Running for Office in Siberia: Let the Games Begin
Part V in a series on the District #35 Election for Novosibirsk City Council
Democracy is an oceanic earthquake zone. Elections are the condition of the shoreline that will tell you if there has been a tectonic plate shift and a Tsunami is coming. The shoreline position in District #35 is cynical, but it is not a deadly cynicism, there is, if not hope, a desire to hope. Proof of this came in a dialogue inspired by candidate Natalia Pinus’s Facebook announcement there was going to be a debate:
Male Cynic: What’s the point of debates and elections if ITS ALL THE SAME whoever is elected? (emphasis cynics)
Natalia: If it is all the same to you, then don’t come to the debate.
Male Cynic: I’ll give you a “5” (the highest grade in Russian schools) for campaigning (smile emoji).
Natalia: Thanks (smile emoji). I understand who it makes sense to agitate (a play on the word that means both campaign and agitate) and who it doesn’t!!! You have already decided everything without a campaign, or am I wrong?
Male Cynic: Not totally. Making a decision and ignoring something as a genre are slightly different things. I WILL NOT be against if they elect you and I WILL NOT be against if it isn’t you. Either way, it is all the same to me. (smile emoji).
Natasha: You are a confuser.
Male Cynic: Not a confuser, a cynic (smile emoji)
Natasha: All the same, the debate has intrigued you a little bit, admit it.
The banter continues with a few more exchanges before ending:
Male Cynic: As a compliment: I am not interested in you, but I am not against. If there was another well known female public activist, I would be against.
Natasha: That is a mega-compliment, I now feel I know you a little bit, I am inordinately grateful.
Male Cynic: (smile emoji) Success (sincerely)
More evidence of a cynicism vacation was the debate and not just because it happened. How it happened was important, the Association of Novosibirsk State University Alumni deciding to play an active role promoting increased information about the candidates. A local news-service joined in to provide live streaming for people at home.
Also, the way it was conducted set a standard for honesty, fairness and civility that no one could disagree with.
This included candidates picking numbers in public to establish speaking order, strict adherence to response limits (the microphone was turned off) and opportunities for not only the moderator, but candidates and audience members to ask questions. The moderator Alexander Filurin, Director of a large advertising company, set the following criteria for himself, the discussion should be pointed but not “fall into a communal squabble”.
Two of the eight registered candidates did not show up for the event and do not appear to be conducting campaigns. Running for the United Russia and LDPR parties, this indicates they are only filling out party lists. The demeanor of the six who were there proved sufficient to represent the range of interests and ethos in Akademgorodok. Their slogans capture this perfectly:
“For warmth in your home!” Soviet man is head of the state heat and water utilities monopoly. A graduate of the USSR Higher School for KGB, he is running as an independent but has been associated with the United Russia and Communist parties.
“Continue the work of Lavrentiev!” (the scientist, founder of Akademgorodok). Science man is the candidate from the Siberian Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences and works in one of the institutes. He is also running for the nationalist Rodina party with additional support from the Communist Party because he wants economic development on the basis of reindustrialization with an emphasis on the military industrial complex. He also serves as head of his building’s owners association.
“I achieve change. For sure!” The psychologist/ lawyer/ searcher man was active providing legal advice to those in need and is now working for an engineering firm that focuses on bridges and tunnels. He has explored a number of ways to achieve change running for office twice for the nationalist Rodina Party and then for the United Russia Party and now for the socialist democratic A Just Russia Party in a district where he was not born, did not study, does not live or work.
“Choose one of your own! People are intregrating.” Classic Akadem liberal man representing the center-left Yabloko party.
He is dedicated to preserving the soul (60’s Khrushchev thaw) of the community as he builds his hospitality and real estate business. The debate was held in one of the clubs located in his building, “Integral”. It was named for the legendary Akademgorodok club that was shut down by the Soviet government when Brezhnev came to power. Recently, he was elected head of the localCommittee for Public Self-Governance.
“I love Gorodok!” The female, Natalia. The head of the Akademgorodok Community Development Foundation, well to do wife, mother and former business woman now dedicating herself to volunteer work. This is a new type around here.
“I do it now!” The Businessman, head of a construction company undoubtedly started with the help of his successful construction businessman father. His company is located in the City. This 29 year old independent candidate made an announcement in his opening and only statement. He had a more important engagement and was sorry he could not stay to participate.
This was not a big surprise to anyone. Phones and alarm bells had been ringing since the day before the debate when notices appeared inviting people to meet the candidate, Nikita Galitarov, at the same time as the debate. What caused alarm, the game changer, was the teams of workers wearing t-shirts with his name that also appeared bringing his slogan to life filling in potholes and stamping the finished smooth surface with “For roads, for Galitarov”.
Soon, it was the banners hanging from apartment buildings and enormous billboards that rose like phoenix from the ashes and
the public transportation mini-buses (the #62) advertising his candidacy that raised serious concerns among residents as well as the other candidates.
If Natalia had upped the ante forcing candidates into the courtyards to meet voters, Nikita was setting the bar for money and he obviously had alot of it. Now, he would be unavailable to answer questions about where his money came from, what he was planning to do as a City Council Deputy and why he was running at all since there was no trace of a public profile before he announced his candidacy.
His absence was soon forgotten as the five remaining candidates responded to questions put to all of them about programs and priorities. The answers were as obvious as the questions:
- Heating/water man = heat and water;
• Science man = science;
• Classic Akadem hospitality man = hotel;
• Psychology/lawyer/bridge and tunnel man = alternative road to the City;
• Female head of Community Foundation = comprehensive social and economic development plan.
All useful and important but most significant was recognition by everyone a “day one” priority was getting information about citizen priorities, even Soviet man. Natalia took it a step further by announcing an open conference that will take place five days before the election. Residents will be asked to review and adapt the program she developed, in part, on the basis of recent courtyard citizen meetings.
The individual questions posed by the moderator, as well as candidate to candidate, targeted the primary legitimate concern related to four of the five candidates:
- Heating/water man: How will you, as Deputy, balance the conflict of interests involved when the enterprise you head constantly raises rates and the pensioners your are elected to serve “clutch their hearts” when they see the utilities bill?
• Science man: Scientists are not a homogenous mass. There are scientists who live in dormitories as researchers
Dormitory for science researchers
and the science elite, who support you, live in cottages.
Cottage for the scientific elite.
How can you as a representative of a small group protect the interests of 27,000 residents?
• Classic Akadem hospitality man: For five years wherever you go you talk about building a hotel.
Why should we vote for a candidate with a very specific business interest and not the public interest?
• Psychology/lawyer/bridge and tunnel man: No one knows you here, you have no strong connection here, why do you think you can be our Deputy?
The questions for Natalia, as the only female and head of the Community Foundation, were disappointing because it was the first indication of smallness all evening (actually second after Galitarov’s fear to participate). The concern was that because her family is financially well off (a fate shared by at least 3 others on stage) and she has “bohemian” friends and an ability to work with anybody (including people who in recent times have legal problems) would she be interested in working for pensioners who are primarily concerned with the cost of utilities and medicine?
There was no gotcha to be had as the candidates answered these questions. Everyone provided reasoned and reasonable responses, demonstrated respect towards their opponents and the rigors of the debate process. They were all decent people. The unanswered questions remained for Nikita Galitarov, “How are you going to pay off the estimated 10 million rubles invested in your campaign?”, “What are your construction plans for Akademgorodok?” and from an audience member, “Who is going to pay for all this asphalt?”.
The quantitative results of the debate from studio and on-line voting are certainly not a reliable predictor of what will happen on September 13. Still, the studio process provided more evidence of the hope over cynicism struggle for a fair outcome when the 115 audience members demanded the organizers prove the voting box was empty and observers monitor the vote count.
The final tally: Classic Akadem man (28), Heating/water man (27), the Female (25), Science man (24), Psychologist/lawyer/bridges and tunnels (8) and absentee Businessman (4). Online, 300 people voted giving Natalia first place, Heating/water man the silver and Science man the bronze followed by Classic Akadem, Psychologist/lawyer/bridges and tunnels and absentee Businessman.
Qualitative results, the desired goal of any political debate was achieved. The citizens of this District learned everything they needed to know to make an educated decision about who to vote for. The shoreline of cynicism receded just a bit as everyone on stage felt justifiably proud. Science man characterized the experience as “like an entrance exam for starting politicians”. The moderator reflected about it all on Facebook the next day. “Yes, Russia is moving in complex ways to democracy. The debate was organized suddenly so only 120 people out of 27,000 voters came. If you looked at their faces people were amused and angry, skeptical and credulous, inspired and frustrated but they were not bored.
Democracy, this is where we are going to discuss our problems, argue politely, bring our positions a little closer together and find a compromise. The Anglo-Saxons are studying this for 800 years, from the time of the Magna Carta, and we have just started to learn. We’ll have to catch up.”
After the debate, the appearance of big money raised concerns about the need to insure an honest vote count. This became more urgent when it was announced that the 15 District polling places would be open 4 hours a day for 11 days allowing people unable to vote on the 13th to participate. Natalia took the lead getting the other four debate candidates to support training for election observers. Over 30 people took part.
The home stretch…
Next week, Part VI “The Home Stretch”