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Pro ramps, against war. Why independent candidates run for municipal elections in Moscow undeterred by threats of criminal prosecution

Municipal elections will be held on September 9-11 in Moscow. Municipal deputies’ scope of powers is limited to overseeing municipal repairs and improvements and submitting a deputy's request, while the risks of taking part in such elections are higher than ever: this year the authorities have instituted criminal proceedings on various pretexts against well-known activists who wanted to take part in the elections. Are such minor powers worth the risks, especially when the results are rigged? And under such conditions, are the candidates prepared to discuss with voters not only municipal improvement issues, but also the key topics of war and repressions? Having talked to five municipal deputy candidates from various Moscow districts, The Insider has found out that the candidates are perfectly aware of the risks they face, and many of the have already suffered from the authorities, but their opinions are divided: some of them decided to participate because of the war, while others insist they must limit their discussions with voters to entrance ramps and bicycle lanes.

  • “I'm running because I see millions of people in Russia who are against the war” - Nikolay Kasyan

  • “I try not to talk about the events in Ukraine” - Nikita Kozlov

  • “We honestly tell voters we are against what is happening in Ukraine” - Milena Belyakova

  • “I decided to run after I was fired for an anti-war picket” - Sergey Melnikov

  • “I don't talk to voters about Ukraine, but rather about ramps and bicycle lanes” - Daria Fedotova

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“I'm running because I see millions of people in Russia who are against the war” - Nikolay Kasyan

24, Yabloko party, Khamovniki District, electoral precinct No. 3

Nikolay Kasyan
Nikolay Kasyan

I'm running in the election with the support of the Yabloko party. I did not collect signatures on my own, because I decided I was more likely to be removed in that case. I saw the pain and reputational losses Mikhail Lobanov and other opposition candidates suffered when they were deprived of their mandates in the State Duma elections. Every such case leads, firstly, to the delegitimization of elected institutions, and secondly, is fraught with significant difficulties for the regime. If the opposition had stayed at home, then, in the absence of competition, there would have been no need to falsify anything - United Russia would have simply won. Now it is quite obvious that the campaign for the State Duma elections was necessary.

Elections and the mandate are not an end in themselves for me, but a tool for political work. I’m running in the elections because I see tens of millions of opposition-minded people in Russia who are against the war. Right now, they sit in their kitchens and watch people leave the country. They have the feeling that they are alone against the world, and that there is some kind of madness going on around them. I think it is very important to inspire these people and show them that there is more of us than meets the eye.

Elections and the mandate are not an end in themselves for me, but a tool for political work

Khamovniki is a very oppositional district. Alexey Navalny had a great result here in 2013, and Yabloko traditionally shows good results here. Now we are doing door-to-door canvassing and distributing newspapers, as well as reports on the activities of the previous municipal deputies. We position ourselves as their successors, and it is important for people. The same team, which has proven to be effective compared to the previous United Russia deputies, will continue its work, and if any one of them is not running in the elections, someone else will run instead.

Now in Khamovniki improvements are causing a lot of hubbub, so far they have affected half of the district, but it is obvious that in the next season they will spill over to the other half. No one has asked the people who live here and see everything being redone next to them. It seems that some kind of “fake” voting on the Active Citizen portal was conducted, but for some reason not only residents of our district, but people all over Moscow could participate in it. There is evidence that the results of the voting were falsified. Therefore, no one trusts this procedure.

There are many areas of work, but the main thing is to show people an example that politics can have a human face. It is important to listen to them and communicate with the district residents. In Moscow, the system is set up in such a way that it's very difficult to achieve something serious, but people need to see that their deputy joins them on their visits to those trench-ridden construction sites, taking pictures, writing complaints, getting perfunctory responses and complaining to the prosecutor's office about those who have written those perfunctory responses. We need to explain that our powers were deliberately taken away from us, so that we could not fully help the residents.

We need to explain that our powers were deliberately taken away from us, so that we could not fully help the residents

If a municipal deputy takes on a “case” and spends a year trying to solve it, it could result in someone being removed from office or a development company being fined several million rubles. District residents can see a person who represents their interests. Over several years, such a process changes voters' perceptions of politics. The clichés that have been fed to everyone for the last 20 years, such as “politics is always dirty”, “you can't change anything”, “you're all just clinging to the trough”, vanish when people get their own politician.

There are many politicians in Russia who have not been prosecuted. Ilya Yashin has been jailed, but he is a federal-level politician. Comparing us to him would be a bit ridiculous. I look at the candidates and current MPs, and I see that the authorities use a pretty flexible tactics against them. Those with the highest rating do not get jailed. They get arrested for 15 days for displaying extremist symbols and get barred from the election. We can see that the Kremlin has learned some lessons from the 2019 Moscow elections and has decided not to draw too much attention to this vote. It is pointless to dispute that a person who is engaged in politics has a higher chance of going to jail. However, objectively, the probability of this is greatly exaggerated.

I expected pressure during this election, and I encountered it. On August 25, I was arrested for 5 days under Article 20.3 of the Russian Code of Administrative Offences (“Demonstration of extremist symbols”) for two posts on Vkontakte from 2016 and 2017. They were allegedly discovered by a Khamovniki resident born in 1937. In her statement, she wrote that she didn't know me personally and came across my page in Vkontakte, on which I hadn't written anything in years, by accident. Apparently, she liked me so much that she proceeded to look through my feed until she found a video with the logo of the Anti-Corruption Foundation and immediately reported it to the police. A commission was scheduled for September 6, and the question of depriving me of my status as a candidate was on its agenda, but I appealed against my arrest to the Moscow City Court.

If I had been arrested just one day earlier, I could have been removed from the election by the court. The Moscow City Court would have quickly considered the appeal and found me guilty. But, apparently, someone just picked the wrong date, and I continue to participate in the elections (later it was reported that Nikolay Kasyan's appeal would be urgently considered on September 7)

“I try not to talk about the events in Ukraine” - Nikita Kozlov

22, self-nominated, Mozhaisky district, electoral precinct No. 2

Nikita Kozlov
Nikita Kozlov

This winter I took classes at the school of independent candidates Mikhail Lobanov and Alexander Zamyatin, and then I was included in the list of candidates from the VyDvizheniye (Nomination) platform supporting independent candidates. Many people refused to participate in the campaign because they expected United Russia to falsify the voting results. I am well aware that even if we run a very strong campaign, the results of the election can still be falsified. But then I will at least be able to say to myself that I have done everything in my power.

I grew up and live in the Mozhaisky district, western Moscow, and here, compared to many other parts of the city, the situation with ecology, greenery and the quality of infrastructure is better. At the same time, Western Administrative District ranks high among Moscow's districts in terms of the number of permits issued to developers. Developers are trying to build residential housing on the site of the Tolbukhin dacha, a neoclassical mansion built in the postwar period for Marshal Tolbukhin. It is surrounded by pre-war oaks, and now they are going to cut them all down and build luxury housing. The city administration does not listen to people and decides on improvements in a chaotic way. We have been campaigning against it for a week and a half, collecting signatures and preparing letters to various government agencies.

The city administration does not listen to people and decides on improvements in a chaotic way.

Our polyclinics lack the necessary capacity, and we are launching a campaign about this as well. Of course, the council of municipal deputies has no special powers, but if people like us constantly nagged officials, we would have a chance to draw their attention to people’s problems.

We started campaigning at the end of May and held a series of rallies on separate waste collection. And we also organized subbotniks: we have a problem with the Setun River, which is not properly maintained. We are constantly trying to get Mosvodostok and other organizations to do their job. It turned out they are simply understaffed. We organized collection of humanitarian aid for refugees and handed it over to the humanitarian funds. We have also been publishing a district newspaper and handing it out on the streets, together with district activists we’ve been telling people about existing problems and engaging in door-to-door canvassing.

The most important thing for me is interaction with the district’s activist community. They are not just people who share problems. They already have experience of fighting for the neighborhood, they are constantly interacting with municipal deputies and are aware of new development plans. We want to do something for those people to help them. We have a lot of district activists, and very often those people are not the youngest ones. It would be much harder without the district community. Our mission now is to ensure the growth of the community as a result of the election campaign.

While collecting signatures, I met people who said they would not sign for us since we are against United Russia. However, such people are much fewer in numbers than those who see that something wrong is going on around them, but simply do not have a clear position. They approve of our fight against the developers and officials at the district level. Many criticize the mayor of Moscow. In my opinion, the majority of Moscow residents are in opposition to the authorities. I notice that the level of support for United Russia is very low.

I try not to talk to people about the events in Ukraine. We all use different information sources, and some people may be living in an information bubble. It is counterproductive to argue and try to prove something to one another, it is better to find common ground with potential voters, include them in the district community. If they become close to us, it will be possible to discuss all kinds of topics.

It is better to find common ground with potential voters, include them in the district community

Right now, it's hard to imagine how the uniformed part of our government works. So far, however, it is clear where red lines are drawn in this municipal election campaign. Since I am not ready to sacrifice myself, I am trying to be very careful and keep an eye on those lines - both when posting on social media and even when communicating with people.

I do what I think is necessary to insure myself against risks. Perhaps my campaign is not so flashy and heroic as to make people discuss it on social networks. But we won't sacrifice ourselves. This way we will be able to do more good.

“We honestly tell voters we are against what is happening in Ukraine” - Milena Belyakova

19, Yabloko party, Basmanny district, electoral precinct No. 3

Milena Belyakova
Milena Belyakova

I am running in the elections in the Basmanny district as part of a team of six people from the Yabloko party. Our uniting force was Nikolai Kavkazsky, a human rights activist and opposition politician. He first invited people as observers, and then suggested they run for office. Nikolai was not allowed to participate in the elections because of his criminal record connected with a year-old social media post containing Smart Voting symbols.

Our goal is to shake people up and explain to them that they should never let the authorities deprive them of the right to vote. If you have it, you should use it. Who these people will vote for is another matter; the main thing is that they should not ignore elections, even municipal ones.

We use five-touch tactics, that is, five interactions with our potential voters. The first touch is door-to-door canvassing, during which we find out what issues are of interest to local residents. According to the results of our poll, it turned out that people were concerned about access to medical care: many have to travel around the district to see the doctor because different specialists work in different places. We will be holding a second door-to-door campaign shortly, this time in connection with a petition on medical issues.

We use five-touch tactics, that is, five interactions with our potential voters

At the same time, we explore the district and check the courtyards. If there is any problem, we notify potential voters via social media and the Moscow mayor's office via the Our City app, or we submit applications to the department. For example, there have been delays in the installation of pipes. We are also planning to hold a garbage collection campaign, during which we will get to know the voters better.

If I succeed in winning the election, we will proceed with solving the problems of which we have already notified the authorities. For example, there are two houses on 2nd Baumanskaya Street that are in an emergency condition. In theory, they should be condemned, and the tenants should be relocated. The second “case” is the restoration of the Burdenko hospital, in which a column head collapsed. Then we will be able to proceed with protecting historical monuments. For the Basmanny district the question of their demolition is very pressing. In addition, during a door-to-door canvassing it became clear that major building repairs have been going on endlessly, and we will try to make things right. In the previous convocation, Yevgeniya Remizova from the Yabloko party was elected in our second precinct. She was very effective in solving the problems associated with the repairs.

We are now also working on providing polling stations with our observers. This can at least somehow restrain the falsifiers. We need to encourage people to come to the polling stations in person and cast their vote. Ilya Yashin and his supporters won seven seats in the 2017 elections in Krasnoselsky district.

We need to encourage people to come to the polling stations in person and cast their vote

I discuss politics with voters. People have a need for such discussions, and they ask us what we think about it. I honestly answer that we are against what is happening in our country and in Ukraine.

Our team has already faced pressure in these elections. Nikita Arkin, Daniil Nesmelov and I were summoned to the TEC and asked for an explanation about illegal campaigning: allegedly we had been putting up posters at times not prescribed by the law. Although I know very well that exactly such things have been done by My Neighborhood and United Russia. Nikita Arkin has been jailed for 5 days for a leaflet with the recognized extremist Smart Voting symbols, which he did not even put up. Similar pressure has been put on Savva Karpov, and Daniil Nesmelov was fired from the school where he worked as organizing teacher.

We are given the right to participate in elections once every 5 years, so why would we refrain from using it? The position of a municipal deputy is an additional platform which you can use to express your views and the opinions of the district residents who voted for you. From this point of view, participation in municipal elections is quite in keeping with the times.

“I decided to run after I was fired for an anti-war picket” - Sergey Melnikov

53, Yabloko party, Mitino District, electoral precinct No. 2

 Sergey Melnikov
Sergey Melnikov

The idea to run as a municipal deputy came to me after I had been fired from my job as head of the legal division at the Housing Management Department of the Presidential Property Management Directorate for an anti-war picket. I met activists from the Mitino district who shared my opposition views, and they suggested I run for office.

In Mitino, most of those who run in the elections are candidates from United Russia and the parliamentary parties, CPRF and Just Russia. There are a lot of New People, but we are well aware that this is just a United Russia project. I was not planning to run as a Yabloko party candidate, but I understood I might be disqualified from the election because of incorrectly submitted signatures. Indeed, five or six self-nominated candidates were disqualified in our district, including incumbent municipal deputy Nikolai Baladnin. He was the only opposition municipal deputy in our district, and as he has been barred from running, I see our task in picking up the banner.

I am a specialist in the field of housing and communal services, and my direct duties as a municipal deputy are to monitor municipal improvements in my area. All this is familiar and close to me. I have a lot of experience in holding general meetings of owners. At such events, 50 district residents get together and discuss pressing issues, such as capital repairs and the installation of lift-arm barriers. This is very similar to district meetings, and I want to use this experience in my work.

My direct duties as a municipal deputy are to monitor municipal improvements in my area.

Now we are in the process of preparing for active campaigning. We are printing leaflets and visiting cards, making banners and writing texts for posting on social networks. As soon as we have printed the campaign materials, we will start setting up cubes, holding meetings in courtyards and arranging door-to-door canvassing. There are many environmental activists on our team, and we will conduct campaigns on separate waste collection: first we will teach people how to sort and then properly dispose of wastes.

It may seem that the position of a municipal deputy is too insignificant to speak out against the arbitrariness of the authorities. However, the municipal deputy is still a public figure, and if he or she is really committed to his work, he will receive a higher degree of attention from the authorities, the city government, the prefect and the press. It is easier for municipal deputies to present their position simply because they are public figures. The direct responsibility of a municipal deputy is to monitor municipal improvements and help city residents solve their problems. It implies they need close contacts with people to make them aware of their views and try to convince them of something.

To some extent, I am prepared for the fact that I may become a victim of criminal prosecution. But if everyone just sits there and keeps silent, violence and evil will eventually come to every home. Despite all the repression and attempts to depoliticize people it is necessary to unite, look for like-minded people and demonstrate by example that there are lots of those who share democratic beliefs.

“I don't talk to voters about Ukraine, but rather about ramps and bicycle lanes” - Daria Fedotova

35, self-nominated, East Izmailovo District

Daria Fedotova
Daria Fedotova

I am a manager of cultural and urban projects. I have a lot of different activist experiences which can be summed up as urban activism - creating things in the city that are missing. When I was concerned about the greenery planting situation, I organized tree planting events. When I was concerned about separate waste collection, I organized appropriate campaigns.

The VyDvizhenie (Nomination) platform helped me a lot in terms of legal nuances - how to draw up an application or collect signatures. I can't imagine a person running for municipal deputy for the first time collecting and properly submitting all the documents unaided. Another unexpected bonus is meeting, and sharing experiences with, candidates from other districts.

We are now doing door-to-door canvassing with Lilia Gaifullina, who is also running for municipal deputy in East Izmailovo. We visit people, talk to them, tell them about ourselves and the municipal elections. Very few people know the elections will be held on September 11: although the elections will take place in just over a month, there are still no posters or any other information.

Our main competitor is not even the mayor's office or United Russia, but rather the depoliticization, a sense of apathy and disillusionment, and disbelief that people’s views matter. Many people slam the door when they hear the words “candidate,” “elections,” and “politics.” These topics have already been discredited to such an extent that it is very difficult to change the minds of disillusioned people by telling them how independent candidates were able to win municipal elections.

Our main competitor is the depoliticization, a sense of apathy and disillusionment, and disbelief that people’s views matter

First of all, I want the council of deputies to be an open institution. To make it so that residents could attend its meetings and speak out, and to change the system of self-governance itself. I am not happy with the fact that the local self-government is limited to a council of ten people elected for five years. Then what do the remaining 40,000 residents do? It is necessary that people participate in the district governance through various institutions, public associations, working groups and other councils.

I'm going to work on creating an accessible environment in the area. For example, there are no entrance ramps in many houses. I would like the district to have an environment that is attractive for teenagers. Most of the time they are left on their own: the playgrounds are for kids under 10-11 years old, and there is nothing else for older people. We also need an infrastructure for cyclists.

Although it's not within the scope of powers of a municipal deputy, but I would like to see a community cultural center appear in our district. Currently we have no budgetary cultural establishments. There was the Pervomaysky Theater, but it closed down and will probably re-emerge as a shopping center. I want to see our neighborhood as a place that is comfortable for all social groups. A place where everyone feels needed and included in the district governance and where everything is available for the ordinary everyday life of any person.

Door-to-door canvassing is the main method of getting to know people, because there are very few communities in our area. People are disconnected from each other, and you only can get acquainted with a person by visiting him at home. I don't talk to voters about Ukraine. We usually talk about the district agenda and what we can do as municipal deputies. In order to restore people's interest in politics, we should bring politics as close to them as possible. It is important that they understand it is exactly about their streets, boulevards and parks. When they see that their fellow district residents were able to win municipal elections, they too will start to get involved in politics and take part political work.

People are disconnected from each other, and you only can get acquainted with a person by visiting him at home

I have no concerns about my participation in the election campaign. The maximum pressure from the authorities that I have encountered is the attempts to counter our campaign. We put up posters, and the next day or even half an hour later they are taken down. But the other candidates and current municipal deputies have also faced this problem.

If there is so much attention to municipal elections and if the authorities are trying to counter the candidates’ campaigns, it means there’s a good reason to participate. It’s more dangerous to sit back without participating in anything. The choice must be made now to bring back people’s right to vote.

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