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Feature Story March 7, 2006
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email

The eXile checks out mayoral elections in Perm for a reminder of what democracy was like in the Yeltsin era!

PERM -- Last Wed-nesday, a letter supposedly drafted by one of the leading mayoral candidates for Perm's upcoming elections, Vladimir Plotnikov, and addressed to a bandit don nicknamed "Auto," turned up in the local media. The letter included plenty of spelling and grammar mistakes for authenticity's sake, with gems like "ya tozhe khochu v bratskuyu sem'yu" (or, loosely, "I want to get made, too" in Goodfellas-speak) and "derzhis, rodnoi, ne bolei" (which is bandit talk that just doesn't translate).

Plotnikov's people then called up local journalists and told them that they had a real "bomb" against Igor Shubin, the other leading candidate and United Russia's man. A rumor spread that it was pictures or a video of Shubin in a banya with an underage boy. As we head to press, that bomb has yet to explode.

That night, a Plotinkov-backed local TV channel devoted its entire half-hour news show featuring him speechifying, while one of Shubin's channels spent several minutes highlighting the juiciest parts of the letter (dated 1990, when Plotnikov was serving time in a Soviet jail), claiming experts could verify it was his handwriting. In short, it was just another day of local elections in one of Russia's biggest cities.

During the few days I spent watching the Perm mayoral elections, the first round of which is scheduled for March 12, it was hard not get nostalgic for the 90s in Russia. This election cycle would have made Berezovsky proud, with eight candidates (most of whom were decoys designed to draw votes away), tons of "black PR" getting slung at the two main competitors, blatant abuse of administrative resources, scheming polit-tekhnologs, and contradictory competing public opinion surveys paid for by the campaigns, one of which showed Plotnikov, a well-known "criminal authority," leading the pack. It had all the elements that made election-watching so much fun in the Yeltsin era, and enough to make me realize why Putin was so eager to cancel elections in the regions.

After all, while these elections might be entertaining, it's not like they take place to please the press. The circus that's playing out in Perm is a total farce, and has no more democratic value than elections in Afghanistan. The fact that this election is nasty means that there's something at stake, but what many Yeltsin-era observers never understood is that competition doesn't necessarily mean democracy. While Jack Kemp's taskforce might claim that Putin's Russia is less democratic than the 90s, it never stops to consider if the freedom to elect a powerful underworld criminal to office is really what the system's all about.

A close look at Perm's mayoral -- or, to be more precise, the Head of the City, as the position is called -- race provides more than a nostalgic glimpse into a bygone political system. The tactics used here are typical in modern Russian politics and watching them unfold in a provincial city provides a clearer glimpse of what goes on in the national stage. The players in Perm are mimicking the behavior of their Moscow masters, but they don't have the budget or the resources available for machinations of the same scale as national politics. And, as has been the case in Russia going back at least as far as Gogol, everything's more grotesque in the regions.

Although Moscow tries to prevent the public airing of power struggles these days, the Perm elections prove that the Kremlin has a long row to hoe before taming the regional elites. What is unfolding in Perm is part of the process that began with subduing national elections and then canceling gubernatorial elections, with city-level government the logical next step. The Kremlin is trying to resurrect its vertical power after the anarchy in the 90s. But, from the looks of things in Perm, it won't be able to without a fight.

Another thing that makes the Perm elections so interesting is their picturesque quality. Before I describe the main players, though, a quick anatomy of post-Soviet regional power is an order. Throughout the 90s, the regional elite could be roughly divided into two camps -- the so-called "criminal authorities" and the "red managers." In the vacuum that followed the collapse of Soviet Union, petty thugs that had always inhabited the fringes of Soviet society found themselves in a position to capitalize on the disappearance of the state's monopoly on force. Their schemes tended to be fairly straightforward, such as convincing a pensioner to sign over her apartment in exchange for end-of-life care and then whacking her. Using that technique to gain procession of everything from real estate to industrial parcels, various gruppirovki, or gangs, consolidated their holdings and killed each other when the field got too crowded. By the end of the 90s, each city had no more than a few criminal authorities and they reached a ceasefire of sorts. The red managers tended to come by their properties by less violent, but not more honest ways. They either "privatized" the state property that they managed or asset-stripped, transferring wealth from an enterprise to a Swiss bank account.

Perm's mayoral race has a representative of each camp in Vladimir Plotnikov and Igor Shubin. It's shocking just how openly the media and politicians in Perm discuss Plotnikov's criminal history. Or maybe not so shocking, seeing as he was sentenced to 6 years for apartment fraud in 1990, and he served 4 of them. Even Permskaya oblast governor Oleg Chirkunov (who recently made national headlines when a group from Nashi demanded his resignation after he allowed a far-righter speak at Perm youth forum) told me, "The democratic value of these elections is limited. 25 percent of the voters are discontent and even willing to vote for a populist with a criminal past." There was little doubt who he was talking about; the day before I interviewed him, Shubin's paper Mestnoe Vremya came out with a poll that put Plotnikov in second place with 22.1 percent of the vote.

Shubin, meanwhile, is the perfect red manager candidate. He's got the bland, puffy and balding look of a 50-year-old commie bureaucrat, which is exactly what he is. With the exception of a year welding telephones at a Perm factory after he graduated high school, he's been in government his whole life, working at a variety of deputy representative roles that the USSR was so adept at producing. All his years as a faceless bureaucrat finally paid off in 2001, when he was made the general director of Permregiongaz, which is Gazprom's main subsidiary in the Permskaya oblast and, according to Plotnikov's paper Vechernyaya Perm, Shubin cashed in.

* * *

Perm's elections have, from the start, taken an odd path. In a repeat of Yeltsin's Y2K abdication, the previous mayor Arkadi Kamenev stepped down at the end of November to accept a position as deputy governor. Career wise, it was a lateral movement. However, Kamenev had been known as a proxy for Plotnikov and, in taking the new position, was widely believed to have sold his longtime ally up the river. The gossip was that Kamenev decided to join up with Kremlin reps in exchange for immunity from prosecution and, presumably, something to sweeten the deal.

Shubin, then a little known operative in Gazprom's empire, became Perm's mayor. The hope was to introduce him to the city a few months before the election, much like Yeltsin had presented Putin to Russia on New Years Eve 1999. Except Shubin was no Putin, and his handlers were not Gleb Pavlovsky and Marat Gelman. Besides, administrative resources don't mean nearly as much in the provinces, where most people prefer national news to the local fare and the daily newspapers tend to fill their pages with death porn stories. Even with little more than a week before the elections, most people I talked with didn't have much of an idea who Shubin was. "I recognize him from the billboards, of course," Vladimir, a middle-aged man I talked to in the Perm Univermag told me, "but I don't know a thing about him."

That's not surprising. Even Irina Kolushchinskaya, the brains behind Shubin's campaign and one of his main attack dogs, didn't really have much to say about Shubin at all. He's that boring. By contrast, Kolushchinskaya is one of the most interesting characters in the game. When I first talked with her on the phone, I thought I'd misheard her name: her voice was so gravelly, I swore I was talking to a man.

Rather than focus on what Shubin was offering Perm, she spent most of our discussion enumerating why Plotnikov was doomed to fail. "Criminals can't handle the free market," she said. "They're trying to get political power as a means to remain economically relevant." She also argued that women would never vote for him and that his smear campaign would backfire, saying, "Black PR is like pepper: it must be used sparingly. Too much, and you ruin everything." It was an unexpected argument for someone who, in all earnestness, told me 30 minutes before that if Plotnikov should become mayor, the practice of killing pensioners to get control of their apartments would start again.

One of the few positive things Kolushchinskaya said about Shubin was that it speaks volumes about a man whose wife speaks highly of him after they divorce. But by that argument, Plotnikov would be made of gold, as he has four ex-wives, all of whom praise him.

The real reason Kolushchinskaya hates Plotnikov so much is that she used to work for him. Just two years ago, she (along with seemingly all of Perm) was on his payroll. He ditched her, though, and according to some sources she bears a grudge.

* * *

There are posters of the two candidates blanketing the city. Shubin's and Plotnikov's mantras are eerily similar, with the former reading "ZAbota, ZAshita, ZArplata," or Care, Defense, Salary, and the later "Za ludei, pravdu, spravedlivost" or For people, truth, justice. Both emphasize "Za," which means "for," and neither slogan means anything. It's quite fitting, really, because both candidates lack anything resembling a platform.

While charisma is perhaps not the right word to describe Plotnikov's manner, at least he's a character. Still, he couldn't even answer a soft-ball question tossed to him by a reporter from his own channel. When he was asked what would be the first thing he'd do as mayor, he answered, "Well, I'd do what anyone would expect of a mayor." That's right, folks, he'd act mayor-like. "Russia, like any developed country, should have two or three parties, each with a defined program," Chirkunov told me. "Instead, we pick personalities, and it's easy to make a mistake."

Indeed. Plotnikov's best chance seems to be taking advantage of a Marion Barry-type situation where the voters hate the government so much, they'd rather vote for a crack-head than a bureaucrat. Furthermore, Plotnikov's run a more successfulcampaign, posing as an outsider (despite several journalists telling me that he's effectively run the city for the last several years).

He's also made good use of diversionary politicians. His close business partner Vyacheslav Vakhrin is also running for mayor in solidarity with Plotnikov. Together, they've formed the group Grazhdanskaya Oppozitsiya, or Citizen's Opposition, known by the acronym GROP. Vakhrin plays a Zhironovsky-like role, launching invectives at Shubin at every chance. The two candidates are so close, that when Plotnikov's campaign manager cancelled the meeting I had with the candidate, he told me, "You should arrange something with Vakhrin, he's basically the same thing."

One journalist I talked to estimated that it cost around 8 million dollars to get yourself elected in Perm. It might seem like a hefty price for a provincial city, but it offers impressive opportunities for advancement. Just 10 years ago, Yuri Trutnev, Russia's Minister of Natural Resources, got his start in politics as Perm's mayor. Today, he controls which oil companies get drilling licenses.

* * *

Just how much scary is Plotnikov? Well, a picture is worth a thousand words, and has plenty of photos of Plotnikov with various bandits who eventually got capped. My personal favorite features Plotnikov in a purple track suit posing with a group of unsavory-looking dudes. Plotnikov is also notorious enough to have earned a role in Oxford University lecturer Federico Varese's 2005 book The Russian Mafia: Private Protection in a New Market Economy. He himself admits that he served time in the early 90s and owns Space Jam and Yama, a casino and a strip club in the center of town. There's a sushi restaurant in the complex, too.

But none of this amounts to proof of the most damning accusations made against him: that he ordered the death of at least one of his "partners" who ran Perm's most powerful gruppirovka in the mid-90s. According to Moskovsky Komsomolets, Tatar gangster Rustam Nazarov, who's klichka was Krest, or Cross, ran Perm in the mid-90s until he vanished without a trace in April 97. Plotnikov was at his birthday party just before his disappearance, on March 29. Krest's body didn't turn up until 2002, when some hikers found it by the side of the Perm-Lyadi highway. There are pictures linking Plotnikov with Irek Mukhutdinov, who was convicted of the murder.

After Krest's disappearance, MK says control of the city fell into the hands of Nikolai Zykov, known as Yakutenok, or the Little Guy from Yakutsk. He got shot at close range in June 98 by a couple of guys with Muslim names while hanging out at the popular nightspot Bolid. After that, the city's gang wars petered out. The website claims that's because Plotnikov, nicknamed Plotnik, or the Carpenter, had finally eliminated the competition. But, beyond photos linking Plotnikov to these known gangsters, there's nothing solid implicating him.

While this is the most scandalous accusation floating out there in the Russian press, Plotnikov's ill-wishers don't stop there. He's been accused of everything from lying about whether he graduated from school and served in the army to whether he really is a "zasluzhennyi trener," or notable trainer, of the Russian Federation. He's also gotten flak for owning casinos and strip clubs. The main vehicles for attacking him are TV and newspapers, although judging by street interviews I took, much of it hasn't stuck. Even an evangelist cab driver who tried to convert me didn't seem put off by Plotnikov's past. Using the same argument I heard in Donetsk, Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, he asked, "Who among us hasn't sinned?"

Nevertheless, Plotnikov's PR people aren't taking all these accusations sitting down. They've issued the standard denials, but more convincingly, they've answered fire with fire. Shubin's a life-long commie apparatchik and, predictably, there're plenty of skeletons in his closet, too. His Gazprom days provide the best food for speculation.

According to Plotnikov's paper Vechernyaya Perm, over the last several years Gazprom lent subsidiaries controlled by Shubin some 600 million rubles -- more than $20 million -- that have disappeared. The paper also included photos of his two-story dacha and his ex-wife's beauty salon and noted that they were pretty impressive for a state worker. The argument's strength is in its believability. Everyone knows that government officials are on the take, so it's basically preaching to the converted.

It's what allows Plotnikov to play the populist. While it seems ridiculous that a vor-v-zakone could be allowed to seize the moral high ground, for many Russians it's much easier to hate a chinovnik than a criminal. After all, Plotnikov isn't to blame for low pensions, taking away old people's privileges, or the general failure of the government to provide for people who'd worked all their lives assuming they'd be cared for in their old age. Positioned as an outsider, his campaign can tap into people's outrage at the corruption and incompetence of the government.

Or at least that's one way to look at it. In reality, judging from the people I talked with, Plotnikov's backers don't analyze it that deeply. They tend to be the undereducated, working class folks who haven't spent much time thinking about the elections. "I guess I'll vote for Plotnikov," one metal worker said to me. When pressed, he said it was because he was a sportsman. And I figured anyone who had seen Plotnikov's round, doughy face on the omnipresent campaign posters would know enough to question the depth of his devotion to sport. But not this man.

Another loyal set Plotnikov can count on are his employees. In addition to the casino and strip club mentioned above, Plotnikov controls Perm's cable-producing factory, which is one of the only industries that makes anything worthwhile in the oblast, and a few food plants. I talked with a dimpled 20-year-old croupier at Space Jam, who supported Plotnikov's bid. "I'll definitely vote for Vladimir Ivanovich," she said, before asking if I was waiting for him. "He stops in pretty regularly."

On the other hand, virtually no-one I talked to who wasn't employed by Shubin planned on voting for him, at least not in the first round. While he could count on the support of the students who earned 200 rubles a day for spending three hours handing out campaign newspapers, he'd failed to capture anyone else's imagination. It's not surprising, as Shubin has no discernable personality.

Several pensioners I met at one of Shubin's meetings came specifically to petition him. He must have sensed a hostile crowd, though, because he didn't stay for longer than 5 minutes before getting bundled off to an SUV. Most of the old people, having long since given up on Zuganov's Communists, planned on voting against all. "This country's crazy -- you can't even buy salt any more," one 68-year-old told me. "What kind of country runs out of salt?"

The salt crisis warrants some notice of its own. It's no joke -- in the regions there's really been a run on salt. One relatively well-off person I met was so embarrassed by the situation, which has driven the price of salt up 50 percent recently, she refused to buy a new bag of salt when she ran out. She didn't want to be seen as hording salt.

Still, Shubin's got a base he can count on, particularly in the second round, which takes place a week after the first if no-one wins the absolute majority. Most of the educated people I talked with said that they planned on voting for Shubin in the second round, because they couldn't stomach the thought of having a bandit in office. Should Plotnikov win, however, there's no reason to think that he'll remain in office for long.

Several election watchers told me that they expect Plotnikov to end up in jail if he actually gets elected. There've been several cases of mayors getting arrested in office, most notably Gennady Konyakhin in 1997, who was mayor of Leninsk-Kuznetsky. The Kremlin, which has shown its preference by flying Shubin to Moscow and having Gryzlov endorse him, might take such a step if Plotnikov wins.

So the question, then, is why is Plotnikov even trying? It looks like a damned if he does, damned if he doesn't situation. If he wins, he might well get arrested, and if he loses, he'll get squeezed out of his role as the power behind the throne. But this way, perhaps, at least he can go down swinging.

The real irony, though, is that for all the energy and money going into this race -- by candidates, their loyal press, and the various other pols campaigning -- the mayor doesn't really have any power in Perm. Thanks to Kremlin tinkering, the city's day-to-day affairs are actually handled by the city manager, who is appointed by the city council. The only real power the mayor has? He can call for a referendum that will ask voters to decide whether they like the system that uses the city manager, or if they'd prefer letting the mayor call the shots.

But given the power realities in Russia, it's highly unlikely that even Plotnikov would call such a referendum, even if he won and stayed out of jail. After all, it's not a wise policy to challenge the Kremlin too often.

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