow gained control over key commercial assets during the transition. The deputy Natalia hopes to succeed is Head of a scientific institute and General Secretary of the Siberian Division, and the man who preceded him was a leading local businessman. These core constituencies are also represented by six of the seven other candidates running (Vice Director of a scientific institute, two from construction companies, one from a utilities provider, one owns an auto parts business, another is the executive director of an engineering, building design company). The other outlier is a Tai Kwan Do trainer but sports in general and martial arts in particular have always been closely associated with people in power. In Novosibirsk this is even more pronounced because of its most famous politician, three time Olympic Champion in Greco-Roman wrestling, Alexander Karelin.
• Whatever the male candidates have achieved for their businesses, institutes, employees or clients, their contributions to the broader community have not been noticeable. In addition to the visibility her 5 years of experience in community development provided, it inspired Natalia to focus on governance over politics that meant choosing to run as an independent, one of three in the District election.
Governance is all about making things work. The skills and attitudes necessary to get results in a society with raised expectations can run counter to the skill set legacy from the Soviet era as well as what evolved during the 90’s transition to capitalism. There is often a deficit in openness, accessibility and willingness to compromise among elected officials and their constituents. These practices are promoted by NGOs that serve as civil society development centers with a community development focus. When Natalia decided to leave business for the non-profit sector, this resource infrastructure was in place to provide information, training, contacts and partnership with other development activists and professionals. Initially supported by western donors, these NGOs and programs are now, to some degree, financed by Russian government and corporations. This funding transition was well underway prior to the expulsion of western donors.
Despite an offer of funding from a foreign donor, Natalia’s strategy for the Foundation was always to concentrate on generating local resources while inviting anyone to bring a project to the organization for moral and promotional support, if nothing else. The big tent approach was critical in a community as complex as Akademgorodok and made it possible for the Eureka Science Café that hosts weekly lectures to flourish along with computer training for the elderly. Another focus has been to revive the creative spirit of the community that decayed along with the common spaces and amenities. Natalia invited artists to submit designs for “one of a kind” benches and then found donors willing to pay for their construction. The first created a sensation because it was placed outside the University and replicated the infamous Russian cheat sheet.
Another popular bench has an upper and lower level. The ladder connecting the two disappeared recently and before volunteers could replace it, a new one appeared along with a plaque from a man with the following dedication, “Happy Birthday Sweetheart”.
The mystery was covered on the local news giving Natalia some free press and a chance to talk about how this Foundation project continues to surprise and enrich life in the community.
The benches also laid the groundwork for a more expansive beautification project that brought together government, the science elite, business and neighborhood volunteers. Together a swamp was transformed into a duck pond park that has become the most popular place for an evening stroll.
Natalia’s ability to navigate through the entrenched interests and apathy to get results was noticed and she was invited to serve on numerous public committees established by the government including the Novosibirsk Mayor’s Town Planning council and cultural committees for the Regional Ministry and Governor. In a recent interview Natalia gave her impressions of these entities, “Unfortunately the existing mechanisms to include citizens in governance are not effective and, in some cases, simply serve the function of legitimizing government decisions.”
In 2013 she had her first election experience when she beat three other candidates to become a member of the Regional Public Chamber. The questions asked by the auditorium at that time, “where does your money come from, why don’t you have to work?” and “how can a mother with three children have time to be so active?” continue to be key concerns for some elements of the electorate in her current campaign.
In the midst of all of this activity, Novosibirsk became a focal point for the conservative cultural backlash happening in Russia. While one would expect Natalia to support actions promoting freedom for artists and NGOs, it was surprising to see her ignore the possibility of risking the social capital accrued, by becoming an organizer or prominent participant in three 2015 actions organized in response. Two of them challenged Federal actions.
The first meeting objected to the Minister of Culture firing the Director of the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre for producing a version of the Tannhauser opera that Russian Orthodox activists were offended by.
The second was a protest to support the Dynasty Foundation. The organization was labeled a “Foreign Agent” because the money its Russian founder used to provide stipends for students and promote science was being held off-shore.
The third protest activity took the form of civil disobedience when the Mayor moved the annual “Monstration” creative class alternative to the May Day march to a marginal location. Organizers decided to ignore the City order and marched, as always, on the main street, Red Prospect. Natalia’s sign said, “Taste and color are great reasons for friendship”.
The culmination of Natalia’s last five years as an active citizen was the decision to run in the United Russia (party in power) primary for the September Novosibirsk City Council election. “My desire to run was sincere and an organic progression. I was prepared internally for this step so when the Association of Novosibirsk State University Graduates suggested I run, I agreed…. I want to continue to bring together government, business and the people to solve problems….If I become a Deputy it will give me more opportunities to support development and introduce me to a whole new circle of people.”
Next week Part III of this series will cover Natalia’s participation in the United Russia primary, why she decided to run as an independent and how she made that happen.