Idealism Amid the Cynicism of Russian Politics
Monday, April 27, 2009
ST. PETERSBURG -- In a country where complaints of vote-rigging are common -- and commonly ignored -- Anton Chumachenko's stands out: The authorities say he won an election, but he insists he lost.
A first-time candidate for office and a member of Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party, Chumachenko won a seat on a local legislative council in St. Petersburg last month. Three weeks later, he publicly renounced his own victory, expressing disgust that votes had been falsified in his favor.
"I don't need this kind of victory!" the recent college graduate wrote in an open letter to residents. "I don't want to begin my political career with a cynical mockery of rights, laws and morality."
Chumachenko's stand took authorities by surprise and caused an uproar, challenging the nation's crooked electoral system in a way no member of the opposition could. But it also stunned the government's critics, many of whom could hardly believe that a young man who came of age in Putin's Russia might choose idealism over the cynicism that pervades politics here today.
Chumachenko, a mid-level manager in a local hotel firm, seemed like a reliable United Russia man when he began campaigning for a seat on the municipal council of St. Petersburg's Morskoy district. He had been a member of the party since 2006, when he joined its fiercely pro-Kremlin youth wing, the Young Guard, and he was running on a ticket with four other United Russia candidates.
In a recent interview, he exhibited that youthful mix of earnestness and ambition so familiar in official Washington. The skinny 23-year-old with thick, arched eyebrows, a dark two-button suit and a degree in public relations said it was a "childhood dream" to seek office, adding that he hoped to fix roads, organize street patrols to fight crime and make St. Petersburg a more attractive tourist destination.
As for his selection of a political party, Chumachenko said he didn't have much choice. "I understood that only this political party would give me the power and opportunities to change things," he said. "If I worked with any other party, it would be just words, and I think it's better to do something than just criticize."
A Work in Progress
As president and now as prime minister, Putin has worked to weaken Russia's opposition parties while concentrating power in United Russia, whose members hold the vast majority of the nation's elected posts, including more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament.
But the ruling party established in 2001 remains a work in progress. It has struggled in particular to contain infighting in municipal elections, one of the few remaining venues for open political competition in Russia.
In St. Petersburg, for example, Chumachenko's ticket was backed by a prominent city legislator, while its main competition in the March 1 election was another United Russia team endorsed by the Morskoy district chief. There was also a slate of opposition and independent candidates campaigning against government plans to build a highway and port in the neighborhood, which lies on an island in the Neva River.
The hotly contested race produced a high turnout, exceeding 35 percent of the voters in some areas, compared with about 10 percent in past years. Each slate of candidates sent observers to the polling stations to watch as residents cast ballots and election workers counted them.
At the end of the night, after the observers called in results, Chumachenko added the figures and realized he had lost, placing sixth in a race in which the top five vote-getters won seats. The four others on his United Russia ticket prevailed, along with one of the opposition candidates, Boris Vishnevsky, a leader of the pro-democracy Yabloko party.